Five Big Questions About Professional Football's Future In St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

Five Big Questions About Professional Football's Future In St. Louis

Jan 19, 2015

Since St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced a deal to build a stadium in Inglewood, California, the future of football in the Gateway City has been murky at best. 

The future of professional football in St. Louis is murky, at best.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI | File Photo

Part of the uncertainty stems from Kroenke himself. Throughout negotiations about revamping the Edward Jones Dome, the billionaire developer hasn’t talked about his intentions. But the Inglewood stadium, in some ways, spoke louder than words – especially since he’s pledged to pay for the vast majority of the stadium with private money.

Former Anheuser-Busch President Dave Peacock and attorney Bob Blitz unveiled the response earlier this month: A 64,000-seat open-air stadium on St. Louis riverfront. The price tag: between $860 million-$985 million. 

While the funding details are still in flux, the conceptual plan involves a combination of private money public dollars. But as with the Rams’ future, it’s an open question whether the stadium will actually materialize.

So what exactly do we know right now? We've talked with experts, dug into statutes and bylaws, combed through news articles and listened to the new stadium's backers. Here are five questions (and answers) that offer a bit of insight into the future of the Rams and professional football in St. Louis.

How serious are the Rams about leaving?

Since Kroenke isn’t talking, we don’t have a definitive answer. But those who follow the business of sports see the Ingelwood stadium proposal as Kroenke's way of saying he's very serious. 

St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke is unhappy with the current state of the Edward Jones Dome. When the Rams moved to St. Louis in the 1990s, the contract stipulated that the stadium had to remain in the "top-tier" of other NFL facilities. The Dome is widely considered one of the worst stadiums in the NFL, next to San Diego and Oakland.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

The biggest impediment to a football team in Los Angeles was the lack of desire to publicly finance a new stadium. That’s one of the reasons that the Los Angeles Rams bolted for St. Louis in the first place.

Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University, said the fact that Kroenke is willing to pay for an Inglewood facility with primarily private dollars is markedly different than recent stadium proposals. It’s one of the reasons why he’s publicly predicted that the Rams’ days in St. Louis are numbered.

“In this particular case, Kroenke has already purchased the land in Inglewood. And now he’s teaming up with [Stockbridge] to put together this mixed-use complex, which is going to include a football stadium," said Rishe, before Peacock and Blitz unveiled their proposal. “I just don’t see anything at this point [that would keep the Rams in St. Louis] – even despite the best efforts of those working behind the scenes in St. Louis and Missouri to keep the Rams."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman, who said the league is trying to figure out a solution to allow “the St. Louis Rams to be the St. Louis Rams.” But he stressed that a new stadium has to part of that solution -- especially since the team is now on a year-to-year lease on the Edward Jones Dome. 

That pretty much sums up how serious the situation is for St. Louis.

How would the city, state and county pay for the new stadium?

According to Peacock and Blitz, anywhere from $400 to $450 million would come from private sources of money. Roughly $200 to $250 million would come from the owner of the team, while another $200 million would come from the NFL. 

A rendering of the proposed stadium on St. Louis' riverfront.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI

The rest of money would come from a combination of public sources:

  • Anywhere from $300 million to $350 million from “extending” the bonds on the Edward Jones Dome.
  • $15 million to $25 million from the Missouri Development Finance Board, a state agency that provides funds for big-ticket developments.
  • $25 to $30 million from Brownfield tax credits
  • $120 million to $130 million for seat licenses, which were also used to help fund the Edward Jones Dome.

Currently, the city, county and state contribute money to pay off bonds on the Edward Jones Dome. The city and county’s total is a combined $12 million. The county's portion comes from a 3.5 percent tax on hotel rooms. In St. Louis, the city's budget director Paul Payne said in an e-mail that a combination of hotel, restaurant and tourism related taxes are received into general revenue to collectively offset the debt costs of the Dome.  The other $12 million comes from state general revenue.

The county's portion of the comes from a "dedicated" funding source, so it couldn't necessarily go to a non-tourism purpose if the bonds were paid off. Payne said the combination of hotel, tourism and restaurant taxes is "not specifically dedicated" to Dome debt. 

Peacock and others have posited the bond “extension” as a way to pay for the new stadium without boosting the tax burden. And it’s an idea that’s found favor with a lot of civic and business leaders, including Downtown STL Inc. President Doug Woodruff. 

St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, is skeptical about "extending" bonds to pay for a new stadium.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

“People pay a lot of taxes now for a lot of different things,” Woodruff said. “The interesting part about my understanding of the city and county’s current use of taxes for the existing Dome and potentially for the future one is that it is not paid generally by local residents – unless they go to a hotel.” 

But some skeptics of the plan aren’t buying the idea that a bond extension is a pain-free exercise. University of Missouri-St. Louis history professor Chuck Korr said extending the bonds is still adding new public money – a view shared by political figures like St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder.

“As a real estate agent, I kind of looked at this way,” said Harder, R-Ballwin. “It’s kind of like taking a home equity loan to buy a car. Whereas in this case we’re taking a home equity loan to buy a car dealership when it comes to the amount of money involved here.”

Would city and county residents need to vote on the proposal?

This is a salient question because there’s a St. Louis ordinance and St. Louis County charter amendment requiring a public vote before public money can be expended toward a stadium. 

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has said a public vote isn't necessarily required for extending stadium bonds.
Credit File photo by Bill Greenblatt | UPI

The Post-Dispatch this week cited several experts who concluded a public vote would be needed to extend the bonds. And one group that helped get those measures passed – such as the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums – agrees with that assessment.

Among other things, the county charter amendment states: "No financial assistance may be provided by or on behalf of the County to the development of a professional sports facility without the approval of a majority of the qualified voters of the County voting thereon."

But St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said it’s his understanding a bond extension could move forward without a referendum.

“I don’t think under the current plan that’s been offered they would need to vote,” Stenger said. “My preference would be that they would vote. But under the plan that’s been proposed, I don’t think there’s a mechanism that would allow for that. And, as you know, it’s not a plan that I proposed. It’s a plan that was proposed by others.”

This is one question without a concrete answer, but it should become clearer as the funding proposal becomes more concrete. A bigger obstacle could be getting the state on board, as lawmakers have expressed little interest in pouring more money into a stadium.

If Kroenke wanted to move, could he be stopped?

It’s not out of the question. 

Some theorize that the stadium proposal from former Anheuser-Busch President Dave Peacock and attorney Bob Blitz is aimed at satisfying NFL relocation bylaws. Those effectively state that an owner must exhaust all options before moving.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI

One reason for skepticism is that owners have often used Los Angeles as a bargaining chip to exhort their home cities to build new stadiums. It’s possible that Kroenke is using L.A.  to exert pressure on St. Louis to build a new stadium. However, the fact he’s willing to pay for the Inglewood stadium with private money pokes a hole in that theory.

Still, other owners may not want to have a team in Los Angeles because it would mean the loss of a potent bargaining chip for stadium upgrades. And that may make a difference; NFL bylaws state that an owner must get the support of three-fourths of other owners in order to re-locate.

There could be more procedural roadblocks. ESPN reported that Peacock is pointing to NFL rules that say an owner seeking relocation must deplete all options in his home city and “cannot move to simply enrich himself.” It’s been widely speculated that the open-air stadium proposal could be the way to satisfy the league rules. But Rishe said it might not be enough.

“I think the only way that they wouldn’t leave is if somehow the NFL forced them to stay,” Rishe said. “I know the NFL wants teams to give their cities a reasonable chance to come up with plans. But if both cities have a plan, I suspect that [Kroenke] would – unless the NFL steps in – would want to go to Los Angeles, just because the asset would be more valuable there.”

There’s also the possibility that even if owners vote down a move to Los Angeles that Kroenke may move the team anyway – which would spark costly penalties. But then again, Kroenke is already violating league rules against owning other sports franchises – and not much has happen so far.

If the Rams leave, could St. Louis get another team?

Houston ended up getting an expansion team after the Oilers left for Nashville. The Houston Texans play in state-of-the-art NRG Stadium.
Credit Wikipedia Commons

That may be the biggest question of all – especially if Kroenke takes the Rams back to Los Angeles.

The departure of the Rams would mark the second time in recent decades a football team left St. Louis. And Rishe said that’s not necessarily a good harbinger.

“It certainly wouldn’t bode well for the future,” Rishe said. “But that being said, there are other markets such as Oakland, such as Jacksonville, and even San Diego which are still cities and teams that are not happy with their current facilities. And so if St. Louis were to step up and offer to build something, even if the Rams left, there’s a chance that within five years of the Rams leaving another team will come to town. But that would be a serious red flag that the NFL would have to consider. Even if you have a new facility in St. Louis, they’ve lost two teams.”

But it may not be completely hopeless. The proposed stadium was designed with the idea of attracting a Major League Soccer team – and that’s not an impossibility given the sport’s popularity in St. Louis. Both Cleveland and Houston were awarded expansion teams after the Browns and Oilers left their respective cities.

(Of course, an expansion in the NFL would scuttle the current situation of having eight four-team divisions – and the league may not want to mess up that arrangement.)

Rishe is an advocate of “building something” even if the Rams leave, primarily because it could attract other big-ticket events. Korr, however, said the if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality is foolish.

“It’s a wonderful theme for a good movie. But it’s a lousy theme for urban politics,” Korr said. “Didn’t we try that once before?”

St. Louis Public Radio reporters Stephanie Lecci and Jo Mannies contributed information for this story.