Deshaun Watson Didn’t Hurt Browns Bottom Line, But Are They “Falling Behind?”
Laura Heinz was driving near her home 15 miles south of Cleveland when she first heard the news of her beloved Browns trading for Deshaun Watson.
She was appalled.
Introduced to the Browns by his father, Heinz has been a season ticket holder since 1999, when the current team was born after the original Browns decamped to Baltimore to become the Ravens three years earlier.
When Cleveland traded for Watson on March 18, it faced civil lawsuits from 24 female massage therapists who described varying levels of sexual misconduct that Commissioner Roger Goodell this week called “predatory.” (All but one of those cases have now been settled.) The Browns then handed Watson an unprecedented deal: a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract with deferred salary to blunt the effects of any suspensions. the league.
“I was very, very upset,” Heinz said.
She said she immediately called her Browns ticket representative to complain. Finally, a manager offered to refund his tickets a few days later.
“I’ve been a Browns fan for 50 years; a player is not going to stop me from being around them,” she said. “At the end of the day, what it comes down to is saying that if someone is a die-hard Browns fan, they will always want them to succeed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be upset about this. what they did and how it all happened.
The NFL has already seen its share of ugly incidents, especially when it comes to players abusing women, from the 2014 knockout of Ray Rice to his then-fiancée threatening Goodell with keeping his job, to Kareem Hunt. (now Watson’s teammate), who kicked a woman in a hotel in 2018. Both incidents were caught on camera, but through it all, fans came back.
So how was Watson’s reception in Cleveland?
So far, there is no apparent major reaction. No team sponsors are believed to have pulled out, and the team even claims a waiting list for season tickets. Watson was mobbed by adoring fans after practice the same day Sue Robinson, the disciplinary officer appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association, suggested a six-game suspension for the outraged quarterback.
—Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 1, 2022
This does not mean that there was no adverse reaction. Sporting goods retailer Rally House, with eight of its more than 100 locations in the Cleveland area, stocked Watson’s No. 4 Browns jersey, but temporarily stopped displaying them this summer.
“With everything surrounding Watson, we have made the decision to remove the jerseys from the sale floor,” Hannah James, a senior district manager, wrote to “Cleveland Stores” in an email viewed by Athleticism. “Please place them in your back rooms in a visible area so that if someone comes and asks for a Watson shirt, we have it for sale.”
Rally House executives did not respond to several questions about the decision, but so far any business impact on the Browns appears limited. Fifty to 80 percent of an NFL team’s revenue comes from league media payments, with local money — ticketing and sponsorship — filling in the rest. Thus, the Browns’ business should remain healthy regardless of whether the team loses fans and sponsors.
According to the team, they are not. In March, during one of his few public comments on the signing, owner Jimmy Haslam said ticket sales remained strong. “It seems there are a lot more people renewing than canceling tickets.”
There is, of course, anecdotal evidence from Browns fans pledging to stay away from the team. Andrea Thome, the wife of former Cleveland Guardians slugger Jim Thome, tweeted that the family had threw away their subscriptions.
There is also evidence that demand for resold tickets for the Browns is lukewarm, although that may be tied to uncertainty at quarterback with a final decision on Watson’s suspension looming.
According to TicketIQ, which tracks the secondary ticket market, the value of Browns tickets is down 36% from last year’s level at this time. It’s the second-largest percentage drop of the NFL’s 32 teams, second only to scandal-ridden Washington commanders.
The Browns are the sixth-lowest average ticket in the league, down from 11th last year. And while there was initial excitement for Browns tickets when they went on sale at an average resale price of $201 on May 12, prices had fallen to $115 by last week, according to the ticket resale platform TickPick. When news of Watson’s potential six-game suspension first emerged, the cheapest tickets for what would be his first home game on Oct. 31 went from $77 to $123.
The Browns, who did not respond to requests for comment, do not appear to have lost any sponsors. Aligning with an NFL team is a valuable commodity, and companies are generally loath to sever ties due to player misconduct. A well-known exception, and perhaps the only one, occurred when Radisson Hotels sever ties with the Minnesota Vikings after star running back Adrian Peterson missed the 2014 season while facing child abuse charges. (Peterson later pleaded misdemeanor charges.)
When contacted by Athleticism this spring and summer, the Browns’ sponsors have largely deferred their responses to the team.
“We are aware of the allegations and investigations involving Deshaun Watson,” a KeyBank spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Questions regarding these allegations and related investigations should be directed to the Cleveland Browns or the National Football League.”
Michael Neuman, founder and managing partner of Scout Sports and Entertainment, a sports marketing company, is disappointed that sponsors haven’t spoken up and conveyed their values on the Watson issue. “I would like to speak to my clients about the concerns I have about aligning my client’s brand image…with an organization that made a decision knowing full well that there is enough evidence to create a multitude of civil lawsuits,” he said.
However, the Browns do not appear to be gaining major new sponsors since the Watson deal. That’s telling, said Chris Lencheski, president of Phenicia Sport and Entertainment.
“In a business where if you don’t move forward, you fall behind. They are falling behind because of this particular trade,” Lencheski said. “However you view the situation with Mr. Watson, I would say it hasn’t been easy for the office to go out and seek new levels of meaningful seven-figure type sponsorships.”
If fans wearing Watson jerseys are any barometer of how he affects team business, it’s hard to get a good read. Rally House store workers visited by Athleticism describes the low demand for Watson jerseys. Heinz said she didn’t see anyone wearing them. Google searches for Watson jerseys peaked when the team signed him in March, then dropped sharply on April 3, with a modest increase in July.
Kristopher Martel, a Browns fan for two decades, wrote in an email that no one in his group of Browns fans wears one. But he then compared Watson to Hunt, who the Kansas City Chiefs cut after a video emerged of him assaulting a woman.
“If Cleveland can come out and catch Kareem Hunt and ride out the storm of someone who’s been caught with visual proof assaulting a woman, putting him in the lineup and watching him get back into the good graces of the fanbase, so I think at the end of the day none of us really care enough to see something different unfold” , Martel wrote.
“Browns fans, on the whole, would rather see the team win consistently than worry about the personal lives of the players in the roster. I may not speak for everyone, but I I’ve been a fan of the team long enough to know that we’re apathetic to a lot of noise outside of Cleveland sports.
— AthleticismJason Lloyd contributed to this report.
(Photo: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)