For a 50th birthday present, Dan Gilbert bought himself an Arena Football League franchise.
Gilbert's Cavaliers ownership group officially announced Tuesday the acquisition of the Cleveland Gladiators from Jim Ferraro. Terms were not disclosed. The Cavaliers are the sole owner.
Gilbert, who turned 50 on Tuesday, was absent from Tuesday's news conference at The Q. Cavaliers President Len Komoroski was his point man, seated at a table alongside Ferraro and Gladiators special adviser Bernie Kosar.
"We're bullish on the AFL and the Gladiators," Komoroski said. "We think the AFL is an incredibly dynamic product, and we're in this for the long haul."
The new ownership has no time to waste in trying to pump life back into a franchise that wandered in the wilderness the past two years. The Gladiators begin training camp in February; the first practice is Feb. 20. They open the season March 12 at Georgia and at home March 26 against Kansas City.
"As we enter the league's 25th anniversary, it speaks volumes to partner with Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers organization," AFL Commissioner Jerry B. Kurz said in a release. "It is a tremendous honor to welcome Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Komoroski and the Cavaliers organization to the Arena Football League, as they have always shown such commitment to their fans."
Among those in attendance Tuesday was Steve Thonn, the Gladiators' coach the past two seasons, who has been retained.
"I loved being here the last two years, and it's going to be even better under Dan Gilbert," he said. "I'm excited, our whole team is excited. It really is a great day for the Gladiators."
On Gilbert's Gateway Monopoly board, the Gladiators franchise is far from Boardwalk, but it isn't Mediterranean Avenue, either. It's more like Saint Charles Place -- a solid piece with potential for fun.
"This is another example of Dan Gilbert's commitment to Northeast Ohio," Komoroski said. "This is what we do: We're a sports and entertainment entity. The Gladiators just felt right, a natural fit with our vision."
Gilbert's group also owns the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League and the Canton Charge of the NBA's Development League.
Ferraro had been majority owner of the franchise since 2000, when it was in New Jersey. He moved it to Las Vegas in December 2002. After the 2007 season, Ferraro aligned with Kosar and brought it to Cleveland.
The Gladiators enjoyed a strong inaugural season in 2008, drawing five-digit crowds at The Q and reaching the playoffs. But the AFL went dark in 2009 to revamp its business model. When the Gladiators returned with the league in 2010, they experienced a fraction of their previous popularity.
Last season, the Gladiators won the East Division but generated minimal buzz. Many home crowds totaled no more than several thousand. Ferraro, a trial lawyer with offices in several cities, struggled staying on top of the Gladiators' situation -- at least not to the level he did in 2008. As a result, he approached the Cavaliers this winter.
"It's bittersweet for me because I started the franchise from scratch," Ferraro said. "I'm very passionate about the game, and I'm very passionate about the Gladiators. But I didn't have the time to right the ship. I wasn't going to move the product; it always was going to stay in Cleveland, regardless. To sell to Dan Gilbert is a win for everybody, and I know the Gladiators will thrive under him."
Ferraro and Komoroski characterized the negotiations as "smooth" and "friendly."
"I want to thank Jim Ferraro," Komoroski said. "If not for him, we wouldn't have arena football in Cleveland."
Gladiators players and fans interviewed the past few years have said arena football can work in Cleveland provided sufficient marketing, promotion and game presentation take place. Gilbert and his staff specialize in these areas.
The American Hockey League's Lake Erie Monsters are in their fifth season, all under Cavaliers ownership. The Monsters have ranked among AHL leaders in attendance. They have averaged 6,777 in 18 dates this season, an increase of more than 1,000 from the same point in 2010-11. Their game-operations people won an award from the AHL last summer.
"We will operate the Gladiators in a new, expanded way because we're able to utilize all our resources," Komoroski said. "They were already under our roof. We recognized the inherent advantages."
Former Browns quarterback Kosar and Gilbert are friends. Kosar, part owner and club president in the inaugural season with Ferraro in Cleveland, will remain as an adviser.
"It's important that the NFL guys stay out of the way of the arena guys and let them do their thing," Kosar said.
The Gladiators will move their offices from Huron Road into The Q. Phil Tesar, who has held a variety of positions including general manager since the franchise came to Cleveland, will remain with the organization.