St. Louis’ absurd political football scenario, and how to solve it, absurdly

Stadium-Choice-aIt seems that everyone I know in St. Louis is opposed to a new football stadium that just might keep the Rams in St. Louis. This is particularly so among political progressives who are rightly offended by the blackmail that Rams owner Stan Kroenke and the entire National Football League are placing on a mid-market team in a struggling community.

Kroenke is the second wealthiest of the 32 NFL owners and perhaps the most greedy and insensitive to his fan base. The NFL purports to value stability in franchise location, but it rarely stands in the way of any recalcitrant owner who wants to pick up his or her marbles and play elsewhere.

Unless an owner chooses to move out in the  middle of the night (as owner Robert Irsay did, when he moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis on March 29,1984), cities generally have sufficient time to make proposals to the owner. It’s not uncommon for owners to threaten to move to another city in order to get a sweeter deal from their current cities. But Stan Kroenke has not even pretended to be interested in keeping the Rams in St. Louis. He has not negotiated with the city and has refused to take calls from the governor, the mayor, major civic leaders, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in St. Louis.

Yet, despite his indifference to St. Louis, it’s possible that the team will remain. A two-man task force was appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to try to keep the Rams in St. Louis. Dave Peacock, a former Anheuser-Busch executive and Bob Blitz (aptly named), a high-powered attorney, have been doing legal and financial gymnastics to put together a plan for St. Louis to have a new stadium. They are doing this via subterfuge, rather than with support from the team’s owner.

All of this bodes well for a city that has had a serious self-esteem problem, dating back to 1854 when a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River was built at Rock Island, IL. The bridge allowed merchants in and around Chicago to reach western markets twenty years before Eads Bridge traversed the Mississippi at St. Louis. St. Louis has been playing catch-up ever since, especially following the World’s Fair of 1904.

St. Louis did not become a National Football League city until 1960, forty years after the league’s inaugural season. However, it has pulled off some good football coups since then. The team that came to St. Louis in 1960 was the football Cardinals from Chicago, obviously a much bigger city. Twenty-seven years later, St. Louis lost the “Big Red” (as they affectionately came to be known) to Phoenix. But eight years after that, in 1995, St. Louis snatched the Rams from Los Angeles, because St. Louis had built a state-of the art domed stadium in anticipation of attracting either an expansion team or a “franchise on the loose” team. The lease agreement for the Rams in the then TWA Dome in downtown St. Louis was so favorable that owner Georgia Frontiere did not mind leaving the much bigger LA market for her smaller home town. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the lease had a provision in it that the Rams could opt out after 20 years, if the Dome (now named the Edward Jones Dome) was not considered to be in the top twenty-five percent of NFL stadiums. With the dizzying construction of new stadiums in the NFL built by cities with guns to their heads in order to keep teams from jumping to a different market, the Jones Dome is now considered one of the worst in the league, after only twenty years. To make things worse, Frontiere died in 2008, and Stan Kroenke, who had been a minority owner, was able to seize control of the franchise. Now Kroenke wants to build a new “state of the art” stadium in Inglewood, California and move the team out to his planned theme park there in a much larger market than St. Louis. However, because two other franchises (San Diego and Oakland) want to move out of their home bases and jointly play in a showcase stadium in LA, the move of the Rams may not be easy for Kroenke.

For there to be professional football in St. Louis, the city does not need a new stadium. The dome may be a little dingy, but it is quite serviceable. The thing about it is that like all stadiums, it looks better when the team is winning. Shortly after the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in 1999, the team began losing and has done so repeatedly. As happens in cities as large as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, solid fan bases can disappear when losing sets in. There’s nothing to say that the Jones Dome could not be rocking on Sunday afternoons with a winning team, especially one that had the offensive flair of the Rams at the turn of this century. In basic terms, it’s a structurally sound edifice where more than 65,000 fans can see football on a regulation-size field.

But the league formula is for teams to build new stadiums, generally at taxpayers’ expense, to deepen the coffers of the owners. This will not stop until the federal government uses its anti-trust powers, as previously reported in Occasional Planet. So, if St. Louis wants to remain an NFL city, it has to do what the unelected powers-that-be say – build a new stadium, perhaps every twenty years or so. If St. Louis does not accede to this blackmail, it will not only lose its current NFL franchise, it will also lose some of its already diminishing self-esteem.

So what can St. Louis do to make keeping the Rams a “must-do” for the NFL? It can do what no other city has done. It can have two stadiums for one team. Here’s how it would work:

Every game day, the football fans of St. Louis would congregate at the intersection of North Broadway and O’Fallon. This would be about three blocks removed from the Jones Dome and three blocks from the “to be named later” new stadium. Each fan would bring his or her cell phone. Then using the texting survey program, Poll Everywhere, the fans would vote for which stadium they would like to see the game played. No more compromises with a retractable domed stadium. Instead, on a beautiful fall afternoon, they could have a wonderful outdoor experience literally on the banks of the Mississippi. But if there was a blizzard, a downpour, or even the threat of inclement weather, the fans could opt to go to the tried and true Jones Dome and live in the comfort and luxury of the 1995-vintage dome.

The fans could begin their texting earlier in the week and Las Vegas could be taking odds on in which stadium the game would be played. Fans could congregate on Saturday at the Muny Opera in Forest Park and have great debates about where the team should play. The whole saga could become a reality TV show and fans/taxpayers would use the royalties to replenish their wallets or government coffers. Opposing teams would fear coming into St. Louis where the Rams would have the oddest home field advantage of any team in any sport because opponents would not know the conditions of the upcoming game.

Frankly, I think that the call for a new stadium is a big shakedown, as it was for baseball’s Busch Stadium in the early 2000s. But until we as citizens adopt the only logical solution – federal control of the NFL, we have to further accommodate ourselves to tolerating the absurd. St. Louis can lead the nation.