In late 2017, the Columbus Crew, a struggling MLS franchise, announced plans to relocate to Austin.
Even though more than 10,000 fans signed a pledge to purchase season tickets if the Crew stayed in Columbus, rarely do such stories turn out well. Ask Raider fans. Supersonics fans. Chargers fans. (Even, coincidentally enough, Browns fans.)
Jimmy and Dee Haslam considered the negative impact on Columbus, and Ohio, if the team left. As owners of the Cleveland Browns since 2012, they had heard the stories of when the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996. (Cleveland was awarded a new franchise in 1999.)
"A team unifies a community like no other," says Dee Haslam, CEO of Haslam Sports Group and founder of RIVR Media. "No matter their walk of life, their beliefs, their differences, a team unifies people. And if you lose a team, it's nearly impossible to get one back. So we decided to inquire."
Conversations with public officials, community groups, and MLS led the Haslams to purchase the team in 2018 along with Pete Edwards.
Two years in, the Haslams have spearheaded the construction of a new $313 million stadium (putting in $230 million of their own money) that will open next summer, as well as a new training facility for the team and for youth soccer teams.
Two years in, the Columbus Crew just won the 2020 MLS Cup Championship.
Even though, before owning the Crew, the sum of the Haslams' soccer experience had been attending their childrens' games.
So what did they do first? "Professional sports are somewhat unlike other businesses," Dee says. "No matter what sport, the league will help you. You'll have plenty of conversations before you invest, and even more afterward, because it's in the league's interest for you to succeed. The same is true for the other owners, in MLS and the NFL.
"We've run our own businesses, and partnerships like this typically don't exist. While you won't get advice about players or coaches," she laughs, "from a business aspect, everyone is extremely supportive. It's a great experience to be part of."
Even so, owning a sports franchise still means running a business. While wins and losses are more obvious -- and public -- still: It's about people. About analyzing what you did wrong, and right. About finding and developing talented people. Putting the right people in the right places. Constantly seeking to improve in all areas, both on and off the field.
And, as a leader, deciding that your success lies in seeing other people succeed.
"As owners, we get to decide how much to spend, and where to spend it," Dee says. "When the final whistle blew and we won the championship, we could not have been more excited. But what was even more fun was seeing the reaction of the players, the coaches, the staff, the fans. While we're new to the sport, this was something they had dreamed about and worked for and spent careers trying to achieve.
"So we got to share in it," Dee says, "but it's theirs."
Where the Browns are concerned, success has been more elusive, although the team is currently 9-4 and on track to make the playoffs.
"The Crew fans probably love us now," Dee laughs, "but you could probably call any Browns fan and get a list of mistakes we've made. In sports, the margins between winning and losing are so small. Plus, there are so many twists and turns you simply can't predict. That's why sports are exciting. And is why any owner will tell you is really hard."
That's why the Haslams focus on community success as well as on-field or on-pitch success. In total, they've contributed close to $100 million through their foundation to the communities (Knoxville, Cleveland, and Columbus) where they work and live, including $1.5 million to support Covid-19 relief efforts in Ohio.
And they realize that people view sports teams differently from other businesses. "Fans" of Amazon don't think of it as their company -- but fans of the Browns or Crew think of them as their team: It's "we," not "them."
"We've said from the beginning," Dee says, "that the Browns were here before us and will be here after us. We've obviously made a huge investment. It's a family business, one we care deeply about. But our job isn't just to put a winning team on the field. It's also to take care of our fans, and find ways to give back to the state of Ohio."
"But I have to admit," she laughs, "the winning part is pretty incredible."