After nearly 120 years of calling Cleveland home, there were doubts about where the Indians would be next season. Destinations like Nashville or Charlotte were rumored options for the Indians, whose lease with Progressive Field expires in 2023, if the team was unable to remain in Cleveland. Thankfully, the Athletic learned (subscription required) that team executive Paul Dolan has emphatically said that the team will not be leaving the shores of Lake Erie.
The plan, for now, is for the team to re-up their lease with Progressive Field and continue carrying on business as usual. But, it won't be as the Indians. After 106 years, the Cleveland baseball team will go by a new nickname after internal discussions about finally straying away from the racist nickname and identity Indians carries with it.
According to sources, the organization is strongly considering Spiders, Blues, Guardians, and Naps as possible names in their rebranding. Three of the four (Spiders, Blues, Naps) have connections to the organization through the city's baseball history. Guardians, meanwhile, is inspired by the Guardians of Traffic that are carved into the columns of the Hope Memorial Bridge. More than anything, they want to get everything right to ensure that they don't alienate their existing fanbase all while having an identity that doesn't mock and produce racist caricatures of indigenous peoples.
There's still plenty of time until that happens and the team likely won't reveal their new identity until this winter. But, more drastic changes are soon approaching for the Cleveland Baseball Club. The organization seems to be moving towards changes at the top, according to the same report from The Athletic, with Dolan showing interest in bringing on a new minority investor in the organization. At least one candidate has emerged: Stanley Middleman, the founder and CEO of New Jersey-based Freedom Mortgage, one of the nation’s largest FHA and VA lenders. Middleman, 67, has discussed purchasing a minority share in the Indians, several sources with knowledge of the talks told The Athletic.
The stake previously belonging to businessman John Sherman, who owned nearly 30 percent of the team, and it now remains in escrow. Sherman purchased a minority interest in the Indians in 2016, with the deal including a path to majority ownership over a period of time left to Dolan’s discretion. A similar arrangement could be reached with Middleman or any other prospective investor. Sherman’s hometown Kansas City Royals became available in 2019, driving him to pivot and leaving all parties involved to hunt for his replacement.
This uncertainty at the top goes hand in hand with where the Indians currently stand financially. The organization maintains the stance that the team operates in the red on an annual basis and the major hit it took from the pandemic from the lack of in-game revenue set them back even further. There is a fear that the City of Cleveland cannot maintain its status as a three-sport market. With the Browns not going anywhere for a second time and the Cavaliers having a boost from the NBA's salary cap and television revenue deals, it leaves the Indians looking vulnerable.
Thankfully, the infusion of cash from the extended lease with Progressive Field and hopefully bringing on Middleman as a minority owner helps Cleveland right now. But, it doesn't help them much down the road at all. Something needs to change in order for the organization to not face these same questions they're dealing with right now.
All signs once again point to the Dolan family.
The Dolans are the longest-tenured owners in the history of the franchise and have owned the team since 1999 when they bought them for $323 million after a failed attempt to purchase the Browns. Today, the franchise is estimated to be valued at $1.16 billion according to Forbes which ranks them at twenty-fifth overall. Cleveland ownership runs the Indians as a business, and they claim their annual balance sheet typically involves losses in the tens of millions. While cash infusions from minority owners like Sherman and Middleman help but they aren't permanent fixes.
That's why lease extensions like the organization is negotiating with Gateway Corp., Progressive Field's operator, are so important. But, those negotiations could run into issues this fall. A new Cleveland mayor will be elected in four months since Frank Jackson is not seeking a fifth term, while 15 of the 17 City Council seats face opposition this fall. Negotiators are concerned about how the political uncertainty could delay any deal getting approved by city legislators.
There's also the issue that the Indians cannot ask city or county legislators for a new ballpark as well. Progressive Field is well-known for its vast amenities and features but is the twelfth-oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball. With teams like the Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, and Miami Marlins getting brand new state-of-the-art stadiums, and in turn, making even more money, it would make sense for the Indians organization to ask for a new home. But, the city just doesn't have the real estate, or the money, to make that happen for the Indians. That's why the lease extension negotiations are so vital for the team's future in Cleveland.
There has been no indication that lease negotiations have fueled ultimatums or threats of relocation, as was the case with the Indians in 1990 and the Browns a few years later. After Art Modell uprooted Cleveland’s football team and planted it in Baltimore, the state of Ohio enacted the “Modell Law” in June 1996, which complicates the process of moving a franchise. A team receiving taxpayer support cannot relocate without permission from its home city or without granting at least six months’ notice to allow anyone an opportunity to purchase the team and prevent it from moving. That mandate helped to keep the Columbus Crew from moving in 2018 and would prevent the Indians from moving as well.
That's why despite Dolan emphatically stating the Indians won't be leaving Cleveland, it can naturally cause some concern with so much uncertainty surrounding things. As long as there isn't any legal red tape, the organization’s plan to extend the lease and secure a minority investor would pave the way for the team with its new name to remain in Cleveland through 2023 and beyond.