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Philanthropist, former Ravens owner made Baltimore ‘major league’ again

In 1996, the Baltimore Ravens played their inaugural season at Memorial Stadium, mercifully returning professional football to a town that had its heart broken by the Colts’ midnight defection 12 years earlier.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John A. Moag Jr. (left) and Gov. Parris N. Glendening flank Modell on Nov. 6, 1995, the day he announced the Browns’ move.

By 2001, Baltimore was home to the Super Bowl champions, a little more than four years after franchise owner Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. And by 2002, Pikesville resident Jeffrey Katzen rode the wave of Ravens hysteria to his own business bonanza.

Without Modell, Katzen said, he never would have opened the apparel and memorabilia shop Baltimore Sports and Novelty in Owings Mills, an oasis for Ravens fans in desperate search of team merchandise.

“That’s what created it,” Katzen said. “You see the Ravens now, everybody wears purple. They travel well. The Ravens really caught on. He was the foundation of what the team is now.”

Modell, who helped usher the burgeoning NFL into billion-dollar television partnerships long before he became a hero in Baltimore and villain in Cleveland, died of natural causes at Johns Hopkins Hospital Thursday morning. He was 87 years old.

Modell’s decision to move his popular team east to the town that lost the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 was hailed Thursday by area business advocates and analysts for its positive impact on the city’s economy and image. The Ravens — and Modell — made Baltimore “major league” again.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, was a member of the General Assembly when it approved money for the construction of what would become M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens’ game-day home at Camden Yards. Outside of Baltimore, widespread scorn was directed at Modell, who said he was losing money in Cleveland and grew tired of waiting for a new stadium to be built as while the city’s other two professional sports franchises — Major League Baseball’s Indians and the National Basketball Association Cavaliers — received new, taxpayer-funded facilities.

Modell’s decision to leave Cleveland — heavily guided by promises of a new downtown stadium in Baltimore — was a shrewd one that has paid dividends for the state, Fry said.

Modell and the Vince Lombardi Trophy that his team had just won in Super Bowl XXXV on Jan. 28, 2001

“He made a very difficult and gutsy business decision to move the team,” Fry said. “That was significant. It has had a significant impact on Baltimore. It certainly has changed the city’s image. … I think the city and the region and the state owe him a debt of gratitude for making that very difficult decision.”

John A. Moag Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority at the time of the deal to bring the Browns to Baltimore, said most of the negotiations were done with Al Lerner, who was minority owner of the old Browns before later becoming owner of the new Cleveland franchise.

“If you asked Art for $1, he’d give you $2,” Moag said. “And [Modell] knew that.”

Moag, now chairman and CEO of Moag & Co., an investment banking firm that advises pro sports teams, said Modell was reluctant to move the team for a long time, but finally became convinced he would never get a new stadium in Cleveland.

Then, on Sept. 6, 1995 — the night Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played with 2,131 — Moag saw Lerner at the Orioles game and negotiations kicked into high gear. With the league pushing for the Browns to remain in Cleveland, Moag said he told Lerner “they’d have to get moving quickly.”

On the day the NFL voted to allow the move, Modell made sure the deal went through. Some owners wanted to keep the Browns in Cleveland and guarantee Baltimore an expansion team.

Quicker than Carson

“The guy was quicker than Johnny Carson. He was really, really funny, to the point that he was disarming,” Moag said. “Art stood firm. He used humor to disarm the owners. And I stood my ground.”

On Nov. 6, the deal was announced on a Camden Yards parking lot. Four years later, when continuing financial problems forced Modell to take on a minority partner, Moag introduced him to Steve Bisciotti.

Then the unknown billionaire owner of the Allegis Group, a Hanover-based staffing company, Bisciotti bought a 49 percent share in the team in 2000 and exercised his option to buy the rest of the team — except for 1 percent that Modell retained — in 2004.

In a statement, Bisciotti called Modell a “friend” and “mentor.”

“How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore?” said Bisciotti, who grew up in Severna Park. “How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL. His generosity, his love, his humor, his intelligence, his friendship — we were all blessed by this great man. We will strive to live up to his standard.”

Moving the franchise to Baltimore had a “massive” impact on the city and state economically, said economist Anirban Basu.

“The impact of 71,000 fans during each regular-season home game is quantifiable. What’s not quantifiable is the effect that this has had on the spirit of the community, because this community is never quite as joyful as it is after a Ravens victory,” said Basu, chairman and CEO of consulting firm Sage Policy Group Inc. “Particularly after [wins over] the Steelers.”

Unknown, not insignificant

Basu acknowledged that the impact such a feeling has on productivity and sales activity is unknown. But that does not mean it is insignificant, he said.

“There are many people skeptical about this logic. But if a community’s mood doesn’t matter … why does the University of Michigan monitor consumer sentiment?” he asked rhetorically. “The fact of the matter is it does matter. The Ravens are a major source of community unity and community joy. And that matters.

“The impact lingers on even if he has passed. It’s his legacy to Baltimore, and it’s a major one.”

The impact is felt even by those in the business community whom Modell never directly dealt with, said Baltimore Sports and Novelty’s Katzen.

“The whole area benefits. Delis, wine shops, liquor stores. I think, what he’s done for this community, you can’t really measure,” he said. “Look at Sundays: When people wake up, they go to the game or they have friends over for a party, they decorate their cars, they buy purple cars. People have gone nutty.

“He brought the team here. It’s been kind of like, what he did revitalized Baltimore. Baltimore, I guess, was depressed about football. … I think every Ravens fan should sit back and reflect on what he’s done for the community.”

Katzen pointed out, though, that Modell did far more than return professional football to the city and the state. Modell and his wife, Patricia — who died in October at age 80 — were active philanthropists in the Baltimore community, donating and raising money for a number of organizations and causes, especially the performing arts.

$3.5M to Lyric

Patricia and Art Modell gave $3.5 million to the Lyric Opera House top off the theater’s $12.5 million renovation in 2010.

The Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric — the 118-year-old Lyric Opera House on Mount Royal Avenue — was perhaps the most prominent example of the Modells’ charity. The couple gave $3.5 million to the theater to top off a $12.5 million renovation in 2010.

“Perhaps there wouldn’t be a Lyric right now without them,” said Sandy Richmond, president of the Lyric. “We’re so proud to have their name on the facility.

“There’s no doubt that he brought football back to Baltimore. I think the community itself will always remember him for that wonderful feat. But I think there are also many people that I think know of his involvement in so many wonderful causes and, in particular, the performing arts.”

The couple’s fondness for the performing arts stretched back to all those years in Cleveland, Richmond said. He said Art Modell often spoke of the failed booking of a legendary singer to perform before a Browns game.

“Art would tell the story of Tony Bennett, where he [was going to have] him perform prior to a game in Cleveland, and it rained, so the performance prior to the game was canceled,” Richmond said. “So, he reminded me that Tony owed him one.”

Modell never collected on the debt. A somber-sounding Richmond, though, said he’d pick up the cause.

“We’re going to remind Tony,” he said.

Modell also was head of the $100 million Heart Institute Fund, set up to build a new tower at Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus on Orleans Street.

A one-time finalist and regular semifinalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — but, presumably because of bad will associated with his decision to move the team, never an inductee — Modell bought the Browns for $4 million in 1961 and spent 43 years as an NFL owner, enjoying 28 winning seasons and a cathartic victory in Super Bowl XXXV as Ravens owner in 2001, after watching several Browns stumbles and one notable fumble in playoff games.

He also was chairman of the NFL’s television committee for 31 years, and he negotiated contracts that set the standard for professional sports leagues — including playing a large part in negotiating with ABC to start “Monday Night Football” — and chaired the owners’ labor committee, which negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement and recognized the right for NFL players to form a union.

“Art Modell’s leadership was an important part of the NFL’s success during the league’s explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond,” league Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the league.”

But at the end, he’ll be most remembered for his long tenure — and that one truly controversial decision — as an NFL owner.

‘Giant in our industry’

“Art was a giant in our industry,” said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager and executive vice president and a Hall of Fame tight end for the Browns, who drafted him in 1978. “He was my boss — but he wouldn’t let me call him that — my mentor and, most importantly, my friend.”

Modell made Newsome the NFL’s first African-American general manager in 2002 after being the team’s vice president of player personnel since 1996.

“He was the most caring, compassionate person I’ve ever known,” Newsome said. The opportunities he gave me are historic, and I will be forever humble and grateful.”

There will be a “silent tribute” and viewing Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., where Modell’s casket and the Vince Lombardi Trophy from the Ravens’ Super Bowl win will be placed on the field. Parking will be free in Lot B/C, and fans should enter through Gate A, near Unitas Plaza.

The team opens its season Monday night at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens will wear a decal on their helmets with Modell’s initials.

Modell is survived by his sons, John and David; David’s wife, Michel; and six grandchildren.

“‘Poppy’ was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren. Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity,” said David Modell, also a former Ravens president. “And he loved Baltimore. He made an important and indelible contribution to the lives of his children, grandchildren and his entire community. We will miss him.”

Art Modell

Born: June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Early career highlights:

-First job was as electrician’s helper, cleaning hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard.

-Joined Army Air Forces in 1943.

-Under G.I. Bill, enrolled in a New York City television school after World War II.

-Produced “Market Melodies,” one of the first regular daytime television shows in the nation.

-Joined the advertising business in 1954 and became a partner for the L.H. Hartman Co. in New York City.

NFL career highlights:

-Bought Cleveland Browns in 1961.

-Chairman of the NFL television committee for 31 years (1962-93).

-Only elected NFL president in league history (1967-69).

-Helped establish NFL Films and became first chairman of NFL Films.

-Important participant in establishing “Monday Night Football” and hosted first game.

Source: Baltimore Ravens

Daily Record Managing Editor/Business Ed Waldman contributed to this article.