Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 14, 2016

In St. Louis, This Stan Is No Longer The Man

The NFL playoffs move on to the divisional round this weekend, starting with the game between Kansas City and New England late Saturday afternoon. From Foxborough attention will shift across the country to Tempe, Arizona Saturday night where the Cardinals will host the Packers; then on to Charlotte and Denver on Sunday for Seattle versus Carolina and finally the Steelers against the Broncos. By dinnertime Sunday evening the lineups for the following weekend’s conference championships will be set.

Millions of fans will tune in to watch the games, even if their own favorite team has long since been dispatched until next season. But it will be understandable if folks in the St. Louis area are not among them. For the followers of the St. Louis Rams have been reminded that for all its popularity among fans across the country, when it comes to reciprocating that loyalty the billionaire owners of the thirty-two NFL franchises are charter members of the National Faithless League.

Teams in all of our major leagues have been relocating for about as long as the leagues themselves have existed. The NFL was but a year old when the Decatur Staleys packed up their leather helmets and decamped from central Illinois to the shores of Lake Michigan. One year after arriving in their new home the Staleys changed their name to the Chicago Bears. And that early move was nearly two decades after the first baseball team to bear the name Baltimore Orioles relocated to New York, where they became the Highlanders. Ten years after moving to Gotham the team name was changed once more, this time to Yankees.

New York was also part of perhaps the most significant sports team relocation ever, when in 1958 the Dodgers and Giants left Brooklyn and Manhattan for the west coast. The Great Game was the national pastime back then, and the moves by the National League stalwarts both made the sport a truly national game and established beyond all doubt the fact that the United States was a two coast country.

The NFL is the dominant sport now, with important games topping the television ratings every year, and with the Super Bowl being a major cultural event. Beginning with the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970, roughly the time that football has risen to become the king of American sports, eight franchises have relocated. The first move in that period was Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982 and the most recent was the move of the Rams from St. Louis back to L.A., approved by a 30-2 vote of the owners earlier this week.

That number does not include teams that made significant moves within their existing area. Shortly after the NFL-AFL merger, Boston’s football team left the city and the series of downtown stadiums that had hosted the franchise’s games in the decade since its inception for a new home 30 miles south near the Rhode Island border. The move resulted in the Patriots changing the geographic portion of their name from Boston to New England. In 1998, one year after moving from Houston to Memphis, the team that is now the Tennessee Titans traveled another 200 miles northeast to Nashville. Just two seasons ago the San Francisco 49ers opted not to follow the Patriots lead, leaving their name unchanged despite moving 50 miles south to Santa Clara. In that the 49ers are not unlike the Giants and Jets, two teams that are still called “New York” even though the Buffalo Bills are the only NFL franchise that plays its home games in the Empire State.

During that same period of time there have been many more franchise relocations in both the NBA and NHL, while baseball has seen just three major moves. And it can be argued that a move by the lone professional team in a small city, such as the departure of the NHL’s Whalers from Hartford in 1997, has a greater impact on the psyche of a community than does losing one franchise in a city that boasts several. After all, fans in St. Louis can still root for the NHL’s Blues or the eleven-time World Series winning Cardinals. But irrespective of market size all of these moves expose the most base truth of sports franchise ownership, namely that it is always about the money; and nowhere is that more true than in the richest sport of all, the NFL.

The thirty-two NFL franchises share in the league’s television and marketing revenue, and home and visiting teams split regular ticket proceeds 60-40. But the massive amounts of revenue generated by the sale of luxury boxes is all for the home team and its owner’s taking. So in the NFL what is more certain than Bill Belichick showing up on the sidelines wearing a hoodie is that owners are constantly looking for bigger and better stadiums with more and grander suites.

Enos Stanley Kroenke, owner of the Rams, is a Missouri native named by his father for two Cardinal legends; the Hall of Famers Slaughter and Musial. Stan Kroenke was hailed when he helped lead the effort to bring the Rams to St. Louis in 1995, seven years after the football Cardinals left for Arizona. Kroenke and his wife, the daughter of Walmart co-founder Bud Walton, are worth well north of $7 billion according to Forbes.

But despite his local ties and notwithstanding the size of his checkbook, Kroenke wanted a bigger and better stadium than the twenty year old Edward Jones Dome, and he wanted the city and state’s help in paying for it. What local officials failed to grasp was the limits which Kroenke and the NFL wanted on their own investment. When talks soured Kroenke proposed building a domed stadium in Inglewood, California as part of a massive entertainment and commercial development on the site of the old Hollywood Park Racetrack.

As part of his application to the league’s other owners, Kroenke penned a letter in which he described St. Louis as a “struggling” city that “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.” He also dismissed the city’s stadium proposal as one that would cause him “financial ruin.”

In the wake of their vote approving the Rams move several other owners took time to praise Kroenke, revealing themselves to be remarkably tone-deaf. Kroenke himself made a point of praising the citizens of the city he had just trashed, as if that would atone for his single-minded pursuit of bigger profits. Meanwhile those citizens, who continued to fill the Edward Jones Dome to near capacity despite the Rams not posting a winning record nor making the playoffs in more than a decade, are left with a reported $100 million in outstanding bonds on a now-empty stadium.

But perhaps they should take heart. In each of the seven previous NFL relocations since 1970, the city that lost a team eventually got a new one, either through expansion or a subsequent move by a different franchise (or in the case of Oakland, where the Raiders left and returned, a subsequent move by the same team). So perhaps in a few years the good citizens of St. Louis will have the opportunity to welcome a new football team. If that day comes some of them might well ask, why should they want to? Among the billionaire owners of NFL franchises, loyalty isn’t to the fans, but only to each other.

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