Cleveland bleeds brown and orange, that we know. Yet the kinship of North Coast football fandom truly stretches across the globe, uniting fans both near and far in their love for the city and the game.
The Browns have one of the largest organized fanbases in all of professional sports, one playoff appearance since the franchise's resurrection in 1999 be damned. According to Browns Backers Worldwide
(BBW), an international network of clubs supported by the organization, the team has 387 officially chartered chapters, boasting about 90,000 members all told. There are Browns fans in Norway, Spain and Australia. There's even a group nestled amid the icy reaches of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
It's a vast pigskin-loving Cleveland diaspora out there, one that's found something to cheer about this season thanks to a solid, competitive Browns team making a long-overdue playoff push. The franchise's revitalization runs parallel with a proud city working hard to change its reputation, and Cleveland’s emigrants find this link just as important as carrying on the tradition and memories of their favorite football team.
Making a Cleveland connection
Red Ivy Chicago
was home to a confetti-strewn celebration during a late November Browns victory over Atlanta. Found footage
of the occasion displayed a crowd of Cleveland-clad crazies barking and cheering in response to the last-second win, a moment that Jake Wilkoff wouldn't mind seeing replicated every fall Sunday.
Browns Backers 'board of directors' in Chicago
Wilkoff, 33, is president of the Chi-Town Dawg Pound
, a backers club in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood that draws upwards of 300 C-town expats weekly. On game days, the Chagrin Falls native plays the good host, greeting new members or giving away Browns memorabilia supplied by the organization.
The Chicago group has been affiliated with the team for two years, operating across the street from a club that’s been around since the '90s. Official membership usually requires a five-mile gap between backers group HQs, but the ballooning Red Ivy gatherings showed the team that size does
"We got so big the Browns couldn't ignore us," says Wilkoff.
When he's not barking through a bullhorn as club MC, Wilkoff works for a property management company, which along with his Chicago-born wife brought him to the Windy City a decade ago. His football love stretches back further, from crying over beatings by Reagan-era Browns' boogeyman John Elway to attending Cleveland's last gridiron playoff victory on News Years Day 1995 against New England.
Upon arriving in Chicago, Wilkoff wanted the grown-up version of the camaraderie he found with his family and friends. Chi-Town Dawg Pound has provided that much-needed solidarity, and he's not alone in that regard. Members have met their significant others at Red Ivy. They've made friends and job connections, too, all in the name of those gorgeously ugly burnt orange helmets.
"It sucks moving to a big city and not knowing anyone," says Wilkoff. "I try and make Red Ivy a home away from home."
Lately, that bond to Cleveland has drawn some young professional Browns backers back home, he says. With the city making national news for new development
, the Gay Games, the Republican National Convention and LeBron James, it seems the friends Wilkoff watched numerous games with want to be part of that renewal.
"I hate to see them go, but it's great for Cleveland," he says. "You can go all over the world, but you're only from one place."
Being from Cleveland also means defending it to the death, says Mark Marzano, co-founder of the Seattle Browns Backers
. When he moved to Seattle in the late '80s, Marzano heard the typical sneering comments about his place of birth.
"I'd get into conversations about Cleveland, and I could almost see the joke bubble forming above peoples' heads," says the former Painesville resident. "So I have a chip on my shoulder about that. I'm very proud of where I'm from."
That pride extends to Cleveland's largely luckless professional sports franchises, including a Browns team that has suffered through a move to Baltimore and a painful post-expansion existence. Marzano, 49, formed the backers club with two friends, watching games at a downtown Seattle sports bar via an illegal satellite feed. For the first contest of the 1989 season, he put a three-inch ad in the local paper, drawing 100 folks for what turned out to be 51-0 drubbing of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Today, Browns games at World Sports Grille
lure between 75 to 125 people, depending on the team's level of play. Marzano relishes the Cleveland flavor, 2,400 miles away from the house where he watched the horrors of Red Right 88
on a 12-inch basement television. He still calls his mom weekly, with those conversations often turning to the Browns' next opponent.
Like all Cleveland fans, Marzano wants to witness one of Cleveland's clubs win an ever-elusive championship. He attended the parade after the Seattle Seahawks claimed the franchise's first Super Bowl earlier this year, and would love to see that explosion of communal joy be duplicated in Cleveland.
"Just once I want us to experience a championship," says Marzano. "I would go to the parade, win or lose."
An honorary Clevelander
There's no citation in the Browns Backers handbook stating you have to be from Cleveland to root for the home team. This works for Brian Potten, who runs Browns Backers of North Jersey
out of Brick 46
in Rockaway, N.J.
Originally from Queens, Potten latched onto the Browns at age 9. An avid collector of football stickers, his favorite one was of Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe, who happened to share his first name and wear a really cool orange helmet.
Brian Potten - Browns Backers of North Jersey
During his early teens Potten would pull games on radio, or catch score updates via the TV sports ticker. He had a subscription to Browns News Illustrated, getting weeks-old game results and a player poster to Fun-Tak onto his bedroom wall.
"Anything that had to do with the Browns, I wanted to get my hands on it," says Potten.
Thirty years later, Potten, 43, is president of the local backers club, a family-friendly get-together of three dozen fans ranging in age from 2 to 92. Game days eschew loud music for raffles and members sharing their most cherished Browns memories.
"It's a tight-knit group," says Potten. "I try and make an atmosphere where everyone knows each other on a first-name basis."
If he's not at the bar, Potten is representing his adopted team in person. A Browns season-ticket holder, he's been to upwards of 40 game since 1993, even making it onto the field to hold the giant American flag during a recent pregame Color Guard ceremony. For 20 years, he's witnessed Cleveland's transformation alongside the ups and downs of his favorite tackle football franchise.
Potten recalls walking downtown for the '93 home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. He couldn't find a place to eat, nor did he exactly feel safe walking the desolate streets. Now with each successive trip, he's venturing further afield to lively Cleveland neighborhoods packed with fun things to see and do.
"I can't relate to growing up there, but I feel like Cleveland is my city, in a way," Potten says. "It would be crazy to move (to Cleveland) for a football team, but the Browns are a big deal in my life."
The organization knows how crucial holding onto a little bit of home can be for fans living outside the state. Last summer, the Browns revamped how it interacts with backers groups, creating a web portal
that tracks clubs nationally and abroad, says communications coordinator Rob McBurnett.
Member clubs are privy to special offers and contests, receiving a care package of team gear to give away on game days. The Browns also offer grants which go to charities selected by backers groups. Sustaining a relationship with the NFL's most loyal fans is a must for a franchise aiming to improve its performance both on and off the field, McBurnett says.
"People have a desire to be close to the team, so we're providing them that access," he says. "Our backers clubs are connecting with one another through their shared passion."
Behind enemy lines
If no Browns fan is an island, this rings especially true for the brave souls cheering on the team in Steelers' country. Dave Koerth of Youngstown is a Dawg Pound diehard who's lived in Pittsburgh for seven years. He discovered the Pittsburgh Browns Backers
online, and now watches games at the upstairs bar of Peter's Pub
with 125 or so of his closest pals.
Pittsburgh Browns Backers
Koerth, 35, relishes an environment without a yinzer
in sight, though the bar does get the occasional black-and-gold wearing walk-in. "They'll turn right around when they see us," he says.
The last half-dozen seasons have been lean ones for Browns' faithful, Koerth knows, and usually include twice-yearly clock-cleanings at the hands of the Steelers. 2014 has been different, marked by a rousing 31-10 table-turning at Cleveland Browns Stadium in October.
Koerth and a few friends were at their usual up-front pub table for the game. "It gets loud in there," he says. "I go because it's fun. Even when the Browns are losing, I'm still happy to show up."
With a Browns' lineage that stretches back to his grandfather, Koerth appreciates the camaraderie engendered by the club, be it in the form of woofing for victory or engaging in the great Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel quarterback debate with like-minded fans.
"You could blindfold someone, take them upstairs during the second quarter, and they wouldn't know they were in Pittsburgh," says Koerth. "Game day's been much more exciting this year than in years past."
Unless the ad campaigns are lying, Las Vegas is always
exciting, and that goes double for the Browns backers groups the city hosts. The Vegas Dawg Pound
, a 200-member-strong club located off the Strip at Kopper Keg West
, becomes a kind of Northeast Ohio melting pot during football season, says Sandusky native Denny Crow, a 17-year resident of Sin City.
During the Browns' Nov. 23 triumph over the Falcons, the Vegas group welcomed visitors from North Canton, Massillon, Broadview Heights and Medina. "It gets pretty wild," says Crow, 61, who moved to Vegas when his wife Betty took early retirement. "There's lots of screaming, yelling and barking."
Preparing for all that craziness takes work: As club president, Crow is arrives at Kopper Keg around 7:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. PST kickoff, decorating the bar in team colors and organizing that week's Browns-themed prizes. He also helps collect funds for charity, most recently giving contributions to a children's cancer research fund.
Marketing is a cinch, considering the club's location, Crow notes. It's a rare week when the bar isn't lined with some bachelor or bachelorette party from Cleveland. "We don't really do any marketing," he says. "Most people reach out to us first."
Crow is old enough to remember the franchise's halcyon days, going back to the great Jim Brown. While he doesn't miss Cleveland's four-month winters, he's happy to create a reasonable facsimile of the Browns' experience, particularly during a winning year when a post-season appearance is not just a sweet dream.
"It's like a Cheers bar where we're getting together to talk about all of our (Cleveland) sports," says Crow. "I feel like I'm sitting back in the Dawg Pound."
As the Browns' recent success intertwines with Cleveland's continued efforts to reverse its large-scale population decline, Chicagoan Wilkoff is thrilled to watch the changes, even if he's witnessing them from afar. The Browns prevailing over adversity from week to week is no small thing, considering where the organization has come from. This sentiment can apply to the city as well, he believes.
"Winning puts a little more sunshine into Cleveland than was there before," he says.