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Not your average start-up Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

Shortly after the NFL announced in July 1998 that Cleveland would be awarded an expansion football team to replace the one Art Modell took to Baltimore following the 1995 season, Carmen Policy visited Al Lerner's 50th floor Manhattan office to pitch a business proposition that didn't make much sense.

Policy, the architect of the San Francisco 49er football dynasty of the '80s and '90s, wanted Lerner to make a bid for the team -- an investment decision that was spotty at best, given the NFL's track record of high-priced expansion. Meanwhile, a brand name as recognized and beloved as the Cleveland Browns convinced most observers that the price tag would soar even higher than usual.

Nevertheless, Lerner and Policy joined the hunt for the new team. Even after striking a Labor Day weekend deal to pay $530 million, the most difficult work --getting the new company off the ground in only a few months -- had just begun. Policy recently took a few minutes to share with SBN his experiences during the past year with a start-up company called the Cleveland Browns.

Time being the limited factor that it was, how far in advance could you plan the budgeting process for the team's first year and how closely were you able to hold to it?

We had no process that would allow us to properly budget for the first season. It was nothing more than a series of educated guesses based upon some experiences that I have had in running the 49ers and calling upon some experiences some other teams had that were in new stadiums and operating in a similar type fashion. It was really guess work.

Another example of why we were able to literally get this organization up and running relates back to the quality of ownership. We had the luxury of having Al Lerner available at every turn in the road and it was an issue of, "Do the Browns need a capital expenditure?" It was not, "Should we spend the money?" or "Is this something that could wait?"

It was simply an issue of, "Do the Browns need it, and do they need it now?" And if the answer to those two questions was yes, you just went ahead and did it.

Obviously your track record with the 49ers speaks for itself, but it was a program that already existed. Since this was a start-up organization, were there any surprises during that first year that you didn't expect?

No matter how we anticipated the type and level of the challenges we would face, they were more in number and greater in intensity than we ever dreamed. We faced one additional task after another.

Dealing with the season ticket holder list that had been accumulated as a result of sales and transferring people who were accustomed to sitting in the old stadium into the new venue was very trying and took a lot of our time. It was like fighting a forest fire.

You know you have to get some sleep, but when you wake up, you know you're going to be trying to put out fires and you don't know whether or not the winds have shifted and you're praying for a little rain. You need some relief, but you know every day is a struggle against the elements and that's how it was for the first year.

I imagine the challenge of getting the stadium built was a weight on your mind also.

We were very concerned about how the stadium would turn out. Both Al and Norma Lerner were constantly monitoring the fan amenities and how the stadium was designed to treat the fan and how fan-friendly the stadium would be.

A great deal of time was taken with the concessionaires and the quality of the food. As a matter of fact, they are still on it. Every game, they'll solicit input from their friends from different walks of life and I'll get calls on Monday telling me what the synopsis of that polling revealed.

Did any league restrictions dictate what players you could and could not sign that first year?

Our team, as well as the two previous expansion teams, was required to select a certain number of players from the veteran expansion draft. That's done to provide veteran leadership for the team and gives you the kind of experience that allows a brand new franchise to suit up and play and at least give the appearance of being a professional team.

I believe the primary purpose was to guarantee that a certain amount of your roster is made up of players from other teams who will account for a significant portion of your salary cap expenditure so you don't go crazy trying to buy free agents.

Even in less than one year, some of those veteran players are no longer around. Is it your strategy to move the team in an even more youth-oriented direction?

Yes, very much so. We were young last year even with several older veterans. This year, the oldest human being on the roster is Ty Detmer, and he is 32 years old. The average age of our starters is 25 years old.

For the first few years, your average start-up company, even if doesn't make money, can be considered successful. Undoubtedly, a football franchise is a different situation. Inside the organization, how do you define and measure success?

You break it down into various categories. From the standpoint of the infrastructure of the organization itself, I think it's excellent. The people we have on board are truly professional. They are intelligent, hard working and they are really good people. They understand the concept of team and teamwork and they know, first of all, unless they buy into that concept, they won't fit in here. The people here now fit and fit very comfortably.

Secondly, the stadium situation was critical. Getting the stadium completed, getting it open and having it operated in a first-class fashion was a top, top priority of this organization. In fact, it's a top priority of any organization that has a new stadium. We've really accomplished that.

We also wanted to make smart decisions that created a solid foundation upon which to build not only a team that can compete, but a team that can compete at the very highest level and be consistent for several years to come. I think we're there. How to reach: The Cleveland Browns, (440) 951-5000

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.