Cleveland: A Sports Town
The foundation of super-fandom in The Land
By Adam Sockel and Heather Tunstall
People who are into sports know Cleveland. If not for its legends, definitely for its often rabid fans and sports-centric mentality.
But for a time, Cleveland sports had been synonymous with heartbreak and sorrow. Do a cursory Google search of "Cleveland sports history" and the first thing you'll see is a Wikipedia page about the "Cleveland Sports Curse." In June of 2016, the Cavaliers put an end to the so-called curse by bringing the city its first professional sports championship in more than half a century.
But even if they hadn't succeeded in bringing a trophy to Northeast Ohio, Cleveland sports would not be defined by outside opinions stating that this is a town of close calls and just-misses.
Cleveland is, simply put, one of the best sports cities in the country.
Despite being a mid-sized market, Cleveland ranks among the few cities in the United States to boast a team in three of the four major professional sports. And in addition to major league baseball, basketball and football teams, we also have a minor league hockey team, an indoor soccer team and an arena football team, all of which have strong support.
So the question is, why? Why is Cleveland such a sports-centric town? What makes Clevelanders some of the most passionate fans in the world?
We're glad you asked.
The back story
When people think of Cleveland sports history, they may think of The Drive, The Fumble, and The Shot (the Michael Jordon version). They may recall that each of the major sports teams have had their own take on a devastating move over the decades: starting with the Curse of Rocky Colavito (Indians), punctuated by Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore, and then the ever-so-famous Decision (LeBron James leaving for Miami).
But true Cleveland sports history is so much more than these moments.
It's Jesse Owens showing the world what's up and paving the way for others to shine. It's Jim Brown being widely considered the best all around athlete of all time. It's Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau solidifying themselves as legends. It's the Browns beating the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the 1964 NFL championships as such massive underdogs that Sports Illustrated reportedly had to scramble to find a picture of a Browns player to put on the cover.
It's the "no matter what, we roll up our sleeves and live to fight another day" attitude that permeates the city in all things.
The big three
Baseball has been the cornerstone of Cleveland sports fandom, with a professional team first making its debut in 1869. The overeager throngs that consider Opening Day a Cleveland holiday can be traced back to 1915, when Brookside Park (in what's now the Old Brooklyn neighborhood) hosted an estimated 115,000 people, considered to be the largest crowd ever assembled for an amateur sporting event, for a National Amateur Baseball Association tournament.
It carried through to the famed Cleveland Municipal Stadium, with its 78,000-seat capacity--the largest outdoor stadium in the world at the time--hosting World Series games in 1948 and 1954. Around that same time, Larry Doby helped to break the color barrier in baseball with the Indians as the second African American player and manager in the Major Leagues.
We saw it again in the mid-90s, and then again in 2016, as the Indians brought Cleveland to three more World Series. While the championship hasn't come back just yet, the boys of summer keep Cleveland baseball fans at fever pitch.
The Browns are a little more complicated. They came out of the gate in 1945 already a strong team (to say the least). They had a dominant four-year run as the All-American Football Conference's champion from 1946-49. And when the AAFC went under in '49, the Browns moved to the NFL and won their first championship there. They took the title again in '54, '55 and '64. The Browns did something no North American major professional sports team has ever done: played in their league championship game in each of the first 10 years of the team's existence.
So, there's the foundation for the Browns' passionate fan base. Those first 10 years set the stage for what is now considered to be one of the largest organized fan clubs in all of professional sports: The Browns Backers.
After that, the team hasn't seen another championship. They did, however, make it to the playoffs 14 times between 1965-95, keeping Cleveland fans on their toes and launching the Cleveland mantra of "There's always next year."
Then came the giant punch in the gut. Then-owner of the Browns Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. Cleveland was without their beloved football team for the 1996-99 seasons. But there was a silver lining that made the cut a little less deep: A deal was struck giving the city an expansion team that kept the Browns' name, colors and history with Cleveland, and play resumed in Cleveland in 1999.
The Browns have noticeably struggled in the new millennium, but their fan base remains engaged and loyal. And the tailgating is pretty epic.
Then there's basketball, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though it's a relatively "new" sport to Cleveland (with the city only having a professional team since 1970), it's responsible for bringing perhaps one of the most dramatic stories and legends to the town. This of course is the hometown hero LeBron James and his rise, departure, return and ultimate triumph in the Forest City.
But before LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, there were Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance. Before them? Austin Carr, Lenny Wilkins and Campy Russel. Magic moments like the "Miracle at Richfield" as the Cavs beat the Washington Bullets in 1976 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals are known to fans who weren't even alive yet to witness it.
And then came the first championship Cleveland had seen since the year the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" topped the charts. In true Cleveland style, the underdog Cavs fought tooth and nail back from a 3-1 deficit to the Golden State Warriors for the NBA title in 2016.
How happy were the fans? Um, well, nearly 1.5 million people showed up in person to lose their collective minds in celebration during the victory parade.
Part of the reason that Cleveland is such a diehard sports community has to do with, until recently, not a lot of people moving to Cleveland. That means when you meet a Clevelander, they likely came from a family of several generations of folks who have spent their lives cheering on our teams.
Something else you'll find is excitement to share in the momentum Cleveland is currently enjoying. We're home to the World Champion Cavaliers, the American League champion Indians, the Calder Cup champion Monsters, and defending UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic.
But you won't find a smugness among our fans. The spotlights shining on Cleveland are seeing the positivity of our city and our people, and that's what you'll experience when coming to the shores of Lake Erie.
Our rich sports history and passionate fan base creates a game-day atmosphere unlike any other around. Even if you're not a fan of the teams themselves, you'll be a fan of the environment (and the pre- and post-game revelry).