A new era in Cleveland Browns' football started Thursday as ownership of the franchise officially changed hands for the fourth time.
The sale to Tennessee billionaire Jimmy Haslam III was finalized while the Browns were practicing. The deal is reportedly worth slightly more than $1 billion, almost doubling the $530 million the late Al Lerner paid for the expansion rights in 1998.
Haslam, president and CEO of the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J, will initially invest $700 million to purchase controlling interest. He will pay approximately $300 million in the second phase of the deal.
Colt McCoy (12) is greeted by his team during player introductions before taking on the Seattle Seahawks last October in Cleveland. The Browns now have a new owner — and a new quarterback. AP photo
Haslam will be introduced to the media at a 1 p.m. press conference today. He released the following statement:
"This is a very exciting time for my family and me. To own such a storied franchise as the Cleveland Browns, with its rich tradition and history, is a dream come true. We are committed to keeping the team in Cleveland and seeing it get back to the elite of the NFL - something all Browns fans want and deserve. We plan to bring relentless dedication and hard work to every aspect of this organization, and we look forward to getting to know this team and community as quickly as possible. Our family is committed to becoming an integral part of the Cleveland community. We also want to thank Randy Lerner for his friendship, counsel and support during this process."
Rumors of now former owner Randy Lerner's desire to sell the team surfaced within the last year. Last week Lerner sent an email to the area media that confirmed his negotiations with Haslam to complete the sale, which is expected to be approved by NFL owners at an October meeting or possibly sooner.
In a prepared statement to the fans, Lerner expressed a deep debt of gratitude to the loyal and passionate fan base.
''It has been a privilege to be involved with the Cleveland Browns and my only hope is that the Haslam family has the best of luck and that the Browns are restored to their rightful place among NFL Champions,'' Lerner said.
Coach Pat Shurmur was informed that the deal had been finalized after practice. He again stressed his plan to focus only on the season and keep talk of the sale out of the locker room.
"I have no fear about any of that because I trust my coaches and I trust the players," Shurmur said. "I've watched the work they've done. I think we're moving full-steam ahead. My concern is getting this team ready to play. The players understand that message, and they're doing a good job."
The prevailing view among the players concerning the change of ownership is one of little concern. The bottom-line nature of what they do won't change simply because a new man will be sitting in the owner's office.
"We've expected this for the last few days," linebacker Scott Fujita said as he walked off the field. "As a football player, we have to stay focused on getting better and playing the games. That's what we get paid to do.
"These are things that are way above our control. You can't let it (bother you). You have to be able to block that kind of stuff out."
The ownership change could potentially have a larger impact on front-office personnel and the coaching staff. If current Philadelphia Eagles' consultant and former president Joe Banner is part of the group, as has been widely reported, Browns president Mike Holmgren could be on his way out.
Perhaps of more importance is the fate of general manager Tom Heckert, who worked for Banner when the latter was president of the Eagles (2001-12). There has been speculation that Heckert and Banner had issues, but it's generally believed that Heckert left to join the Browns in 2010 because he wanted full control over the composition of the 53-man roster, a power that is retained by Eagles coach Andy Reid.
Shurmur and ultimately his staff of assistants will be placed on the spot, but that would have been the case even without the sale. Holmgren is strongly in Shurmur's corner because he's responsible for hiring him, but it's believed that Lerner has doubts about Shurmur's coaching ability.
"I made a joke last week - although I was only half-joking - that coaches are like lab rats and hamsters, just like us," Fujita said. "We come into work every day. They hand you a schedule and you go to work and you grind. You have to block everything out, especially in this business."
Pilot Flying J is the largest operator of travel centers and plazas in North America with more than 550 locations. The company reported 2011 revenue of $17 billion.
Haslam has a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are owned by the Rooney family. Haslam is in negotiations with the family to sell his interest.