If the passion inside the Peabody Opera House could determine the future of the St. Louis Rams, then the team would probably stay in the Gateway City for eternity.
Of course, it’s not that simple.
The NFL held a public meeting on Tuesday night for Rams fans to sound off on the team’s potential relocation to the Los Angeles area. It’s a required step before a team can considering moving to another market.
Tuesday’s gathering at times resembled a raucous football game: Crowd members dressed up Rams shirts and jerseys cheered loudly in favor of their team and expressed their extreme displeasure at owner Stan Kroenke. And many longtime fans at times expressed exasperation about the team’s predicament.
“Don’t ever question our allegiance to our team. St. Louis loves the Rams,” said Jerry Brendell, who’s been a season ticket holder for the Rams and the St. Louis Football Cardinals for 50 years. “We love them. Nobody attends games that have been subjected to 11 years of mediocre football and five years of the worst football in the history of the game.”
In essence, the public hearings will probably have little bearing on a nearly year-long sports melodrama that’s put professional football’s future in St. Louis in question. A team needs the votes of three-fourths of the NFL’s owners to move – which is a dicey proposition for the Rams and two other franchises thinking of moving to Los Angeles.
While Kroenke has said little about his intentions, he’s unveiled plans for a stadium in Inglewood, Calif., that is primarily funded with private dollars. That’s sparked rampant speculation that Rams are heading back to the Los Angeles area, the market the team left in the 1990s. And it also prompted very palpable backlash from some of the crowd members.
“He’s not involved in the community,” said Hillsboro resident Dean Geary. “If he was more involved and took a role in that, maybe it would be easier to get the funding for the stadium. … He’s never in the community or anything. It’s hard to get corporate support when you don’t support corporate St. Louis.”
A number of speakers contended that Kroenke was not following some of the NFL’s bylaws, including ones prohibiting an owner from moving a team for financial gain. Others said that Kroenke had not done enough to showcase his support for the team’s facility or fans.
“If the NFL does not value St. Louis to keep the Rams here, what kind of message are you sending to Cleveland or Jacksonville or Detroit or Carolina? Smaller markets and many without the support the Rams have in St. Louis,” said Collinsville resident Jill Bauer.
Speaking with reporters after the public hearing, NFL executive Eric Grubman said he was impressed by the crowd’s passion. But in general, he often emphasized to the crowd that it will be NFL owners -- and not the league's staff -- that will determine the team's fate in St. Louis.
In response to a question about whether the event was just a “dog and pony show” that didn’t mean much, he replied: “I can’t guarantee them what weight it’s going to have. But I can guarantee people that I’m coming to dog and pony shows.”
"I think it’s a very emotional night. For them, it’s clearly the time to express their point of view and their passion,” Grubman said. “And frankly for the NFL employees, it’s hard. It’s hard to hear that kind of passion come through and not have answers that make people happy.
“I come away impressed with the passion. How could you not?”
He also said he wasn’t surprised many in the crowd were perturbed at Kroenke’s unwillingness to commit to St. Louis.
“I think that whenever the owner of a franchise is perceived as being willing to leave, it is going to inflame the fans,” Grubman said. “And fans have nothing to give but their loyalty. And they want that in return. And when they think they don’t have it, it’s going to be a pretty tough expression of their points of view.”
As the relocation drama churns on, state and local policymakers are trying to push forward with a roughly $1 billion stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront. Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz are heading a task force trying to get the facility through various private and public channels.
The crowd gave the duo a thunderous ovation when they were introduced. In fact, somebody in the crowd shouted “BUY THE TEAM” when Peacock made brief remarks at the onset of the meeting.
“The fans who spoke this evening represented the St. Louis community and expressed our love for the Rams in an incredibly powerful and convincing manner,” Peacock and Blitz said in a statement after the meeting. “We thank the NFL for the opportunity to be heard, and we are extremely humbled and proud to represent St. Louis in this effort.”
The riverfront project would be funded with state, local and private funds, and is contingent on the Rams or another team agreeing to play in St. Louis. Members of the Board of Aldermen are expected to consider a plan detailing the city’s commitment to the stadium in the next few weeks.
Grubman says owners are looking for three things from a stadium proposal: “The first is there has to be a specific plan. The second is it needs to be actionable. And the third is it has to be attractive to a team.
“The first has been met. There’s a specific plan. The second is it has to be actionable, which means fully financed – whatever the financing proposal has to be – has to be in place. That is not yet complete for the St. Louis proposed stadium. And the third, the attractiveness to a team, I understand that when fans are skeptical because a club may be looking at that and saying ‘it’s not interesting to them.’
“The question is whether it’s interesting to the rest of the 32,” he added. “That’s the purpose of a vote – to make that assessment on a 32-team basis, not on a one-team basis.”
But the stadium plan hasn’t been universally embraced. Some state lawmakers are threatening to withhold payments on stadium bonds if they’re not first approved through either a legislative or statewide vote. And some local officials have expressed dismay that county and city voters aren’t deciding whether to approve stadium funding.
When asked if the threats of state lawmakers should be taken seriously, Grubman replied: “I can’t assess the seriousness of it. I’m not an expert on these legislative matters.”
“We’ve said all along we respect the communities,” Grubman said. “We respect the political leaders. We appreciate the support of the fans and we appreciate the support of the leadership of communities. … But as to state legislative risk, I’m not the expert and you should probably ask somebody else.”
For his part, St. Louis County resident Karl Sides was optimistic about the progress of the stadium. But Sides – who was dressed up in his Hall of Fame-worthy “Ram Man” costume – said both Kroenke and the NFL must step up.
“Stan Kroenke, I don’t have a message except for ‘You know what? Put up or shut up.’ If you want to be an owner, embrace the city and we’ll embrace you. We’ll support you if you respect the city,” Sides said. “As for the NFL? Live by your rules. We have a commissioner that as of late has made many, many poor decisions. So what guarantees do we have as a NFL market that he’s going to make the right decision and live by the letter of the law for the relocation guidelines.”