Within 18 days of being introduced in early August as the soon-to-be owner of the Browns, Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam drove to Ken Stewart's Lodge in Bath Township with two Browns executives to have dinner with Chuck Jones, president of FirstEnergy Utilities.
“Jimmy interviewed me, and it literally was an interview,” Jones said. Haslam wanted to know about the company's financial security, its community commitment and its foundation giving, Jones said.
He “was trying to establish in his own mind that we were the type of company he wanted to align his own brand with,” said Jones of the deal that would eventually be struck for $102 million over 17 years to name the facility FirstEnergy Stadium: Home of the Cleveland Browns.
After about an hour, Haslam said: “Look, this is why I'm here. I've decided I'm going to sell the naming rights to Cleveland Browns Stadium. I made that announcement in my first press conference as prospective owner. I can’t do anything until I’m the official owner. I’m going to do it. I’ve already had some calls, but I've decided I would like to have FirstEnergy’s name on the stadium. Is that something you would like?”
No money or terms of a potential agreement were discussed at that dinner, Jones said, but he told Haslam: “Jimmy, there's a difference between you and me. You don't have a boss. I do. I have to go back and talk to my boss.”
That invitation Aug. 21 was the culmination of conversations that were first floated more than two years earlier. It wasn't until a week later, and after much contemplation on his part, Jones said — along with consulting with Gretchan Sekulich, FirstEnergy's vice president of communications, who agreed naming the stadium was a good idea — that the idea was first brought to Tony Alexander, the company's president and chief executive officer.
Also at the dinner were Jim Ross, the Browns’ senior vice president of business development, and Brett Reynolds, Browns vice president of marketing.
Ross said the drive to the restaurant with Haslam was “intense.”
“Jimmy's a very well-prepared guy and was prepared even before going down there,” Ross said.
Haslam, the chief executive of Tennessee-based Pilot Flying J Corp., wanted to know everything about Jones and FirstEnergy and the potential deal.
At the dinner, Ross said he and Reynolds were the spectators.
“Those two were just going at it,” Ross said. “It was really the first time I had seen Jimmy in action in a setting like this. Obviously, he's a wildly successful guy and you don't have to worry about what he's going to do. I didn't know his style. He was amazing and he's very engaging.”
After the three Browns officials got into their car after dinner, Haslam asked Ross: “How do you think that went?”
“I think that went great,” Ross said. “I don't think it could have gone better.”
“Yeah,” Haslam said. “I think the only way it could have gone better is if we could have gotten the order,” referring to the naming-rights deal.
Floating the idea
Ross was the architect of the deal.
A few months after arriving in Cleveland in April 2010 from stints with the New York Yankees and Miami Dolphins, Ross reached out for an introductory meeting with FirstEnergy since the company had previously been a stadium gate sponsor.
The agenda for that meeting was to get to know the company, Ross said. But he had also discussed very casually with then-Browns owner Randy Lerner about increasing the team's local revenue stream.
Lerner instructed Ross to “poke around and see what's out there” for potential naming-rights partners, but Lerner emphasized that he would be very particular about the company, that it needed to be a regional company and that he didn't know what he wanted for a fee.
“During that meeting [with FirstEnergy], I just kind of floated it out there, ‘Would you ever consider putting [the company name] on the stadium?’ ” Ross said.
It was the first time Ross floated that idea to anyone.
“I figured, ‘What the heck. I've got nothing to lose.’ [Jones] kinda took a deep pause, shook his head a little left and right, up and down and adjusted himself in his seat. I sort of expected him to say ‘What, are you crazy?’ ”
Jones recalls that conversation: “My first reaction was ‘Jim, boy, I think that's pretty far out there for us. But we would always consider anything.’ ”
Jones had been the president of the Cleveland Illuminating Co., the regulated utility, from 1997 to 2001, during the years when the Browns weren't in Cleveland and when the Browns returned as an expansion team.
A major fan
He knew the economic impact of not having an NFL team in town had on a community. He is also a diehard Browns fan, having bought his first season ticket with buddies in 1982 for seats in the last row in the upper deck of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Even now, when FirstEnergy has a suite at the stadium, Jones sits in seats outside.
“I do a lot of entertaining and a lot of politicking and a lot of community work. Not at Browns games. When I go there, I go as a fan,” he said. “But having said that, this was a business decision.”
Ross and Jones had casual conversations over the next two years about the naming rights, but nothing serious, both said. FirstEnergy was the early pick, but Ross said he did pitch the idea casually to a few other regional companies and one unnamed bank that expressed interest. However, it didn't progress for a number of reasons, Ross said.
After FirstEnergy sponsored Akron's financially struggling Soap Box Derby for three years for an undisclosed amount last March and saw that it was well received, Jones said he was asked by FirstEnergy's marketing team of Todd Schneider, director of external affairs; Sekulich and Tim Quine, director of communications services, what the company would do next.
“I said, ‘Well, if you really think this is great, what would you think of really taking a leap?’ ” Jones said.
So last spring, Jones called Ross.
“Jim, I think we ought to further the dialogue. When are you guys going to get off the saddle and do this?”
Ross came back with the answer to Jones: “ ‘Randy is not interested in selling it at this time.’ And we never talked about it again.”
‘Down to Akron’
This all changed when Haslam came into the picture.
At the first meeting between Browns staff and Haslam before he was introduced as the next owner Aug. 3, the subject of naming rights came up. Ross told Haslam that there was interest from FirstEnergy.
“When you’re meeting a guy who’s going to be your boss, you don’t want to overpromise,” Ross said.
Haslam responded, “Well, let’s sell it and if FirstEnergy happens, great, but you better have a Plan B, too.”
Ross says he did not have a Plan B, but he was willing to take the calculated risk with FirstEnergy.
Ross and others suggested to Haslam that he meet with Jones personally. Haslam agreed.
They also suggested that it was important for the Browns to bring Haslam to FirstEnergy.
“You’re absolutely right,” Haslam said. “Let’s go down to Akron.” But both sides agreed they could not meet at their offices and needed to keep their meetings close to the vest.
After the Haslam-Jones dinner at Ken Stewart’s Lodge, Jones needed to get the approval of Alexander.
Alexander said at the right price, it would be something he would look at.
“Look,” Alexander said. “This is a once-every-20-year-opportunity. We need to look at it. With what we’re trying to do to improve our competitive position on the unregulated side, it fits right in with everything we’re trying to do here.”
Alexander and Haslam did not meet until Jan. 15, the day of the news conference to announce the deal. But Jones said the message from both leaders was clear.
“Jimmy wanted to get it done. Tony wanted to get it done. They’re both very dynamic, charismatic leaders. When those two leaders kept sending to their team the message ‘We want this done,’ it made the rest of the negotiations go pretty quickly,” Jones said.
Smaller, but still top-secret teams then started to work on the proposal. At the next dinner on Sept. 17 — this time in the back room of Ken Stewart’s Lodge — Ross and Reynolds from the Browns and Jones, Sekulich and Quine from FirstEnergy looked over mock-ups of the stadium and other promotional material.
Fear of news leak
Jones and Ross said there was a little damage control to do after that meeting, since it was pretty clear to the wait staff what the diners were talking about. Ross said at one point, a server came in to say that the chef was a huge Browns fan and wanted to come in to say hello. The diners declined.
“We actually thought the next day we could be talking to” the media after a leak, Jones said.
Said Ross: “I don’t know what happened. Somehow they didn’t call sports radio or the newspapers.”
Said Jones, “Let’s just say we figured out how to keep it under wraps.”
The teams never went back to Ken Stewart’s for meetings and later once met at Fleming’s before the restaurant opened.
Also at that initial meeting, the Browns presented FirstEnergy with its first price for the package to name the stadium. Jones and Ross declined to discuss the numbers, but Jones said there was a big difference between the Browns’ number and what FirstEnergy had in mind.
Over the next few days, Jones called Ross to say: “We can’t take your price to Tony. Come back and tell us the bottom line you would do this deal at.”
Ross said it was highly unusual to not have a counter offer, but he took the message back to Haslam, and they worked out a price with the terms of the deal.
Ross then waited nervously for a few days for the return call from Jones.
“Hi Jim. It’s Chuck. I’ve got bad news for you,” Ross recalls Jones saying. “You’re stuck with FirstEnergy ... We’ve got a deal.”