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Could Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham, Jr. Be Worth More to Cleveland Than LeBron?

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It feels like something special is coming for Cleveland Browns fans.

Anticipating what could be one of the best seasons the football team has had in a generation is bringing life to the city, according to Dan Shoag, a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan and an economics professor at Harvard University and Case Western Reserve University.

"This place feels alive," he said. "Cleveland has always been a football town, and now our expectations this season are through the roof!"

At every turn, the sidewalks, bars, and restaurants surrounding FirstEnergy Stadium were still packed, buzzing full of excited and anxious fans after the Browns beat the Detroit Lions 20-16. This was all on a Thursday night, not a Sunday afternoon, and it was a preseason football game to boot.

Why this excitement? The Browns, yes, the Cleveland Browns, are not only considered the favorite to win their first division title in more than three decades, but they also have as high as 10-to-1 odds in Vegas to win the Super Bowl this season. The same Browns that haven't been in the NFL playoffs in 17 years, and did not win a single NFL game in 2017 could have a chance to win it all. Last season, the Browns' fortune turned around as they won five out of their last seven games and ended the season with a 7-8-1 record.

The euphoria over the Browns this season is leading some to wonder if the team and star players Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. can have as big an emotional and economic impact for Cleveland fans as NBA superstar LeBron James did.

While obviously, it's too early to tell and hard to quantify such an impact, there's discussion to be had.

The economic impact of a football and a basketball team differ due to the difference in frequency of play. The Browns only play 10 home games a year, compared to the more than 40 pre-season and regular-season home games for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And during James' heyday with the Cavs, they played even more because of their playoff runs.

The Greater Cleveland Partnership–a regional Chamber of Commerce overseen by more than 70 CEOs in Northeast Ohio–hasn't tried to put a number on the true value of "King James" to the area during his two stints playing with the Cavs. The group has only safely said that James' impact is in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Maybe one day the once-horrific football team and its' new star players could be mentioned in the same breath with LeBron economically, Shoag said. But that might prove challenging.

Shoag's study, "Taking My Talents to South Beach (and Back) - Evidence on Local Externalities from a Superstar Athlete, co-written with Stan Veuger, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, delves into whether James' economic impact would be similar in a different city. They write that James' presence in Cleveland increased the number of restaurants, bars, and other establishments within one mile of the home arenas where he played by about 13%, and employment by about 23.5%.

Keep in mind, James' transcendent play led to several playoff appearances this decade, eight straight appearances in the NBA Finals, and three NBA championships. In 2016, James led the Cavs to victory, giving Cleveland its first pro championship in 40 years. More than 1.3 million people attended the championship parade downtown that year.

James helped make Cleveland, a hardscrabble rust-belt town known for its roll-up-your-sleeves, blue-collar style, intriguing on the national level. It's no coincidence that Cleveland's prominence has also made it a top travel destination in the U.S., according to Destination Cleveland, the city's tourism and convention bureau.

The city hosted the 2016 Republican National Convention and this year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Cleveland will also host regional games during next year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, the 2021 NFL Draft, and the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.

"I would say that the LeBron era was a part of our ability to garner these high-profile events, but not the primary reason why. We've put billions of dollars into visitor-related infrastructure," said Emily Lauer, a Destination Cleveland spokeswoman. "LeBron helped create awareness."

Maintaining that type of visibility will be a tall order for the Browns, but a renewed interest in the team nationally could have them picking up where the basketball legend left off when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for a four-year $154 million deal in 2018.

A study conducted by FormSwift for Black Enterprise last year predicted that L.A. would experience a $396 million economic impact if James chose either the Lakers or the Clippers over a five-year period. Additionally, L.A. would gain about 3,000 jobs and $29 million in state tax revenue. By comparison, the study said if James remained in Cleveland, he would have had a $176 million economic impact, and the city would gain about 1,500 jobs and nearly $10 million in state tax revenue.

As for the Browns, their ability to bring in that type of economic stimulus remains to be seen. "I would hold off on any predictions until they start winning consistently," said Adam Earnheardt, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio who specializes in social media and fan engagement.

Shoag, wearing both hats as an Ivy League economist and Browns super-fan, agrees.

"Emotionally, it's already been huge for the city to have a bright light with the Browns so shortly after LeBron left," Shoag said. "I think you will see a big impact over time."

Early Signs of Newfound Success

Interest was already piqued for the Browns last season after the team selected Mayfield–the brash, cocky quarterback from Oklahoma and the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner–as the top overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rabid fans were able to witness Mayfield's rapid progression from college athlete to pro and the Browns' hopeful future taking form in training camp via HBO's Hard Knocks reality show.

Viewers saw new Browns General Manager John Dorsey, a football lifer who was fresh from turning the Kansas City Chiefs into a perennial playoff club, rebuild the team's roster. A month before drafting Mayfield, Dorsey traded for stud wide receiver Jarvis Landry from the Miami Dolphins, who would not only serve as a key target for Mayfield, but also channel Dorsey's new culture of accountability and tenacity that would hopefully lead to wins.

But the biggest question remained: could Mayfield, with a strong throwing arm that compensates for his undersized stature, finally be the franchise quarterback to save this team that had barely won a third of its games since it was re-established as an expansion club 20 years ago?

The Browns weren't always so bad. The team started in the All-America Football Conference in 1946 and won four titles in that league before joining the NFL in 1950. They won a championship that year and three more in 1954, 1955, and 1964. During this pre-Super Bowl dynasty, the Browns were led by hall of fame running back Jim Brown, arguably the greatest football player ever.

During that period, the city of Cleveland went through quite a bit of change. First, there was a population surge of nearly 1 million residents due to the city's status as one of the biggest industrial centers in the U.S. Then, scores of residents left after many steel and iron companies shut down. The Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city and feeds into Lake Erie, caught fire because of a rising pollution problem. And finally, Cleveland had to default on major bank loans in the 1970s, grabbing national headlines. Through all of this, the Browns were a stable and comforting presence, even as the city was got dubbed, "The Mistake by the Lake."

By the 1980s, the Browns were a playoff contender, led by quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar, and running backs Kevin Mack and Ernest Byner. But the team was snakebitten during three key playoff games. The first is the play known infamously as "Red Right 88," when Sipe threw an interception during the Browns' tough loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders in 1981.

Then there's "The Drive," where the Browns lost in overtime to the Denver Broncos 23-20 during the AFC championship game in 1987 after Broncos quarterback John Elway led his team on a remarkable 98-yard drive to tie the game 20-20 with 31 seconds left to play in regulation. The Broncos went on to win that game with a field goal during a nine-play 60-yard drive in overtime.

More heartbreak came for the Browns in 1988, when Byner fumbled at the 1-yard line while trying to score a touchdown to pull within a point of Denver during the AFC title game. The Broncos won 38-33 and the play is forever known as "The Fumble."

Seven years later, in 1995, longtime Browns owner Art Modell announced he was moving the team to Baltimore and the franchise was renamed the Ravens. Browns fans were furious. They held protests and filed lawsuits wanting their football team back. Their wishes were granted when the Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999.

Since then, Browns fans have suffered through years of futility, including the winless 2016 season and a lone victory in 2017. The only exceptions in these years of heartache are two winning seasons in 2002 and 2007, and a lone playoff appearance in 2002.

But last season, things started looking up for Browns fans when Mayfield took the field in Week 3 and rallied to beat the New York Jets 21-17 in a nationally-televised game. Fans took to the streets in jubilation and football pundits wondered if a change was around the corner.

Five weeks later, the Browns fired both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Mayfield excelled, setting a new NFL record for the most touchdown passes thrown by a quarterback in his rookie season with 27. He became a savior of sorts.

"Baker has emotionally connected with the city with his grittiness," Shoag said.

In January, the team promoted offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach mostly based on his success with Mayfield. Then the Browns made a bombshell move in March by trading for Beckham, the electrifying Pro Bowl receiver with the New York Giants known for his spectacular one-handed catches, touchdown celebrations, and a $95 million contract that puts him among the highest-paid players in the NFL. The trade also reunited Beckham with Landry, his best friend and college teammate from Louisiana State University.

Demand for Browns season tickets was already high, but it exploded after the Beckham trade. The team said it has reached its max for season ticket holders for 2019 at more than 60,000–a spike of about 12,000 from last season. And all eight home games this season are sellouts.

Additionally, the Browns said that all of the 143 suites at FirstEnergy Stadium have been sold out for months, and it has thousands of fans on its waiting list for tickets, which require a $100 deposit.

"Fans can put down a deposit, and assuming inventory is available next year, those individuals have the first opportunity to purchase," Browns spokesman Rob McBurnett told Fortune. "We were trending towards reaching our season ticket maximum prior to that [Beckham trade] news, with overall team performance late in 2018 as one of the strongest factors."  

Ticket demand for the Browns has spiked in the secondary market, as well. Just ask Mark Klang, the owner, and operator of Amazing Tickets in suburban Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

Klang said the fervor for Browns tickets is currently "dwarfing" any of the regular-season games James' played during his 11 years with the Cavaliers. In fact, he said Browns' secondary ticket sales are reaching the levels he saw for the 1995 and 1996 World Series-title chasing Cleveland Indians, a team that was in the midst of ending four decades of frustration.

He said the Browns' Nov. 10 matchup against the lowly Buffalo Bills is generating the fifth-highest prices of the season for his website. The prices are about 20% higher than those for the 2018 season opener versus the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

As for the this year's home matchup against the Steelers, a nationally-televised Thursday night game on Nov. 14, lower-level midfield tickets that were going for $450 last year are currently going for $900.

Those are his most expensive tickets–for now. Naturally, the more successful the Browns are, the higher the ticket demand will be, thus driving prices higher, Klang said.

"We thought sales were going to be really strong this season," Klang said. "But after the Browns got Odell, this is more than even we expected."

Klang said that comparing the economic impact of Mayfield and Beckham to James is like comparing "apples to oranges," but when it comes to the emotional impact, especially in terms of longevity and selling merchandise, the Browns have a chance to match James if their key players live up to their potential.

"The reach the Browns draw is so much larger," Klang said. "The wide demographic of Browns fans to Cavs fans is like night and day. Unquestionably, the Browns' reach is far more than the Cavs'."

One Browns fan, Jorge Taylor of suburban Twinsburg, Ohio, said he will likely pay top dollar on the secondary ticket market to see one of the Browns' primetime games this season.

Taylor's works weekends as a rental car manager at the airport and usually follows Browns games on his smartphone.

"I have customers who are talking about the Browns without even being prompted," Taylor said. "The idea that we're already talking about going the playoffs instead of who we're going to draft next season is pretty incomprehensible."

Now, Taylor said, there's only one thing for the Browns, Mayfield, and Beckham to do.

"All of the pieces are in place," he said. "They just gotta win!"

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