BEREA (92.3 The Fan) – Nearly a year ago when it was announced that Jimmy Haslam was buying the Cleveland Browns, optimism reigned.
In April, that optimism was doused when federal agents raided the headquarters on Haslam’s Pilot Flying J.
The future of the team was immediately cast back into doubt, but CEO Joe Banner said Wednesday that Haslam’s vision for the Browns continues to move forward and the day-to-day operations of the team remain unaffected by the events in Knoxville, Tenn.
“It really hasn’t affected us at all,” Banner said. “We have a team we put together here of really, really good people, whether we’re talking the coaching staff, the business side, even our foundation. We’re really excited about the team we put together.
“Jimmy really had a vision. He spoke hereabout what his priorities were around creating a phenomenal fan experience and being focused on winning fans again. He hired me. We put together a team on a day to day basis to accomplish that. We’re free and clear to do all that. Nothing has happened to impact our ability to do that or frankly given us any reason not to be successful.”
As the federal investigation of Pilot Flying J moves forward, there is concern that Haslam may be forced to sell the team.
But Banner does not see that happening.
“I don’t see that scenario,” Banner said.
The league office is keeping a close eye on the situation but seems to be satisfied with how Haslam has handled the investigation as well as the team since officially taking over last October.
“I think the league feels really good about the way things are going, but they have a wait-and-see attitude as well,” Banner said. “We’ll see what happens and then we’ll go from there. But I think they feel very good about Jimmy. They have a lot of belief in him, he’s been very open and transparent with them and I think they feel confident in the way they see him leading and the team that we’ve all put together to operate things.”
Like everybody else, Banner was surprised when news of the investigation broke but he remains supportive of Haslam, who has apologized to fans for any embarrassment it has caused the Browns.
“We’ve certainly talked about it privately,” Banner said. “He’s been extremely open with me and felt it was appropriate I knew what was going on and reinforce the very same messages he said publicly. We certainly discussed it, but I know him. I have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t say I had to be reassured.”
Banner did concede that the bloom is off the Haslam rose for fans and many around the NFL after the investigation came to light.
“I think it’s not as pure as it was but I don’t think it’s spoiled,” Banner said.
Considering the revolving door of executives, general managers, coaches and players that has been spinning since the team returned in 1999, Banner senses the concern that remains among fans.
“I understand why that doesn’t give everybody total peace of mind,” Banner said. “We’re operating the team exactly as we would, whether this would have happened or not. Jimmy’s here and incredibly supportive and a huge asset to us. He’s made it clear and I’ve tried to make it clear without any ambiguity at all that he’s not going to sell the team.
“But I understand why until that actually happens and this thing plays itself out it’s a legitimate question for people to continue asking.”
Despite the concern about ownership, the organization is strong and fans are buying in.
The Browns had a 94 percent season ticket renewal rate this offseason and the team has sold more season seats than they have since the team returned in 1999. Suite, club seat and sponsorship sales are up as well according to Banner.
“There’s a lot of optimism and positive feeling about where the franchise is heading,” Banner said. And I think it started with him taking over, leading the team and the vision he had and the team we’ve put together to run it.”
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