Thursday, March 20, 2014

How do we Champion Change and Development? An idea...

In my previous column, I laid out a broad idea for how to grow and develop Cleveland into the city it deserves to be.

Then, I got hit with "reality," otherwise known as the reaction to my so-called "hater" comments. 

"If you don't like it, get involved."

"Put your money where your mouth is!"

"What actual plan do you have?"

"Why don't you just move?"

"You're wrong! There's so much greatness here!" (Ok! If that's true, then why is Cleveland's population shrinking? After all, Ohio's overall population is growing, and Columbus' population is growing faster than the national average. Clearly the problem isn't so much Ohio itself as it is the city.)

Okay, I would love to put my money where my mouth is and execute a plan I have! There's just one problem: My last name isn't Jacobs, Rockefeller or Wolstein. I would love to invest in the development of Downtown Cleveland. But, as many know: you either need cash or a lot of collateral to develop commercial real estate in a Downtown environment. And that's after convincing those in charge that the structure you want to build is "good for the city." (We all remember the hand wringing over the Horseshoe Casino's Skywalk, right?)

On top of that: I'm a sales manager. Not a Real Estate magnate. My Real Estate education involves 2 classes in college and buying my condo. So once again, my ideas do not contain specific details. That is for the experts to iron out.

But hear me out because I believe the concept, pending the proper planning and execution, could be fruitful.

How about a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) specifically dedicated to Downtown Cleveland development? For those of you unsure what a REIT is, it's a company that owns and operates income producing Real Estate, and in some cases, financing Real Estate.

So, you want to get involved in the development of Cleveland, but don't know how? Great, buy some shares! Help finance the change.

Consider this: There are 1.9 million people in the Cleveland area. What if everyone bought $1000 worth of shares in this hypothetical REIT? That's an additional $1.9 billion to help develop the area. Privately funded. Of course, many don't have $1000 to invest, but many have much more than $1000 to invest. I'm not saying it's a safe investment (nothing is except for treasury bonds...and even then there's the outside chance the United States could collapse), but I'm saying it's way to invest in the city and benefit financially. And because shares in a publicly traded REIT could be purchased by anyone, who says the audience is only 1.9 million Clevelanders? Imagine billions of dollars in new investment cash for this area, and YOU GET TO BE PART OF IT. As a share holder, you have a voice. 

What does the investor get out of this besides civic pride (that is not a good reason to invest in anything)? Capital gains assuming the Real Estate appreciates in value, and dividend payments. REITs are, by law, required to pay at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends. You can either choose to collect that cash payment, or reinvest into buying more shares so your payout can grow in the future and, also, so the REIT can (in theory...markets fluctuate) grow and fund more development. Yes, there has to be an element of greed to it and a business case.

Does it take time to develop land and eventually turn a profit? Yes. Do you have to have a little faith that the right people are put in place who can make the right decisions? Yes. And truth is, there are some excellent developers in the area. The problem? Government red tape and the fact that most of this is funded by private investors, not a publicly traded Real Estate development group. That means the Jacobs and Wolsteins of the group get to profit while you and I are sitting on the sidelines. I don't know about you, but I want to put my money where my mouth is, I just know my limitations.

Are there Cleveland-based REITs? Yes. The most popular is American Estates Realty Corp ($AEC on NYSE and NASDAQ). They specialize in rental properties and have diversified across the U.S. in recent years. However, none have been created with the sole mission statement of development in Downtown Cleveland.  Sure, a diversified portfolio is important, especially during a downturn, but the priority should continue to be development and renovation of clean, visually striking, sustainable Real Estate.

For this idea to become reality, there are a few things that have to happen.

1) People actually buying shares. Everyone is looking for an investment opportunity. This is a non-issue; people will buy in to this idea if the plan is strong enough.

2) Strong management. This is the most important part. Leadership needs to be experienced business people with a track record of Real Estate development success, and they need to be able to get 6 cents out of every nickel.

3) Support from City and State governments. Do not over regulate or add additional road blocks. That adds more cost and hurts the return on investment. If private investors are bringing the buildings and Real Estate development, the city still needs to create the incentives to bring Fortune 500 companies into Cleveland to set up HQ's. Make no mistake: the city, Real Estate professionals and finance experts all have to work together on this or it will fail. The only way to have success is if all 3 areas work together.

And, of course, action.

So, where do I begin? How do I make this a reality? My roadblock is this: I don't know where to begin. I can talk and write to people, but I don't know where it can truly begin. My hope is that someone reads this who at least knows where to connect the dots to help make this idea a reality. It's not my business to run and I don't have the funds to be a majority shareholder anyway, but you bet I'd throw the "real estate" portion of my investment portfolio into this. I want in. And I hope you would too.

It's something we all could gain from, both financially and in our quality of life in this region.

Maybe then we'll have the funding to truly invest in a bright, bustling Downtown without raising taxes, and being economically stimulating for all. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Raising Standards: Ideas for a Better Cleveland

Cleveland is a dying city.

I'm sure you've heard this statement before, and I'm sure the comeback statement mentions something about the Medical Mart, local food scene, East Bank Project and new Convention Center. The comeback statement may also mention a blog post from a random person who enjoyed their stay in Cleveland for a random time or two, or a post where Cleveland is on a "best of" list.

While all good things, there is a sad truth:

Despite these things, people are still leaving this area and high quality jobs are not coming back. The city is making progress...slow...S-L-O-W progress, and unfortunately slow progress is not enough to reverse the decay the city has faced over the last 15 years. From 2010 to 2012, Cleveland's population declined 1.5% (source: Census.gov). Companies continually ask their best and brightest "Are you willing to relocate?" rather than expand business in this area. What is scary to me is that many in this area celebrate these small victories as massive gains to the area's reputation. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We are celebrating the status quo, and the status quo is a decaying city, and it is impacting Cuyahoga County's and Lake County's populations as a whole (down 1.2% and .2% since between 2010 and 2012, respectively). At this rate, Cleveland is a city that will never host an Olympics, a city that will never host a Super Bowl, and a city that, while in the running for the 2016 Republican National Convention, probably will not host that either, along with many other economy-infusing events.
When I look around and evaluate with the most objective eyes possible, this is the most alarming thing I see on a consistent basis: We are the only city that needs to constantly remind ourselves that we are, indeed, happy. If you search Twitter, there is no #HappyInCBUS, #HappyInCHI, #HappyInNYC, #HappyInPHI, etc. hashtag. But #HappyInCLE is a nauseating display of self-reassurance. We get behind every half-baked promotional idea for our city, even when the idea itself is awful. Our city's newest slogan, "This is Cleveland" is the most recent example of this stupidity. An agency in Kansas City of all places was paid handsomely to come up with that? And a few people working for Positively Cleveland are paid handsomely to sign off on that? It's pathetic. It's sad. It's repackaging the status quo, which has been failing miserably over the last decade.

So, we cannot accept the status quo. The status quo is what got Cleveland into the mess that it's in. How do we dig ourselves out of it and create a vibrant area that those who grew up here are proud to call home, and those who grew up somewhere else desire to move to?

We have to get serious about a real reinvention for this area. We have to raise our standards out of love for the place we call home before more of our best and brightest leave. How do we do that? Here are some ideas.

(Disclaimer: I am not a politician, urban planner, tax specialist or CEO. My ideas do not have fine details factored in. That's for the professionals to figure out.)
1) Do whatever it takes to attract out-of-state companies to set up Corporate Headquarters in Cleveland.
Many view this as a slippery slope, similar to how sports franchises have raked cities over the coals for their stadiums, arenas and other facilities. Nevertheless, Cleveland needs to create "too good to refuse" offers to attract Fortune 500 companies to Downtown Cleveland. This will attract more out of market professionals to the area and will create more small business opportunities downtown. That means more of those restaurants we love so much, and more of those other small businesses we like to support. It will also help boost airline business. Does this sound desperate? Yes. This is a desperate move to get big business downtown. But desperate times call for bold moves.

2) Build beautiful buildings and areas that attract BHD*'s.
*BHD = Bright, Hungry, Driven. Likeminded people like to be around other likeminded people. San Francisco is the poster child of this concept. Charlotte is another city that has exploded in expansion due to attracting bright, hungry, driven people. Austin, Dallas and Atlanta also fall into this category. Celebrate the arts. Celebrate Playhouse Square, attract as many big events to that area as possible and attract other businesses to that area. Don't just build a giant chandelier and call it a day.

Dan Gilbert has discussed building beautiful buildings when talking about Detroit. Old, unused housing and buildings need to be torn down in favor of bright, new, clean, economically and commercially viable development. This not only matters for the downtown area, but the surrounding suburbs as well in order to create more convenient commutes and environments for professionals. This will reduce crime, clean up the area and free the environment of lead and asbestos.

Develop more co-op working spaces where small businesses and startups can rent a desk and work together on projects, without giving up their equity to be there (incubators are bad/predatory). There are a lot in Austin and Dallas, Texas, for example

Close up the distance between the medical district and downtown. Like actually do something with it, it’s Cleveland’s biggest waste of potential. Develop Real Estate and shopping down this strip in order to create a great environment that people actively seek to relocate to.

Public transportation needs to improve. Bring Lyft and Uber to Cleveland to promote downtown travel. I used Uber when I was in Atlanta back in September. It was expensive, but awesome.

Create pedestrian friendly paths with lighting and more security in the city. Turn more things into "green things" – for example, Dallas has Klyde Warren Park. Essentially, it's a submerged freeway and above it is a big green park in the middle of Dallas. Cleveland should use all of its space and create more public areas that are safe.

Lastly, CLEAN UP. More trash cans. Deep clean the pollution off of historic buildings that are still in use. Light up the city with bright, vibrant LED lights.

3) Leverage the medical industry AND the manufacturing industry to attract tech companies.
This sounds like a pie in the sky idea, right? Consider this: the integration of cellular radios and computer chips into medical equipment in the home will benefit doctors, consumers, and the companies behind those inventions. The one thing Cleveland has that is truly world class (aside from the orchestra and art museum) is its hospitals and medical industry. The Medical Mart is designed to attract medical device professionals to the area. Great! Let's take it further. Enhance our strengths and play off them to other areas where they can intertwine.

What does Cleveland have to offer tech companies?
-Possible data center locations, via the old warehouses that have gone unused for years. The future is cloud computing. Provide the data farms!
-A great location between New York and Chicago, just like in the past. (and something that has been discounted too much over the years)
-A major medical community whose influence over the rest of the medical field is quite impactful.
-While the winter weather is brutal, a city that is generally natural disaster-free.

4) Actually develop the Lakefront
This has been discussed ad nauseum, so I'll make it quick.
-Get rid of Burke Lakefront Airport. Reroute everything to Hopkins. The airport just wastes good Real Estate.
-Develop a top-shelf apartment complex or series of apartment complexes.
-Develop a housing development (for those who want to purchase Real Estate)
-Develop quality commercial Real Estate similar to Crocker Park, Legacy Village and Easton. Not only for shopping and dining but also to house more office space.

5) Create a College Culture
No one will confuse Cleveland with Columbus' bustling campus area. Nothing can replace hundreds of years of tradition in one of America's largest universities, but, there are two Universities located downtown. Let's build up that area and make it a destination for students to attend and stay. CSU and Case should be transformed into destination schools, NOT commuter schools (especially CSU).

We're all too familiar with Cleveland's downside, but the upside can be a lot more than a couple handfuls of good restaurants and the Cleveland Clinic.  We just have to take a look at the big picture and see what industries are emerging and take look at our established resources with fresh, objective eyes.


Don't celebrate the status quo. Raise your standards, Cleveland. We will be better for it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Wahoo Bucks Part 2: Offering Solutions with the Definitive Tribe Ticket Strategy

Well, this has certainly become quite the topic. (although based on my comment section you wouldn't know it)

From the moment I posted my most recent post on Indians' ticket policies, the discussion has been set ablaze, including a rebuttal/legitimate business case for the change in business model and numerous Twitter debates, including one that blew up on this day. Fans care about this topic and feel strongly one way or the other in regards to how the Indians are conducting their business, and it amazes me that this topic isn't explored more on sports radio in Cleveland. Instead, it's the same tired "WHY AREN'T YOU COMING TO THE BALLPARK?" rhetoric. In the end, this is all opinion, with evidence that supports opinion.

Let's be honest: the Indians are a private, for profit company whose ultimate goal is to maximize revenue and profit. I can respect that. Every business has the right to make money. However, there is one very important point to remember:

Jacobs Field is a publicly funded stadium built with taxpayer money. Because of this fact, along with the emotional attachment that comes with a sports franchise, the Indians have a responsibility to the public as well. In my opinion there are solutions that are fair to everyone involved. Also, the Indians face some harsh realities as outlined by this fantastic column.

So, to be fair (and because some told me to stop complaining), I had to ask myself "What if it was my business? Knowing that I'm a for-profit owner, yet still owe the public for my very existence and the facilities my company uses daily, how could I do what is fair for both me and the consumer?" and I came up with these solutions.

Here's the bottom line, in my opinion: Dynamic pricing is fine. In fact, it is good business to have dynamic pricing. I do have a problem with closing off the outfield sections of the upper deck under the reason of "All the upper deck seats are the same price" when the Indians fans are repeatedly called out  by the media and their own fans for poor attendance, when in fact the Indians themselves are not maximizing the attendance.

This tweet from @Isley23 says it best: 

So, instead of complaining about it, why not be constructive? Why not offer a solution that will continue to be profitable for the Indians and will appease the emotional shareholders known as the fans?  Here is my system for Indians ticket pricing:

- Dynamic Pricing remains. It only makes sense to charge more for big ticket series and if the economics support it, then by all means raise prices when the Yankees and Red Sox come to town, on weekends, on giveaways and promotions nights.

- That being said, all seats should be for sale, and the upper deck seats in the outfield should cost less than tickets sold behind home plate, and those upper deck outfield seats should be priced in-line with the cheapest bleacher seats that sell out quickly on a regular basis.

- Walk up tickets should not be hiked in price like they are currently. However, an "early bird discount" should be given to those who purchase a certain time period in advance. This should be public, rather than a surprise when trying to buy tickets on the day of a game. Say, 10% off when purchased a week in advance or something to that effect. (this would also encourage higher-priced tickets being purchased earlier, because $5 off of a $50 seat is better than $2 off of a $20 seat). Or, why not a progressive discount similar to our progressive taxation system in this country? 20% off a $50 and only 10% off for a $20 seat purchased in advance? Just thinking out loud. Either way, the Indians would encourage the purchase of tickets in advance, while enticing the consumer to purchase higher-priced tickets due to higher-priced discounts.

Sorry, Indians, you are not an airline. I don't HAVE to go to the ballpark like the airlines gouge me when I HAVE to get somewhere. You are in the entertainment business with 2 other Major Professional Entertainment businesses and several more Minor Professional Entertainment businesses that provide the same services in this market (and two of those Minor League teams are in more convenient locations for many and provide a similar experience for less).

- Bring back Student ID night, separate Dollar Dog Night and Fireworks nights from each other, and bring back the 3 Innings and Lunch deal for day games: By separating Dollar Dog Night and Fireworks Nights from each other, the Indians would have more promos to offer to draw fans to the park on a more consistent basis. I couldn't care less about hot dogs, but I love fireworks. Why not appeal to separate audiences rather than combine into one? Also, the "Loaded tickets" (money to buy food) were one of my favorite tickets to buy, even though I know the price of those tickets has food built into it. I still feel like I'm getting a nice deal (and at $15, those tickets really were a deal...even if they're $20 now, with $10 or even $5 to spend on food, it's a heck of a deal).

- Keep the current concession pricing. Really, it's not as nice of a deal as it's made out to be so it is still very profitable.

- From a marketing standpoint, do away with the #TribeTown campaign. All it does is cause controversy and infighting among Cleveland Sports fans. Plus, it's drawing a line in the sand in a debate you can't win.

So, breaking down the pricing, here's how it would work, and be fair to everyone:

Bleachers and Upper Deck along the outfields: $12-20 dynamically priced and based on rows (but the cheapest sections will not go above $15 for the foreseeable future). $20 ($10 worth of food) for loaded food tickets during Day Games (assume for this example the normal price would be $15 with no food loading).
Everything else: Current pricing. Maybe even a small ($2 or so) increase for behind home plate in the upper deck, thus creating a difference in price between behind home plate and along the infield baselines.

In my opinion this would be very fair. Why?

- More tickets would be sold. Point blank. In my opinion this system would create the optimal supply and demand curve to put as many butts in seats as possible. More fans  = more concessions, more merchandise sales, and possibly more return business.
- It encourages buying early, while not penalizing those who choose to walk up and buy their tickets on game day.
- It puts more people to work (concessions, stadium operations, security, etc). The Indians had the highest operating income in 2011 and I doubt their business model changed much in 2012 (source: Forbes).  If anything the Indians are even more well off with the sale of STO and the TV rights increase. By putting more people to work, it's reinvesting in the community and reinvesting in the economy. This is one of those "right thing to do" things, considering the public funds and more that go into the Jake, and the surrounding area every night.
- It creates a better customer experience. This may not provide the most short-term profit for the Indians, but long-term is where the dividends pay themselves. Younger crowds lacking disposable income will go to more games, and want to continue to go to games for life (and when they can afford to, they will purchase higher priced tickets OR bring their kids with them in the future). With more staffing, there's reduced wait times for concessions, better handling of larger crowds (which the Indians are horrible at currently) and more. A better customer experience means MORE RETURN BUSINESS.

So, that's all I have for that. I welcome the feedback (and of course the debates that will arise from this. However, I think this is very fair for everyone).

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Wahoo Bucks: How the Cleveland Indians Are Ripping You Off

Everyone complains about low attendance, but did you know the Indians are preventing you from buying lower-cost tickets?

Like clockwork in Cleveland for the past decade, Indians attendance always becomes a hot topic in the spring and summer months. In 3 of the last 4 years, the topic has especially become amplified.

For the past three years, the Indians have gotten off to hot starts. And every spring the rhetoric from many members of the local media (and fans) has been something similar to this:

"The Indians are in first place and the Browns suck! Why isn't anyone going to the games?" (ignoring that it's April and there are still 120 games to go)

In 2013, the Indians "opened up their pocket books," signing Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Michael Bourn and many other free agents. (Let's ignore the fact that Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore's contracts both came off the books and gave the Indians some money to spend. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt here.) The Indians also offered $4 beers (12 oz), $3 hot dogs, $2 soda refills and $1 dogs on Dollar Dog Night. Surely there is no reason to avoid Jacobs Field anymore, right? Right?

And again in 2013, attendance slumped. The rage and shaming from the local media has reached a fever pitch because once again the Indians were in first place in May and no one came to the ballpark. I, too, was shocked by the lack of attendance considering the Indians finally had some star power, were an exciting team, and seemed to have staying power too.

Then I went to buy a ticket and learned exactly why no one is going to The Jake:


This is the ticket chart for tonight's game vs the Minnesota Twins. The entire upper deck along the 3rd and 1st base lines along with right field are not for sale. These are the cheap seats. They have run anywhere from $8-15 in the past. They are NOT sold out. They are simply not for sale. The cheapest seats in the ballpark for tonight's game are $24.60, which is considerably more than that after taxes and fees.

This is not a one-time fluke. This ticket policy is a nightly occurrence for the Indians.

So, the Indians, after touting dollar dogs and $4 beers, have essentially jacked their ticket prices up 225% in one season. What once cost a family of four $32 (plus taxes, ticket fees, and parking) now costs almost $100. (over $100 after taxes, fees and parking. And let's not even get into those so-called "cheaper concessions").

Now, the Indians would probably respond by telling us that no one buys the $8 seats anyway. While true, lower cost seats were very popular among those of us who like to buy our tickets and meet our friends at the center field bar (and then spend $10/drink, thus more than making up the difference). Why would I pay $25+ for seats I'm likely not even going to sit in? Also, the cheap seats were popular among those who like to go to multiple games and support their team. With the new ticket policies, it is no longer economically feasible without spending four times more than previous seasons.

Now, it would be one thing if this was a regular occurrence around Major League Baseball. However, I researched the ticket prices and ticket availability among all MLB teams, especially the attendance challenged, and found startling revelations:

The Indians are the only team in MLB to have such a wacky ticket policy.

Of all the teams in MLB, here are some interesting statistics:

- The Indians and Marlins are the only teams that block off full sections from sale. However, the Marlins still offer $12 seats in a much newer and nicer ballpark compared to the 19 year old Jacobs Field.

- The Cubs and Red Sox are the only teams that have higher low-end ticket prices than the Indians. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park both are national landmarks in cities much larger than Cleveland, and Fenway has a much lower full capacity than Jacobs Field, creating a larger supply-demand curve for the Red Sox.

-Bleacher seats for Yankees games are $15-22, in the $1 billion open-in 2009 Yankee Stadium for a team with richer tradition and history of winning than the Indians, in a city with the highest cost of living in America. The cheapest bleacher seats for tonight's game at Jacobs Field against the Twins? $29.

-The Los Angeles Angels offer $7 upper deck seats. Los Angeles is another city with a high cost of living like New York.

-The St. Louis Cardinals (a midwest city similar to Cleveland) offer $5 seats on certain nights.

-Many other cities in MLB offer tickets in the $12-25 range and do not block off the sale of their lower-priced seats. 

So, the Indians can continue to hide behind the local media's shaming of their fanbase for not showing up to the ballpark, or fans can finally do their research, see the light, and see how the Indians are ripping them off once again. The bottom line is this:

-I'm a single male in my 20's with expendable income, no children and even I find this to be a ripoff. How does a family of four feel when they have to fork over four times the amount?
-I've been to several games this year and noticed the variety of concessions is lower this year than in the past. I can understand buying in bulk for lower prices, but aside from the hot dogs, beers and sodas, the prices aren't any lower, and many of my ballpark favorites are no longer offered. (BBQ pulled pork nachos being one of them)
-For the "Well the Browns suck and you still go see them!" crowd:
       -There are 8 Browns home games a year vs 81 for the Indians. I'm lucky if I go to 2 Browns games a year and would like to go to 10 Indians games a year, thus spending more on the Indians.
       -The Indians have lost 90+ games 3 of the last 4 years and have not had a winning season since 2007, same as the Browns. You're lying to yourself if you say they don't suck too.


In the end, it seems that the Dolans are still the Dolans. No wonder people don't come out to watch this team.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Breaking Terrible: Why Shurmur and Holmgren Have to Go

I can't believe I'm writing about this again, and despite what many might believe, I do NOT enjoy writing posts like this. I do NOT enjoy calling for the heads of those in charge of the football team I desperately want to love. I do NOT enjoy being negative. However, Pat Shurmur, Mike Holmgren, and to a lesser extent, Tom Heckert, have left me with no choice. It's time for them to go. Not at the end of the season, but not long after Jimmy Haslam steps into his office as the new owner of the Cleveland Browns next week.  This has been the worst run of football I have ever seen, and everything about the franchise, from the PR gaffes to the awful display of football on the field has come to this: the Browns aren't just Breaking Bad, they're Breaking Terrible.

(Photo used with permission from BitterOrangeandBrown.com)

The Beginning

It all started in October of 2010. The Cleveland Browns under head coach Eric Mangini and rookie QB Colt McCoy had just knocked off the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints and the always dominant New England Patriots in back to back victories. The following week, the Browns were a tragically-timed fumble away from beating the then-juggernaut New York Jets in overtime. The Browns were still a talent-starved franchise, but the improvement over the 2009 team was massive. This team and coaching staff was playing hard, playing physical, playing inspired football against even the top teams of the NFL despite being given 73 year old, over the hill, interception-prone Jake Delhomme, career-backup Seneca Wallace, and 3rd round rookie Colt McCoy as the team's quarterbacks. They were a QB and some speed away from becoming a truly good football team, likely about 1-2 seasons away depending on the QB.

Then, it all derailed when Browns President Mike Holmgren threw his head coach under the bus. I can't find the exact quote, but I know it was something along the lines of "I don't know how he's winning, and it defies all logic to me, but it needs to continue for Mangini to keep his job." Long story short he was vaguely saying he wasn't buying in yet to the obvious progress the 2010 Browns had made. The train slowly derailed after that (after all, human beings know what a vote of "no confidence" looks like). The Browns went on a losing streak and finished the season 5-11. It wasn't good enough for Coach Mangini to keep his job, and he was unceremoniously fired. The verdict on Mangini purely as a head coach is up for debate, but the Browns were noticeably improved, seemingly on the right track and the train got derailed.

Enter the Shurmurnator

When Mangini was fired, it was very clearly stated by Mike Holmgren that 5-11 against one of the NFL's toughest schedules was not enough progress for Mangini to keep his job. I didn't like it, but I understood it. I understand someone wanting to bring in their own guy to coach the team. Enter Pat Shurmur. Like any new head coach, I was willing to give Pat the benefit of the doubt, but several things didn't sit well with me (call it a "gut feeling", if you want)...

1) Shurmur's track record as a coordinator: I made excuses for it at the time trying to find the positives, but Shurmur's track record as an offensive coordinator was a disaster. There were reasons why (terrible offensive line play his first year, rookie QB his second year), but Shurmur's resume did not say "head coaching material." However, in recent history, the most obvious candidate has rarely been the "best" candidate, so I foolishly wrote off this as a reason to be concerned.

2) Shurmur ran the "purest form" of the West Coast Offense: When I heard this my concern grew even deeper. Shurmur stated he's not a "trick play" guy, as well. Here's my problem with this: a) while you don't want to run trick plays constantly, the threat of a trick play is usually good for a critical touchdown once every 3-4 games if you set it up right. b) the best offensive weapon at the time was Josh Cribbs from the wildcat formation. By removing the wildcat and the threat of trick plays, Shurmur essentially took his best offensive weapon away. Also, by 2011, offenses in the NFL were evolving. The West Coast Offense was on its last legs when Holmgren was finishing up his coaching career, and come 2011, the WCO looked so antiquated that national columnists were stating that Shurmur's scheme was horribly outdated.

3) Shurmur's agent is Bob LaMonte: At the time it was viewed as "nitpicking" to be concerned that Shurmur's agent was the same agent that Mike Holmgren had a personal friendship with, but it was troubling that Holmgren seemingly narrowed his list to LaMonte clients instead of trying to find the best candidate available.

(Note: While this can be viewed as nitpicky, one must realize that LaMonte's influence further spread in Berea with the hiring of Brad Childress as Offensive Coordinator in 2012. Also, LaMonte clients have shown up in other areas of the franchise. It's not a stretch of the truth to think that Holmgren was trying to take care of "his guys," whether they were the most qualified coaches or not.)

4) Shurmur's uncle was on Holmgren's staff: This can also be viewed as nitpicking, but one can't ignore that Shurmur's relationship with Holmgren gave him an inside track to the Browns job. While it's not nepotism by the true definition, it's not out of the realm of reality that Holmgren had an affectionate eye for Shurmur and wanted to give him a chance even though he was probably not the most qualified candidate for the job. (in fact, based on Pat's (lack of) performance, the speculation grows truer everyday).

The Result

2011 happened. The Browns went 4-12 (worse than the previous year) against what was considered one of the softest schedules in the league. The Browns lost their offensive identity as a ground and pound, physical franchise. The gameplans were unimaginative and Shurmur NEVER ONCE outcoached another head coach. In fact, Shurmur was caught with his pants down (similar to the title photo) more than once in 2011. The Raiders scored a touchdown on a successful fake field goal attempt, catching the Browns asleep at the wheel. This isn't even touching the Alex Smith blunder (which, when explained, was the single worst head coaching decision I have ever heard of). National pundits said the Browns offense was so predictable that opposing defenses knew plays based on the formation and tendencies through film study and 25 years of West Coast Offense knowledge.

Shurmur was responsible for several coaching blunders during the season that were Romeo Crennel-esque. Clock management and personnel decisions were terrible, and the playcalling was as bad as ever. Granted, he didn't have help because his QB was terrible and his team was young, but I left every game thinking that better coaching would have won at least a couple more games.

Then, Mike Holmgren became defiant and made excuses for his team. "If we just made that field goal and had a couple mistakes go our way we'd be much better." and "Don't call me for playoff tickets."

It bottomed out with the Colt McCoy Concussion Conundrum, where Colt was KNOCKED OUT and inexplicably went back into the game. We heard the reasons why he went back into the game (Colt complained about his wrist and appeared to be fine mentally) but anyone who is AT ALL aware of what was happening on-field knows that Colt was likely concussed. Shurmur's blatant disregard of the situation, if anything, showed his lack of awareness of what's going on the field. It was abundantly clear to me: the game moves too fast for Shurmur as a coach.

The Excuses

The excuses began for Pat Shurmur: 1) The Lockout 2) Peyton Hillis' Ricky Vaughn-like (Major League 2 version) emotional state 3) The QB (an excuse I believe was the most valid of all) 4) The young roster and lack of weapons. While these points were not excuses for Shurmur's horrendous in-game decisions and poor play calling, they were still valid.

And, like a fool who always gets back together with his or her manipulative, poisonous ex, I was starting to buy in and give Shurmur the benefit of the doubt once again. Drafting Trent Richardson made me excited at the idea of becoming a ground and pound physical football team again, and drafting Brandon Weeden validated many of my thoughts about inferior QB play holding back the Browns. I was starting to believe again. I thought an improved ballclub was inevitable based on offensive improvement alone, and most of all, Shurmur looked and sounded like a different person knowing he had new toys to play with on offense.

The Present

I was wrong. I visited training camp twice in August and, while impressed at how fast paced and efficient the practices were, I was alarmed by the lack of physicality of practices. I was alarmed by how Shurmur wasn't giving his rookie QB the proper repetitions to be ready for the home opener against Philadelphia.

After a 12-35, 4 INT performance against the Eagles, Weeden was clearly ill prepared for the opener. No one in their right mind expects a rookie QB to torch a stacked secondary in his NFL debut, but no one expected it to be THIS bad. And the coaching staff was to blame for not giving him the proper repetitions in the preseason.

Weeden has improved considerably since that game, but he's still a rookie that makes rookie mistakes and rookie throws. And he's a rookie that the coaching staff is not treating like a rookie. Consider this: Brandon Weeden is throwing an astounding 40.4 times a game. A rookie QB is throwing 40 times a game even though the #3 overall pick in the draft is running very, VERY well, and is clearly the strength of the offense. It's inexcusable and defies all logic on how to coach up a young QB. Rookie QB's need to be brought along slowly. It doesn't matter if Weeden is 28 or 21, he's still an infant in NFL years. No one is saying Weeden should be throwing 15 times a game like Roethlisberger and Flacco did in their rookie seasons, but he shouldn't be throwing more than he has to, or put in situations where he's set up to fail. A good coach will try to minimize his rookie QB's mistakes unless the situation calls for it (aka down by 21 and are forced to throw to get back into the game).

Most of all, Shurmur isn't adapting his gameplans to his personnel. Weeden is receiving a crash course in NFL offense and facing NFL defenses while Shurmur and Childress are not accentuating his strengths. Weeden is best from a shotgun formation making sight adjustments at the line of scrimmage and operating the offense in a fast-paced, no-huddle environment. It's similar to what the Panthers did with Cam Newton last season, the Patriots adapting their offense to the new age and how Mike Shanahan is adapting his West Coast Offensive philosophy to accentuate fellow rookie QB Robert Griffin III's strengths. The bottom line is this: the gameplans are as horrible as last season, but the execution is better because Weeden is throwing down the field more often. The team is every bit as mistake-prone as last season if not moreso, and as a head coach, Pat Shurmur is as lost as he was last season, and if anything, the pressure of losing is getting to him.

The Meltdown

A sign of a good head coach is how he handles adversity, because adversity occurs during every game and every point during a season. Shurmur hasn't handled adversity well in-game based on how the wheels fall off every time something goes wrong, and how he abandons the run when down by as little as 7 points.

Now, Shurmur is attacking the Cleveland media, cursing out respected former Browns head coaches, AP writers (whose jobs are literally only to write the facts, not stir the pot), and leaving creepy voicemails to Browns beat writers. The behavior is similar to that of a psychotic ex and is a serious character flaw for someone whose job is to ignore the media and try to win football games. While head coaches are not the President of the United States, they are expected to be Presidential in front of the media and in front of the ball club. Good coaches stay level-headed in the face of criticism and adversity. It's part of the job. After all, what if Shurmur spent the energy he's spending on fighting the media on his gameplans? They most certainly need it.

And that leaves me to this thought: don't good head coaches ignore the criticism and soldier on? Why is Shurmur so sensitive to (justified) media criticism?

It's simple: he's in over his head. He's not head coaching material and needs to be fired as soon as possible. Near-nepotism put him in this position, and the person who put him in charge (who is equally as sensitive to media criticism) needs to be sent packing as well.

The Aftermath

The aftermath remains to be seen, but the wreckage in Berea is piling up. Jimmy Haslam takes over ownership of the franchise next week, and while I don't expect him to act swiftly, I expect him to act decisively. I have never seen a coaching staff and regime as bad as the Holmgren Era.

Get these guys out of here, Jimmy. Blow this up. They've done enough damage to my Browns fandom and the fandom of many in this city.

We've been lathered up again, now it's time to rinse ourselves clean of this mess, and, this time, hopefully not repeat.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Unofficial Post-College Handbook

(Before I begin, I want to make a disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor or a life professional. I'm a regular guy who is going through the process of buying a home. I'm merely giving my opinions on what you should do to avoid mistakes upon graduation from college.)

Pour out the stale beer from the 3/4 drank cans all over your living room and return the kegs to the store, kids; it's time to graduate. While I'm sure you're reading a plethora of "professional advice" columns telling you how to act professional in interviews, to delete all your college photos from Facebook and to tweet professionally on Twitter, I'm going to give you some words of wisdom: You can still have fun after college. Most of your co-workers are just like you, despite what the so-called "be professional" types say. ESPECIALLY if they're unmarried and sans children. You will grow up naturally when you realize your body just can't go like it did in college, and when you realize you have to focus on your job every single day you walk through those doors.

Upon graduation you will realize you have two options: live life to the fullest, or plan ahead. I chose to plan ahead and the advice in this post follows that philosophy. I'm not saying my way is right or wrong, I'm merely giving my opinion as to what I think is a reasonable course of action. Here's why I think planning ahead is so important: You may not realize it now, but when you apply for a home loan, banks will meticulously analyze your entire history for the previous two years of your life. And in today's banking market, it is ridiculously, RIDICULOUSLY hard to get approved for a home loan because the bank simply will not let you buy beyond your means anymore. Therefore, the first two years out of college are the most important. If you want the dream of homeownership and stability as soon as possible, I highly recommend following these steps.

Rule #1: Live at Home After College, If Possible


This is everything you did not want to hear, but it's true: stay there as long as you can stand it. Now, there is a reasonable expiration date (no one wants to be late-30's "oh I live with my ma" guy), but it is the wisest, and smartest move to live at home until you get your financial mess in order. Use this time to pay down your student loans and set yourself up for the future. You WILL thank yourself 5 years down the road.

I've lived with my parents for two and a half years after college. In that time I have been asked "Why?" a million times and have seen many a friend who didn't move out of the city move to fun places in Cleveland. Now I can definitively answer why I stayed home: in that time I have bought a nice car, paid off the loan for that nice car AND saved up for a down payment on a mortgage for a house without needing to purchase Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).  Now, some of you can't live with your parents for a multitude of reasons. I understand that and that's ok, to each their own. But if you can stand it, and work close enough to home to do it, I strongly recommend it.

Rule #2: Find a Reputable Company to Work For

This part is easier said than done, and my advice comes from my own mistakes. Without getting into detail (and I have my reasons why), I took the first job I was offered out of college for a company with a less than stellar reputation in the Cleveland Ad Agency field, and that decision came back to bite me. Because of that decision, it is hurting my chances to get my loan approved (but it will happen, rest assured). You want to work for a company with a known reputation of excellence in the city you work. I can't begin to tell you how many times I told fellow ad agency professionals "Oh, I work at ______" and their response was either a blank stare or "Who? Where?" That hurt my job search when the inevitable screwjob from the company occurred. Fortunately for me, everything worked out in a new career path, but I will never forget the lowest of lows. 

Trust me: find the right company, not the first company. Your life and your finances will be far more stable.

EDIT: I can't believe I forgot this, but remember this: Do not, DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT marry yourself to your company via social media unless it's for LinkedIn (a network that's supposed to be professional). You may be excited that you've been chosen by your company for your first job, and you may love your job at first, but let the shine wear off and you'll wish you didn't. And if you work for a big company, even more of a reason not to link your social media accounts to your jobs. I married myself to my first job and it was one of the biggest mistakes I made when it was time to change careers. You may or may not leave on the best of terms.

Rule #3: Car First, House Later
While most people would think the next logical step post-college would be to save up to move out, I disagree. Why? If you're like most college students, you're driving a ticking time bomb that is turning into a money pit of repairs and headaches. This may sound like crazy talk to those of you who can't wait to move out of your parents' basement, but it will save you hundreds in headaches and repairs later: buy a newer car first. You can choose brand new or lightly used, but I don't recommend an older car because you will find yourself in the same situation all over again in a few short years. Another reason to purchase a car? It helps build your credit rating for that house you want. Assuming you make the payments, of course. Don't buy anything stupid or beyond your means. You aren't ready yet for the brand new Bimmer. Buy something safe and fuel efficient and affordable to repair, and if you're into it, a hint of sport. (That's why I chose the Ford Fusion)Then, once your car is paid off and you can finally afford that house, you have a car that you won't have to worry about for at least 5 years. With regular maintenance, of course.Rule #4: Save for the 20%-25% Down Payment
This is going to take some financial discipline on your part, but you will thank yourself in the long run. Yes, you CAN buy a house with a small down payment. Just because you CAN, doesn't mean you SHOULD, especially in this housing market where loans are hard to come by. If you buy a home and put down less than 20%, you have to buy what's called Private Mortgage Insurance, or PMI. This is costly in the long run. Plus, your monthly payment will be so much higher by putting less down that you're probably stretching yourself too thin anyway. You will save several thousand dollars, and will have a much more manageable monthly payment if you simply bite the bullet and keep saving until the time is right, unless you see a situation simply too good to pass up.
Rule #5: HAVE FUNNow that I've scared you, it's time for a GOOD reality check: post college is not all doom and gloom. While you will look back on a few years ago and ask yourself "When did I become boring?" the truth is you haven't. You and your friends still do the same crazy things you did in college, just in more sophisticated locations. Many of your new co-workers are just like you, especially if they're without kids. They like to go out, have fun, and be young, even if they're a few years older. Despite what the "professional advice" columns say, you don't have to make your Facebook squeaky clean and you can keep being the same person you were before in social media (DISCLAIMER: Unless you're an idiot who posts about clearly illegal, offensive or unethical things, or your social media accounts are for professional purposes) The whole key is to be smart about it and have balance.  The decisions you make now are the most important when it comes to setting up your 30's and 40's. BUILD A SOLID FOUNDATION FIRST, and not only will you be better off in the long run, but you will be prepared in case a rainy day comes.
Enjoy your new adulthood! It's not as bad as you fear.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Curious Case of Mike Holmgren

There's a group of people who I interact with (real life friends and social media acquaintances) who just don't understand why I'm so concerned about the current Browns regime.

Call me a hater, Mangini's #1 fan, an idiot, a moron, someone lacking football sense all you want.  The fact is I have some very deep concerns that are football related, and if you want to listen and open up your mind, you will understand that my arguments are strongly based in logic. Where do we begin?

-Rewind to 2009: Eric Mangini just led the Browns to 4 wins in a row. Mike Holmgren comes in and decides to retain Mangini.  Seems like a good move at the time. Hell, I agreed with the move. However, here's where the train starts taking the wrong turn...

2010 Offseason: Holmgren tells Mangini and the media that he wants to win now (or what the current trend of what mostly girls like to say: "RIGHT MEOW!!!!!!!!"). By doing so, the Browns sign Scott Fujita (a great locker room guy and solid player, but not an impact guy), Chris Gocong (see: Fujita, Scott for description), trade for Peyton Hillis (smart for 2010), and sign over the hill turnover machine Jake Delhomme and solid career backup Seneca Wallace.

Now, all these vets serve a purpose, even Delhomme. However, this purpose has absolutely nothing to do with "winning now." These are locker room guys who are meant to provide adequate production, and in the case of Delhomme he's a veteran meant to teach a young guy how to play the position of QB. In no way would any rational mind think these guys are impact players meant to fulfill Holmgren's mandate of "winning now."

The 2010 Draft was solid despite the gambles on Montario Hardesty and Colt McCoy. This draft is still panning out, and for all we know Hardesty can show us something next year being a full year removed from the ACL tear. However, to expect your impact players to come from a single draft and to make an impact as rookies is once again irrational and does not fulfill Holmgren's mandate of "winning now."

So here we are going into the 2010 season with a roster void of impact players and lacking a true starting QB option, and the coach has a Team President-mandate to win now. It just so happens that the schedule is the toughest in the NFL, too.

Is this really fair to Mangini?  Not at all, but I trusted that Holmgren was a rational thinker: that this is year two of a massive rebuilding project, and year one of said rebuilding project with a true General Manager at the helm. Of course Mangini wasn't truly expected to win now, was he? He wasn't going to make Mangini the fall guy for a subpar roster so he didn't look bad...was he?


2010 Regular Season:

The Browns were clearly undermanned week in and week out, but somewhere along the line established an identity: they ran the football down your throat with a punishing running game and played generally solid defense. The run defense was massively improved compared to years past, and Rob Ryan's schematic vision was finally starting to be seen by the masses: Browns fans were starting to envision just what this exotic defense would look like with TRUE playmakers on defense. The Special Teams were once again spectacular.

However, Jake Delhomme was not playing well even before his ankle injury. Seneca Wallace still played like a backup QB. Then Seneca got hurt and the focus moved to Colt McCoy.  Colt was impressive in his first start against the Steelers, decent against the Saints (truthfully, the defense won that game), and sensational against the Patriots.  The Browns worked their way up to 3-5, going 3-2 in the last 5 games...but even before that, fans could see just how close to victory the Browns were against truly tough teams (Bucs, Chiefs and Falcons come to mind).  In many cases, coaching got them close, but fumbles and other non-coaching related blunders kept the Browns from victory.

The Browns had momentum going into the Jets game, which in my opinion was the turning point of the 2010 season. It was Coach Mangini's old team, with many of the players he coached up, vs. his new team. It was Colt McCoy's most impressive game, in fact, I truly thought the game tying drive signaled his arrival to the NFL. The Browns got within field goal range but a Chansi Stuckey fumble in overtime signaled the end.

It was downhill from there. Scott Fujita was injured in the game and ruled out for the season after that. This was a major injury because Fujita was a major reason behind the improvement of the run defense. Without Fujita, the defense devolved back to the shoddy run defenses of years past.

Colt McCoy was hurt in the following game, and a (now healthy) Jake Delhomme squeaked out a couple wins despite looking like he was driving an out of control car ready to crash it at any second.

However, when Colt came back, he wasn't the same Colt we saw from before. He suddenly looked like a rookie...defenses had finally figured out how to game plan against him and he was ineffective. By this point, rumblings of Mangini's job security had shaken Berea, and Mangini lost the locker room.

Until the wheels fell off on the season and questions about Mangini's job security became apparent, we could say this about the Browns: they were an undermanned yet physical football team. The Browns may not win, but the next morning, you KNEW you played the Cleveland Browns the day before. The team was well-prepared and well-coached every week.

And then, despite a roster devoid of playmakers, a merry go round at the QB position, and the toughest schedule in the league, Mangini was fired.

At that point, I knew deep in my heart: Mangini was set up to fail, set up to be the fall guy for a roster that wasn't ready to compete yet. That doesn't sit well with me because it shows a lack of integrity by those who put him in that position. And that comes squarely at the top. They were supposed to have his back and they didn't. Ever get sold out by your superiors at your job? I have (not at my current job, I love my current job).  It's not a fun feeling.

The blame game began: Brian Daboll's offense was archaic, I'm bringing in someone to run MY offense, this was Mangini's hand picked roster to win it all (the most laughable argument I've ever heard but people bring it up all the time when slamming the guy), etc.

Then it happened: the Browns hired Pat Shurmur. Shurmur's resume did not read of someone qualified to be an NFL head coach, however I sold myself because of Holmgren and Heckert's familiarity with him. I thought maybe the anonymous guy could be the guy to bring us out of the doldrums.

It made sense because it was a perfect storm: Holmgren's hand-picked coach takes over a roster in Year Two of Heckert's rebuilding process with year two of a QB who showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie year (but also showed some serious warning signs, which I'll get to in a minute) going against a much softer schedule than Mangini faced in 2010. Shurmur was set up for success!

Except it didn't happen. Shurmur's offense makes Daboll's look like the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in comparison. Shurmur undid everything Mangini established with the physical running game and strong special teams. And worst of all: the team is ill-prepared week in and week out. It was apparent Week One against the Bengals when the defense was asleep at the wheel when AJ Green went streaking past everyone to give up the game-clinching TD. Special Teams gaffes have killed the Browns this season. Poor preparation (asleep at the wheel for hurry up offenses, fake field goals, etc) has killed the Browns this season. Most of all, Shurmur doesn't come off as a strong leader: he comes off more like Holmgren's puppet than anything else.

Most of all, we saw the warning signs from Colt McCoy in December of 2010, and Holmgren decided to stick with Colt in 2011 without providing any competition. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I have seen this script before with Charlie Frye in 2006. It did not end well.

What really sticks in my craw this season?  The excuses: Colt is a "rookie QB" (no he isn't), The Browns HAD to get younger this season (if that's the case then why the hell didn't we get younger last season?), this is "year two of year one" (again, NO IT IS NOT!!!!!!), the lockout (Jim Harbaugh isn't hurting from it).

Here's the bottom line: Mangini may have not been the best coach on the planet, and no one is saying that he is, but if you're going to replace him after setting him up to fail, you better replace him with someone who looks like a genius by comparison.


I can accept the argument than Mangini was not the guy to lead us to the promised land (but I'll also argue he's been dealt awful hands by both teams he's worked for), but I can't accept that one year after being given a mandate to "win now," suddenly the Browns are making excuses for their new coach because he's their hand-picked guy. Something reeks like bad fish about it. It shows a lack of integrity.

Given everything we have seen this season that has shown ill-preparedness, aloofness and arrogance by the coaching staff, how can we expect a bright future? What makes this front office think that Pat Shurmur is a great coach who will be here for a long time aside from the President's ego?

Don't forget: the buck stops at your desk, Mike Holmgren. Your move.