CLEVELAND – Since they arrived last year, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have spoken often about the need to drastically improve FirstEnergy Stadium.
They revealed their plan to accomplish that goal Wednesday in a news conference inside the stadium. The “modernization” proposal of the lakefront facility features two giant scoreboards, a tweak to the upper deck of the Dawg Pound, a 3,000-seat reduction in capacity, added escalators and a new audio system.
The next step in its implementation is working out the financing with the city. The process starts today with a presentation to the planning commission. The city owns the stadium and must approve any changes.
The estimated cost of the project – which would be completed in two phases and expected to be finished for the 2015 season -- is $120 million. Banner declined to divulge who would pick up how much of the tab.
“I’m confident that very quickly we’ll be able to give you all the specifics of that, but I don’t think it would be respecting the mayor and city council and that process to answer that right this second,” he said. “The city owns the stadium. We have to do this together. Obviously, the planning commission and a number of agencies in the city would have to be in line and approving this project for it to happen economics aside, and obviously economics aren’t an aside, so there is nothing that can happen to the stadium without the city feeling positive.”
The Browns were recently granted a low-interest loan from the NFL to finance half the cost of the renovation, up to $62.5 million. Banner wouldn’t say if the Browns will pay for a larger chunk of the project.
“The team will make a significant investment,” he said.
The stadium, called Cleveland Browns Stadium until earlier this year, was completed in 1999 and paid for with tax-payer money. It lacks many of the features popular in the league’s newer stadiums.
“Our focus is to give our fans the best possible experience they can have,” Haslam said. “I think we all understand that FirstEnergy Stadium is 15 years old and it’s in need of modernization.
“We’re taking the most significant step in giving our fans a great place to watch football.”
The new scoreboards in each end zone are the centerpiece of the proposal and projected to be ready for the 2014 season. They are nearly three times the size of the current ones, which pale in comparison in size and picture quality to others throughout the league. The video boards will be lowered and moved closer to the fans.
“To really create a very compelling, dramatic visual experience,” Banner said.
The Browns briefly discussed building a stadium on a new sight, but felt a renovation was the better alternative.
“We felt that it probably wasn’t the right time to try to do that,” Banner said. “And there probably was enough strength to this building that with a good investment that this could be a place we could feel proud of and attract players to and create the first-class organization we wanted.”
They also explored adding a dome, but elected to stay with an open-air facility and grass turf.
“It’s probably a nine-figure investment when you deal with all the structural needs in addition to the roof itself,” Banner said. “It’s an extremely expensive endeavor and we didn’t decide it would be the best use of dollars.”
If the project is approved, construction would start in January.
The capacity would lower from just above 71,000 to just above 68,000. But seating in the lower bowl would be increased while improving sightlines. Banner said the stadium ranks last in the country in percentage of seats on the lower level.
“We think it will create a more intimate bowl,” he said. “The loudness and impact of our fans on the game should be even greater.”
Banner said the “historic Dawg Pound” will remain intact in the east end zone, but a small section of the upper deck will be affected. The organization weighed the pros and cons of shrinking capacity.
“As you look at many of the newer stadiums or even the stadiums getting renovated, there’s a little bit of a movement towards downscaling somewhat,” Banner said. “We don’t want to do that too much here because of the base of tickets that we have, and we think the passion for the people here to come to the games, but we thought at that scale it was a good move.”
Other improvements for next season would be LED sideboards featuring stats, scores and information, and new escalators in the end zones. For 2015, the team plans upgrades in the concession areas and club seats and suites, and the addition of graphics honoring the team’s history inside and outside the stadium.
“The place will be dramatically different,” Haslam said.
Banner said the changes should help the team draw more events to the stadium, including concerts.
“I’m very hopeful about that,” he said.