Art Modell, former owner of the Baltimore Ravens and a force who helped create the NFL’s TV boom, died early Thursday morning at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Modell, 87, died of natural causes, according to the team and his son, David. Modell, who had battled health problems over the last decade, had been admitted to the hospital Wednesday. No further information was given about the cause of death.
“Sadly, I can confirm that my father died peacefully of natural causes at four this morning,” David Modell, the team’s former president, said in a statement (via the Baltimore Sun). “My brother, John Modell, and I were with him when he finally rejoined the absolute love of his life, my mother Pat Modell, who passed away last October.
“ ‘Poppy’ was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren. Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore. He made an important and indelible contribution to the lives of his children, grandchildren and his entire community. We will miss him.”
Lost in the controversial move is the fact that Modell was an influential and important force in the NFL. He helped bring the league into the modern TV era, helping negotiate contracts with networks and serving as president of the NFL from 1967-1969. He played a key role in the origination of “Monday Night Football.”
“Art Modell’s leadership was an important part of the NFL’s success during the league’s explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “As the longtime chairman of the league’s Broadcast Committee, Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the league. Art played important roles in many other league matters as a key advisor to [former commissioners] Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue and also built championship teams in Cleveland and Baltimore. His skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor. Any conversation with Art included laughs. He always left you with a smile on your face. We extend our condolences to John, David and the rest of the Modell family.”
Modell, who purchased the Browns in 1961, sold the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti in 1999 and turned over full control of the team in 2004. “He was my friend, my mentor,” Bisciotti said in a statement issued by the Ravens. “We will miss him so much. How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore? How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL. His generosity, his love, his humor, his intelligence, his friendship — we were all blessed by this great man.”
Until he moved the team to Baltimore, Modell was a civic leader, well-regarded in Cleveland. However, he said that huge financial losses forced him to accept a lucrative offer from Maryland and move the team. The decision may have paid off immediately, but it caused him to be loathed by Browns fans and is considered to be the prime reason he has not been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He continued to struggle financially and eventually began turning the Ravens over to Bisciotti.
“I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move,” he said in 1999 (via the Sun). “The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me.”
Former New York Giants owner Wellington Mara believed Modell belonged in Canton. “I believe Art belongs in the Hall of Fame,” Mara said in 2002. “I don’t think I know a person who has done more for the league than Modell, especially through television.”
Baltimore had been without an NFL team since the Colts were moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
“This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me,” Modell said at the time of the move. “I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice.”
Modell was born June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn and dropped out of high school to work in the Navy Yard. He earned his high school degree attending night classes and attended television school. From there, he produced one of the first daytime TV shows and went into advertising in 1954.
He and a group of friends purchased the Browns for what he said at the time was the “totally excessive” fee of $4 million. The Ravens, according to the latest ranking of NFL teams by Forbes, now are the NFL’s 11th most valuable team, worth $1.157 billion.
“You get few chances like this,” he said then. “To take advantage of the opportunity, you must have money and friends with more.”
RIP Mr. Art Modell...without his dream I would have never been able to play for this great city...thank you— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) September 6, 2012
RIP to Art Modell.... It was a great pleasure and a privilege to play under one of the great pioneers of the NFL.— Jamal Lewis (@Jamal31Lewis) September 6, 2012
R.I.P to Art Modell an amazing person who effected so many aspects of our history from Cleveland to Syracuse to Baltimore.— Jameel McClain (@JameelMcClain) September 6, 2012