The Cincinnati Bengals have provided their fans with a season full of welcome surprises on the field. After a tumultuous off season that made it appear as if the franchise had permanently gone off the deep end, Marvin Lewis has rallied the troops and has them still firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. Lewis' boss, however, hasn't gotten the message.
While his players have been producing on the field, Mike Brown has seen attendance at his publicly subsidized stadium plummet to historic lows. Brown has done nothing to indicate that matters to him, as Bengals 101 suggested that he do last week. Not only that, but this week he showed a remarkable degree of oblivion to the public perception of him and his management of the franchise by purchasing the remaining minority shares of the team, as reported by Forbes.
The move makes excellent business sense for Brown. He is able to gain total control of his franchise at a highly discounted price by purchasing the shares from the estate of Austin Knowlton rather than allowing the executors to sell the shares to some other entity. Given the sweetheart lease deal Brown has with Hamilton County on Paul Brown Stadium, this puts him in a position to hold one of the more profitable franchises in the NFL, despite not being located in a prime TV market and any downturns in revenue from attendance. Because of the NFL's unique revenue sharing situation on television revenue, Brown will now own 100 per cent of a franchise in an industry that is dominating television ratings, guaranteeing him a share of the multi-billion dollar pie regardless of how his team produces on the field.
While we don't begrudge Brown the opportunity to make sound business decisions, this is just another in a long line of tone deaf moves Brown has made from a public relations standpoint. No business decision occurs in a vacuum. It always has a human side to it and a context. In this case, Brown is paying $200 million in cash on the heels of submitting a hefty bill to the taxpayers of Hamilton County for upgrades to Paul Brown Stadium. Moreover, this deal lies in the context of Brown's continued reluctance to spend his own cash to upgrade the PBS practice facilities to include a domed practice bubble so that players aren't forced into the elements this time of year.
So in a sense, Brown has struck a tremendous deal for the bottom line of his business. His shareholders (now the Brown family) will be pleased. They'll get a nice Christmas goose. The message to the fans and to the players, however, is clear: "Bah, humbug!" Brown is improving his bottom line without giving even a pittance of acknowledgement to those who enable him to be a member of this exclusive club of multi-millionaires.
That's not to say that Brown is stingy or not philanthropic. All accounts indicate that Brown does a great deal, most of it unheralded, within the Greater Cincinnati community. It does indicate that he continues to be out of touch with his constituents.
For those thinking Brown might sell the team or take it to warmer climes like Los Angeles, forget about it. Brown has managed to construct a situation in Cincinnati that is the envy of every owner in professional sports. While other owners in small markets, even the Castellini family, struggle to break even on their sports investments, Brown has a situation that virtually guarantees profitability. That wouldn't change in Los Angeles. Cincinnati and its conservative ways also fits Brown perfectly. He's not Donald Sterling, wanting to own a sports franchise so he can hobnob with the glitterati. Brown is more than content to reside in his sleepy Indian Hill estate in anonymity except for his biannual press conferences. He's also got a legacy ensured for his children, daughter Katie Blackburn and son Paul who will one day run the team.
On the positive side, Brown has shown this season an improved willingness to make the moves necessary to help the team, both with the free agent acquisitions of players like Manny Lawson, Thomas Howard, and Nate Clements and by locking up key players with long term deals. He also struck a shrewd bargain in the management of the Carson Palmer situation, setting the Bengals up in great draft position for the future.
What Brown needs, however, is an increased sensibility about how his moves are received by the public. He has two decades of ill will to overcome. While the majority of that can be accomplished by putting together a competitive on the field product, Brown must also work on improving his public relations skills.
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