August 05, 2012

Cleveland to Columbus: This is how you do it

On Saturday, the Columbus Dispatch featured a rather insightful article about the reshaping of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even if you subscribe to the Dispatch, you probably missed it. The headline read: New boss is tuned in.

Hey Jimmy, do you like hockey?
And even if you did see the article, you probably thought it was about the Cleveland Browns. Ostensibly, it was. The article, written by long-time Browns beat reporter Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, described the arrival of Jimmy Haslam to Cleveland to observe his first practice as the team's new owner. Browns fans have to be both relieved and excited as they begin to learn more about Haslam. Blue Jackets fans have to be feeling a bit envious.

Last week the city of Cleveland and the rest of the NFL were shocked to learn that the Browns were being sold by owner Randy Lerner. Lerner inherited the team from his father, Al Lerner, who passed away in 2002. Al Lerner was the man who brought football back to Cleveland in 1999 after long-time owner Art Modell ripped the hearts out of Browns fans by moving the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season. Al Lerner was also the man who, as a 5% minority shareholder at the time, facilitated the Browns exodus from Cleveland in the first place by introducing his friend Modell to Baltimore financiers of the deal, and even allowed the closing to take place on his private jet. Al Lerner was a man of many faces.

Browns fans were happy to get their team back in 1999. The problems was that it wasn't their team at all. It was not even a reasonable facsimile thereof. It was an expansion team, fraught with all the challenges that expansion teams face to become competitive. While the history of the franchise - the championships, the player records and all that - officially stayed in Cleveland, the team and its fans started from scratch where it mattered, on the field.

When Al Lerner died, the team was passed on to his son, who had no proven track record as a team owner. When Randy Lerner stepped into his father's shoes, we all learned that he and his dad didn't share the same shoe size. Things went from expansion to worse. Does that sound familiar to Blue Jackets fans?

The Browns and Blue Jackets are essentially brothers from different mothers, sisters from different misters. Both are expansion teams that are now more than a decade old. Both have been routinely lousy for the balance of their current existence. Both have owners who assumed the throne, ready or not. And that is why Jackets fans should be paying close attention to how things in Cleveland play out with Haslam taking over. 

Unlike Randy Lerner, Jimmy Haslam has previous experience as a professional sports franchise owner. For the past four years Haslam has been a minority shareholder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he benefited from an up close and personal view of how a championship organization operates.

Unlike Randy Lerner, Jimmy Haslam is by all accounts an inquisitive, hands-on guy who will build the organization in his own mold from the top down. Everyone in the organization should know early on who's really calling the shots.

Unlike Randy Lerner, if what Browns players, coaches and fans saw on Day One is any indication, Haslam will be a very visible owner, one who will embrace not only his role as the ultimate leader of the organization, but also his relationship with the fans. 

Haslam seems like just the kind of owner any fan of a professional sports team that is stuck in a death spiral would love to have show up on a white horse out of nowhere. Blue Jackets fans should hope that Randy Lerner and John P. McConnell  use the same online sports-owner matchmaking service.

Imagine a minority shareholder of the Red Wings showing up to buy the Blue Jackets, promising to keep them in Columbus, with passion in his/her face and some really deep pockets. 

Imagine that new owner being visible, showing up at practices, talking to the media (not just sending emails to season ticket holders), addressing the fans in person (not just broadcasting messages to them on the Jumbotron).

Imagine that new owner being accountable and answering the tough questions (not just having his hired guns do it for him), being the face of the organization and stating unequivocally, for all to hear, that his one mission and one mission alone is to bring winning hockey to Columbus.

Imagine an owner who knows how to win.

Is Jimmy Haslam going to be that guy for Cleveland? Time will tell. Blue Jackets fans should watch with a keen eye. They might just get to see what a true reshaping is really all about.

1 comment:

  1. The only hitch is that Haslam, who has many ties to the Tennessee area, has shown public interest in acquiring the Titans after Bud Adams and his family relinquish their helm.

    The best thing that can happen for Columbus is that people (plural) who love Columbus step up and run the team, or even better hire someone proven to run the team.