Brown's ownership has been criticized for a lack of on-field success, his refusal to cede football operations to a general manager, and the team's relationship with Hamilton County before and after a voter-approved tax increase to fund Paul Brown Stadium.
Brown is one of two living sons of Paul Brown. His brother, Pete, is currently the Senior Vice-President of Bengals' player personnel. His older brother, Robin, died of cancer in 1978.
Brown graduated from Dartmouth College in 1957, where he played quarterback for their football team, and from Harvard Law School in 1959. In an unusual meeting between future sports owners, eventual New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired him to a summer job as a deck hand for Kinsman Marine Transit Company.
Brown eventually followed his father into football management. Paul Brown founded the Bengals, then an American Football League team, in 1968. (This was several years after Paul Brown was dismissed as Cleveland Browns head coach in a well-publicized falling out with Art Modell.) Mike Brown began his executive duties with the Bengals as assistant general manager. Along with personnel decisions, he was a spokesman for the team on issues of league rules and team policy.
Brown assumed ownership responsibilities upon his father's death in August 1991 and has remained in the ownership position since. His first significant move as owner was to fire popular coach Sam Wyche after the 1991 season (although he originally claimed that Wyche resigned). Days later, Brown hired Dave Shula to be head coach, making Shula (at the time) the second youngest NFL head coach in history and making Dave and Don Shula the first father-son to lead different NFL teams in the same year. Going into 1993, Brown sought to negotiate a new lease with Cincinnati to keep the Bengals in the city.
Initially, Brown rejected advances from other cities to discuss moving the team. By 1995, he felt Riverfront Stadium's small seating capacity and lack of luxury boxes hindered the Bengals' success.
In 1995, he announced that Cincinnati had breached its lease agreement when it was late by one week in paying $167,000 in concession receipts. He threatened to move the team to Baltimore if Cincinnati or Hamilton County would not fund a new stadium. The leverage of this threat proved successful as Cincinnati’s City Council and the Hamilton County Commissioners opted to fund the new Paul Brown Stadium with a proposed county sales tax increase, which needed voter approval. In 1996, Hamilton County voters passed a one-half percent sales tax increase to fund the building of a new facility for the Bengals and a second new facility for the Major League Baseball Cincinnati Reds. The Bengals filed suit against the County for the right to manage it in 2000. County commissioners agreed to let a Bengals' subsidiary run the stadium, and it opened later that year.
In 2007, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune (a former Cincinnati City Council member, though not Commissioner at the time the parties executed the lease), filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the NFL, the Bengals and the other 31 NFL teams. Portune felt, among other things, that published revenues from 1995-1999 contradicted Brown's claims of financial distress. The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners eventually was substituted as the plaintiff in the case. Fans supporting Portune cite what they feel is the broken promise that the Bengals would "be more competitive" with a new stadium. The Bengals have had only seven winning seasons out of 16 since the stadium opened.
Rick Eckstein, co-author of "Public Dollars, Private Stadiums," describes the Hamilton County arrangement as "the single most lopsided stadium deal since 1993" and questions Bob Bedinghaus' role with the team after having been County Commissioner when the deal was reached. A 2008 Forbes survey suggests the team's rankings in direct revenues have dropped since the stadium's construction (placing the team 21st in total value at $941 million).
The Bengals have requested that the County extend the lease for the stadium for 20 years, while Portune maintains his criticisms of the original agreement.
Since Brown became owner, the team has had 7 winning seasons out of 24 and has a winning percentage of .418 (163-228-1) in the regular season and .000 (0-7) in the playoffs. In 2008, the Bengals set a record for the most games needed under one specific owner to attain 100 wins (288). In 2010, the team set a record for the fewest games needed to lose 200 (both considering and not considering playoffs) under one specific owner (314).
The Bengals hold a number of distinctions for the time frame of Brown's ownership: It is the only team with three nine-game-or-more losing streaks. It also holds six of the twenty-five 0-6 starts (24%) and four of the thirteen 0-8 starts (31%) in that time. The Bengals have gone winless in October nine different times in twenty-two years under five different head coaches (Sam Wyche was originally hired by Paul Brown).
The most successful coach during Mike Brown's tenure is current coach Marvin Lewis with a .543 winning percentage (112-94-2). The Bengals won the AFC North Division in 2005, 2009, 2013, and 2015 (then losing to the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, and division rival Pittsburgh Steelers again, respectively) and earned a Wild Card spot in the playoffs in both 2011 and 2012, losing to the Houston Texans both times: 31-10 in the 2011 playoffs and 19-13 in the 2012 post-season. The team then earned a Wild Card (Due to insufficient regular season wins for a bye week in the AFC) match against San Diego in the playoffs of the 2013 season, but lost 10-27 in that 2013 post-season match.
In 2009 Yahoo sports ranked Mike Brown as the second worst owner in the NFL.
In addition to being majority owner, Brown is considered the Bengals' de facto general manager as well. He is one of two NFL owners who have either the title or powers of general manager, the other being Dallas' Jerry Jones.
In 2009, The Cincinnati Enquirer publicized details of testimony in a Hamilton County Probate Court trial over the $300 million estate of Austin Knowlton. Brown testified that he received a general manager bonus every year since he took over the team in 1991. Due to the team's record under his ownership, Brown has been subject to criticism for his approach to the running the football side of the Bengals' organization.
Since 2009, however, Brown has largely ceded day-to-day control over football matters to a committee comprising executive vice president Katie Blackburn, head coach Marvin Lewis and several members of the Brown family. This coincided with the Bengals' return to respectability; they have made the playoffs in all but two seasons since 2009.
In the mid-to-late 2000s, the Bengals were involved in a series of disciplinary measures with a variety of players. In 2005, the Bengals drafted Chris Henry and Odell Thurman, each considered exceptionally talented but possible disciplinary hazards during their college careers. The following year, they were among nine Bengals players arrested for various offenses. Brown cut several "problem players" in 2008 including Henry and Thurman, but re-signed Henry later that year. This came after five arrests of Henry and Brown's statement earlier in the year that Henry's "conduct could no longer be tolerated." One fan protested by purchasing an electronic billboard along the Cincinnati interstate reading "CHRIS HENRY AGAIN? ARE YOU SERIOUS?" Henry died during a domestic dispute on December 17, 2009. Commenting on his death, Brown defended his decision to re-sign Henry, noting that "We knew him in a different way than his public persona.". Posthumously, it was discovered that Chris Henry was suffering from a progressive degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. According to a West Virginia University research study, the CTE may have contributed to Chris Henry's troubled behavior and, ultimately, his death.
Later in 2008, the Bengals signed running back Cedric Benson, whom the Chicago Bears had waived, in part, due to his off-field activities. In 2009, the team added Larry Johnson to provide depth for the position after the Kansas City Chiefs released him for "detrimental conduct." Johnson had also experienced recent legal difficulties. Benson was among 2009's leading NFL rushers, while Johnson saw limited action.
In recent years, Brown claims to have rethought this approach. Talking about the team's second appearance on Hard Knocks, Brown stated, "We have a different team now than we had a few years ago. We want the public to see them. We think they're good people. We think the public will be taken by them, will like them. It gives us a boost."
Brown has commented that the league's current attitude towards discipline is a change from a past "boys will be boys" attitude. Brown's father welcomed tailback Stanley Wilson back to the Bengals in 1988 after two drug suspensions. Wilson relapsed the night before Super Bowl XXIII and his absence in short-yardage situations affected the Bengals' efforts in one of the closest Super Bowl games in history.
Brown is historically reluctant to fire personnel after multiple losing seasons. His first hire as head coach, David Shula, lost fifty games faster than any NFL coach in history (69 games). Shula's successor, Bruce Coslet, resigned with a 21-39 record in 2000; Brown had yet to fire him. Current head coach Marvin Lewis has seven winning seasons out of thirteen in Cincinnati, six playoff appearances, a 112-92-2 regular season record and an 0-7 playoff record. Nevertheless, Brown agreed to extend Lewis' contract shortly after its expiration at the end of the 2010 season. Lewis received another contract extension prior to the beginning of the 2012 season.
Brown also values his family's connection with the franchise; evident in his choosing to name Paul Brown Stadium after his father rather than to sell corporate naming rights for it. Daughter Katie Blackburn is the executive president of the team and her husband Troy is an VP with additional family members among the front office staff. From 1994-2000, the Bengals paid out over $50 million to the Brown family members of Bengals staff in salaries.
Former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth argues Brown's loyalty played a role in decision to not persuade Boomer Esiason out of retiring despite a productive 1997 season. Esiason became a color analyst on ABC's Monday Night Football. Collinsworth suggested Brown "thought he was doing the right thing by Boomer" and did not want to cost him the MNF job. Collinsworth contrasted this attitude to other NFL owners, like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, whom Collinsworth felt "would have flown Boomer down to the Bahamas on his personal jet, offered to kiss his ring and signed him right there."
Brown employs a very small scouting staff. A 2008 comparison between the Bengals' scouting department and five AFC teams with a .540+ winning percentage since 1991 showed the winning teams employing five or more scouts whereas the Bengals employed only one. Since then, the Bengals have added two additional scouts (Marvin Lewis originally claimed when hired that Brown assured him of a retooled scouting staff).
Brown has publicized his belief that a "bell cow" quarterback is a necessity in turning a team into a winner. In a 1999 interview, he remarked "If you don't have a productive quarterback, you won't go anywhere...I know it doesn't seem that simple, but it is." Comparing quarterbacks to other positions on a football team, Brown has said "He's the hub of the wheel...like a queen on a chessboard. These other guys are like rooks or bishops or other pieces that are not quite as valuable. Some are more valuable than others. That's just a fact."
Brown turned down then-Saints coach Mike Ditka's offer of nine draft picks for one in the 1999 NFL draft against then-coach Coslet's advice. Coslet wanted as many draft picks as possible to help the Bengals' defense. Instead, Brown overruled Coslet and selected University of Oregon quarterback Akili Smith. Smith only played 22 games in his NFL career. Coslet later regretted that he "didn't insist hard enough" in trying to persuade Brown to accept the Saints' offer.
Before the 1992 Draft, press reports stressed the Bengals' need for either a cornerback or defensive lineman. Brown himself had been quoted the day before the draft as stating "we would dearly love to get a top defensive lineman, they're at a premium, and it's less true of other positions." Instead, the Bengals selected Houston quarterback David Klingler. Then Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason and strong-safety David Fulcher both openly questioned the move the next day, arguing the team needed help on defense. Klingler became an eventual bust. Esiason has since revealed that he had actually demanded a trade at the end of the 1991 season, which may have influenced Brown to select Klingler (Esiason was traded to the New York Jets in 1993).
Brown placed a great deal of responsibility on Carson Palmer, calling him the Bengals' "lead dog" and stating "as he goes, we go." Palmer holds a number of team records and three Pro Bowl selections. The Bengals were 46-51 (.474) with Palmer as starter. Palmer threatened retirement from football if the Bengals did not trade him during the 2011 offseason. Brown insisted that he wouldn't "reward" Palmer's demands, arguing that Palmer made a commitment to the organization when he received a contract extension. Brown released Carson's younger brother, Jordan from the team on August 27, 2011. On October 18, 2011 the Bengals finally traded Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for a 2012 first round draft pick and a conditional second round 2013 pick if Oakland made it to the AFC Championship game in 2011 or 2012 (which they did not).
Andy Dalton was taken in the 2011 NFL Draft and immediately became the first QB in franchise history to lead the team to the playoffs five years in a row.
In 1998, the Bengals cut punter Lee Johnson. Brown attempted to fine Johnson after cutting him for "conduct detrimental to the team" in relation to comments Johnson had made about the organization and the 1998 season. A reporter asked Johnson after a Bengals loss "if you were a fan, would you have come here today?" to which Johnson replied "No, no way...why would you? You're saying (losing) is OK. I guess if you've got nothing else to do. I'd sell my tickets." This fine resulted in a dispute with the NFL players union, whose counsel remarked "A fine is a disciplinary measure, you discipline someone to try and make sure they're a better employee in the future. How can you do that if you've fired them?"
In 2000, the Bengals instituted a "loyalty clause," which allows the Bengals to deny various bonuses to players depending on the remarks they make about the Bengals. The ability to enact such a clause appears justified under the collective bargaining agreement which states an NFL team can fine a player one week's salary and suspend him without pay for up to four weeks for any action the club considers detrimental to the team. Brown responded that the clause would only be enacted under extreme circumstances. He wrote an editorial for the Cincinnati Enquirer, citing team cohesion as his main motivation for the clause.
It is often dubbed the "Carl Pickens Clause," stemming from the 2000 offseason. Brown renewed Bruce Coslet's contract despite his 21–36 Bengals record. Pickens responded, "I don't understand it. We're trying to win; we're trying to turn this thing around out there. And they bring (Coslet) back." Pickens finished his career with the Tennessee Titans.
Over the years since the clause, Bengals players have commented on a negative atmosphere within the organization, notably Takeo Spikes, Jeff Blake, and Jon Kitna.
The most vocal critic of the Bengals since the clause was instituted was Corey Dillon. In 2001, after becoming the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in five consecutive seasons, he remarked "at the end of the season, what do I have to feel good about? Nothing at all. It's not cool." After a fifth losing season with the team in 2002, he remarked ""I'm tired of it, six years of this B.S. I ain't lying to you. I'm sick of this crap, period." Dillon demanded a trade at the end of the 2003 season after throwing most of his gear to the fans during the last home game of the season. He went on to win a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots in the following season.
In 1994, agent Leigh Steinberg described Brown as "in a lonely fight for economic rationality in the NFL" and "a Don Quixote-type figure pushing back the forces of salary madness." Over the years, Brown has proven reluctant to finish free agent signings or trades. Warren Sapp (in 2004), Shaun Rogers (in 2008), and Johnathan Joseph (in 2011) are notable recent examples.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus described it as a "matter of hours" before the Bengals would sign Sapp, only a day before the Raiders signed him. Sapp accused the Bengals of "playing with the money" on the original deal they offered him, deferring more money to incentives rather than in guarantees. The Associated Press reported a completed trade between Cincinnati and the Detroit Lions on February 29, 2008 for Rogers. However, the trade fell through and the next day, it was confirmed that the Lions instead traded Rogers to the Cleveland Browns.
Organizers from MikeBrownSucks organized a boycott of a December 2001 regular season game and fans visiting this site as well as another site, SaveTheBengals.com, paid for planes to fly a banner in the Cincinnati area calling for Brown's resignation.
Who Dey Revolution (WDR) has staged "Project Mayhem" since 2008 in an effort to persuade Brown to make changes to the Bengals. These steps ranged from calling the Bengals "JERK line" to report Brown's behavior as abusive to purchasing billboards displaying a request for a General Manager to merchandise and ticket donations/boycotts and letter-writing campaigns. The website's purchase and distribution of 1000 urinal cakes at a Bengals' home game advertised Brown's lifetime regular season record of 98-186-1 to that point.
WDR publishes a comic strip titled "The Lost Generation", presenting Mike Brown in a Charlie Brownesque caricature, presumably to correlate Brown's track record to the famous cartoon character's history of hard luck and failure.
"All My Bengals" was a very popular satirical radio skit, hosted by 700 WLW Radio personality Gary Burbank. Replays are currently available on YouTube.
Despite these protests, the Bengals have remained popular within Cincinnati. A November 21, 2010 game vs. the Buffalo Bills marked the first time since November '03 that network affiliates and DirectTV were legally obliged to "black out" the Bengals game within a 75-mile radius of Paul Brown Stadium for lack of ticket sales. The remaining home games against the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, and San Diego Chargers were also blacked out. Prior to this, the team sold out 57 straight games, a club record.
Several people cast Mike Brown sympathetically in response to fan and media criticism. After a surprising upset of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003, Marvin Lewis tearfully awarded the game ball to Brown and told his players "he has put up with so much for you guys." Former Bengals dismiss notions that Brown is unconcerned with winning. Boomer Esiason, now a CBS analyst, refers to Brown as a "nice man" who is simply over his head running the team. In 1998 interviews, Cris Collinsworth and Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham also rejected notions that Brown did not care about winning. Collinsworth remarked "I don't think anybody could be suffering more over this than Mike is."
Brown is considered somewhat reclusive although he occasionally grants interviews, mostly to discuss offseason moves with the Bengals.
In 2008, Brown and the Bengals donated $250,000 to assist the Cincinnati Park Board in paying for Cincinnati Riverfront Park.
In 2017, Brown and his family received the Pillar Award for Community Service’s Kent Clapp CEO Leadership Award. The award recognizes a top executive for his or her passion toward philanthropy and honors the late Kent Clapp, CEO of Medical Mutual, who died in a 2008 plane crash.