I was talking with my friend Brian at his apartment in downtown Cleveland. It’s one of those cool converted warehouse apartments with big windows hugged by brick walls. It is right in the center of downtown, with views of Lake Erie, Terminal Tower, and FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Browns.
I asked him a question that I’ve asked many friends: Where are you going to be when the Browns win the Super Bowl?
It’s a question that many young Browns fans ask themselves, one that can inspire tremendous hope and angst. Despite the franchise’s pitiful history since its return in 1999, Browns fans hold fast onto tales of triumph. They grow hazier with each passing season, but the legends of Otto Graham and Jim Brown still resonate in Cleveland. All fans know the truism that the Browns were once dominant. With every draft, today’s fans wonder who will be the player to take their Browns to the promised land.
So where will those fans be when the big day comes? Some swear that they will be at the game, no matter the cost. Others say they will be downtown, ready to join the party that no one can accurately predict because of the absurdity of the premise. I posed the question to Brian. He answered quickly, and with frightening conviction and amusement.
“Oh, I’ll be dead.”
The Browns are at a crossroads. A great many Cleveland fans insist that they are the best fans in football. They continue to sell out games and there have been no blackouts since 1999. They have dealt with a crap team (or no team) for two decades, which is the best way to score fan street cred. They are known as one of the most tortured fan bases in sports.
That said, there is evidence that Browns fans’ support is waning. They did not crack the top 10 of Forbes NFL’s Best Fans list, which is based on five criteria: stadium attendance, TV ratings, merchandise sales, social media reach, and fan club presence. They placed 15th in Sports Illustrated’s players poll of most intimidating fans, a far cry from the days of the old Dawg Pound. A 2008 ESPN ranking, however, placed Browns fans as the third-best in the league. What’s changed?
In short, nothing has changed, and that’s the problem. The Browns have sucked since 1999, save a couple of seasons. They haven’t had a strong multi-year streak like the Indians had in the 90s. They’ve barely been competent during that stretch. They have had eight head coaches since 1999, a number that actually seemed low to me. Same goes for the six GMs. Everyone gets fired every three years.
It’s getting harder every year to convince young Browns fans that this is a franchise worth investing in. My then three year-old nephew was watching a game with his dad last season. They live in Pittsburgh. Trying to keep a potential Browns fan on track in enemy territory is no easy task. When my nephew realized the Browns were on TV, he was incredulous. He turned to his father and said, matter-of-factly,
“Dad, the Browns always lose.”
What I’m getting at is that the next few years are very important for the Browns. They don’t need to win a Super Bowl, but they do need to be competent. Fans need to see progress during games and believe in the front office. It doesn’t matter if Johnny Manziel is the starter or who the best player is. This team just needs to be consistently less awful. The tales of fifty year-old championships are gathering cobwebs, and the Browns are turning into the Franchise That Cried Next Year. Few fans will come out and say that they are growing less avid, but the empty orange seats say otherwise.
I hope they turn it around. I hope that my Super Bowl plans come to fruition one day. I know that when the Browns get there, I’ll be downtown, running around like Jimmy V. in ’83. It doesn’t matter where in the city I am. I just want to be in Cleveland and around Clevelanders. I’ll be hugging weird-looking strangers like it’s the end of Major League. I just hope that I’m alive when it happens. I hope Brian is, too.