For some, the NFL's departure from St. Louis is a 'gut punch'
When Stan Kroenke ended his self-imposed exile from the media yesterday, he wasn’t bringing good tidings to St. Louis sports fans.
The taciturn billionaire owner of the St. Louis Rams had plunged the region into a yearlong whirlwind after unveiling plans to build a lavish stadium in Inglewood, Calif. And NFL owners overwhelmingly approved his vision during a special meeting in Houston.
Even though he was painted as a cartoonish villain here for trying to move his team, Kroenke contended yesterday his relocation effort wasn’t meant to be taken personally.
“What I would say is I understand the emotional side,” Kroenke said. “I have a responsibility also to take care of the organization and a responsibility to my 31 other partners to have a first class facility. Because it’s where they play too.”
Needless to say, contentions served up in a Mid-Missouri drawl have provided little comfort – especially for people like St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. He pulled no punches on Wednesday against Kroenke or other NFL officials, observing it “was pathetic watching these guys try to speak and not even be able to verbalize what their real thoughts were.”
“Let me start by saying something Stan Kroenke did not say: I want to thank all the very strong and loyal St. Louis Rams fans who have done a great job of supporting a team throughout the years – and came out in force to support our efforts to keep the team in St. Louis,” Slay said during a Wednesday morning press conference.
Unlike allegedly inarticulate NFL brass, St. Louis residents have plenty to say about the Rams’ departure. They’re reacting with anger, frustration and, in the case of Janelle Brimer, quite a bit of sadness.
“I went into the ugly cry,” Brimer said. “Nose running. Face was swollen this morning. I mean, heartbroken. Heartbroken.”
Rams fans are directing much of their ire toward Kroenke, who used an ill-fated clause requiring a “top tier” stadium to bolt for the lucrative Los Angeles market. But they’re also mad at the NFL, especially since St. Louis’ efforts appeared to be all for naught.
State and local policymakers quickly put together a plan to build a $1.1 billion stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront. Public funding comprised a big chunk of that project, which stoked a lot of controversy throughout the past year. But the Rams trashed the project and even contended it would lead to financial ruin. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell chastised stadium backers for asking for too much for the league. (Even though the league may end up giving the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders loans for potential news stadiums.)
This rankled Gary Kreie, a retired Boeing worker who purchased a personal seat license when the Rams moved to St. Louis in the mid-1990s. Kreie said even though stadium task force co-chairmen Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz went to the mat to the city, it didn’t seem like they had a fair opportunity.
“I don’t think St. Louis ever had a chance,” Kreie said. “I wish they would have told us this before we went through this whole pretend process.”
Relocation will have some tangible economic consequences – especially for those who worked with or for the Rams. But that’s only part of what’s going on, at least according to St. Louis Alderman Jack Coatar.
“It’s an initial gut punch,” said Coatar, D-7th Ward. “I think it’s going to take some time to heal after this. People love pro sports. They love NFL football. Losing a team for the second time is tough. But we can survive without NFL football. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”
'Bread and circuses?'
Coatar is referencing how the St. Louis Football Cardinals became the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988. And the fact that two NFL squads have now left the Gateway City doesn’t bode well for the sport coming back.
For some, that may not be a bad thing.
For starters, the Rams hadn’t posted a winning season since 2003. And that probably had a lot to do with the low attendance figures that the Rams complained about in their relocation application.
James Lindsey said the Rams’ spiral into perpetual mediocrity probably didn’t help drum up attendance figures – or help sell scalped tickets.
“Say for instance you had – and I’m just talking out of the box here – a $100 ticket, right?” said Lindsey soon after the Rams’ relocation request was approved. “You would have to give that away for 20 bucks. A lot of people were actually giving the tickets away. They weren’t actually paying for it.”
And the effort to keep the Rams wasn’t without its critics. Some didn’t like how stadium backers recoiled at putting any public funding proposal up for a vote. Legislators didn’t like how Gov. Jay Nixon wanted to issue state bonds for the project without assent from the legislature or a referendum.
“Today a lot of people are feeling emotions. I myself am feeling furious with the NFL and Mr. Kroenke for their willingness to leave the taxpayers of Missouri [hung out] to dry still owing $72 million over the next six years in payments for the Edward Jones Dome,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who strongly opposed Nixon’s efforts to issue stadium debt by fiat.
St. Louis resident Andrew Arkills said the city had more pressing matters to deal with than funding a new stadium – such as battling chronicle homeless and poverty. “It kind of gives you pause as to why we’re addressing football, but not some of these other things with the same level of energy and effort,” he said.
And while sitting in a Valley Park Starbucks, Steve Deibel said furious efforts to save the Rams’ showcased the region’s skewed priorities.
“I think people are more focused on the bread and circuses than they are on the important issues,” Deibel said. “And I think that’s why we have the bread and circuses. And that’s why there’s so much focus on sports and movies and music. Those are all distractions.”
Is it OK not to be an NFL city?
Dan Elfenbein is a professor at Washington University’s business school who has studied some of the economic issues around sports. He said there are intangible benefits to the NFL when a team is baked into the fiber of a community – like the Packers in Green Bay or the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
But he went on to say that the Rams’ lackluster performance on the football field combined with the city’s other entertainment options (like, you know, the St. Louis Cardinals) could make the relocation easier to take.
“I think if you ask most folks who are engaged in creative work, knowledge work and entrepreneurship if they would rather have access to an NFL team locally or to send their kid to a very good public school, they’d choose the later,” Elfenbein said. “They’d choose the public schools.”
That may be why St. Louisans like Cedric Jackson reacted to the Rams relocation with indifference. He said he considered the football Cardinals, not the Rams, to be St. Louis original football team. And with some exceptions, Jackson didn’t think the team captured the city’s imagination or interest.
“This is really a baseball city – it’s not a football city anyway,” Jackson said. “Now when it comes to baseball? Now you’re talking!”
After the way the Rams left, Brimer isn't sure she'd want the NFL back in town. She said the league was like "having a really hot boyfriend that you were, like, in awe with" that "couldn’t do anything wrong and then they said something really kind of ignorant, or like ‘you look really fat in that’ and now you’re like, the shine is off."
"They were told ‘keep working at it. Keep trying,’ you know, you guys 'Throw your hat in the ring. You’ve got a shot’ and I think they went, and I just don’t think it was met on the other side," Brimer said.
Not everybody, though, believes that Tuesday marked the end of the NFL in St. Louis. Gary Woodward said he believes another team will venture over to St. Louis -- at least one day.
“I think that we’ll get another team. I really do. There’s a lot of people who really wanted to keep this one, but they knew it was an uphill battle," Woodward said. “I was here when the Cardinals left, and so that was kind of a shock. But the weird thing was that the Rams brought their mascot here, and we have no rams here.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Marshal Griffin contributed information to this story.