Chicken Little here.
At the risk of offending the sensibilities of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports staff, I thought you might like to keep up on the news from the Los Angeles Times regarding progress toward getting a $1 billion-plus stadium that would bring an NFL team—or two—back to that city.
For some reason, the Times found it newsworthy that billionaire Philip Anschutz’s AEG Enterprises has cleared a major legislative hurdle to its stadium plan by protecting it from lengthy lawsuits. For those of us hoping that the often-fickle Left Coasters wouldn’t get their act together from the NFL’s point of view, this was not a great development.
It means the powerful AEG sports juggernaut is getting perilously close to having a stadium deal far enough along that the process of luring an NFL team to L.A. could soon be moving full-steam ahead. This, too, is not so great if you happen to be a fan of one of the five franchises that AEG publicly targeted for acquisition just a few months ago.
One of those is the St. Louis Rams. But the story about what’s happening on the L.A. stadium front literally received no mention in the Post.
Had you read a copy of the Post Thursday, you might have learned about a merger in Richard Childress Racing or the naming of a new UFC 137 matchup or Christopher Froome winning the 17th stage of the Spanish Vuelta.
But not a word about a major political development in California regarding a stadium for which the Rams have been publicly targeted.
Allow me some disclaimers. The news about AEG’s progress is no reason for panic in St. Louis. It doesn’t mean the Rams are going back to L.A. I’m not suggesting we all freak out. And, by the way, the whole subject gives me no joy: I’ve been a Rams PSL holder and fan since the day the team arrived in St. Louis.
Also, I have never predicted that a Rams’ return to L.A. is anything near a certainty. I do think it's more likely than most St. Louisans realize—thanks largely to the lack of coverage here. But Anschutz does not have a done deal, and there’s always the possibility that San Diego and/or Jacksonville or another city could be better targets than St. Louis.
As for Kroenke’s stated loyalty to St. Louis as a native Missourian, one can hope that’s a factor in all this, but it’s beyond naive to think he’d put sentiment above business. It doesn’t help that his St. Louis franchise is one of the least valuable in the nation, as documented by its 30th-place rank out of 32 teams in the respected Forbes list released just yesterday.
Given the solid fan support the Rams have received in St. Louis, it’s pretty clear that stadium and market factors weigh heavily in those Forbes listings. This, too, is hardly a cause for optimism with regard to the Rams’ future here.
That list put the Rams value at $761 million, far less than half the value of the first-place, $1.85 billion Dallas Cowboys, who play in a state-of-the-art $1 billion stadium, a major reason for the franchise’s worth. Consider the possible value of a franchise playing in the much larger Los Angeles market in a more state-of-the-art stadium (costing $100 million or more than what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spent).
But the real issue here isn’t whether the Rams are staying or leaving. That’s all speculation. What’s not speculative is this: The Post—and consequently the rest of the local media—are in an absolute state of denial about the entire subject.
The Post simply won’t cover the story. It’s as if there’s embargo on any news coming out of Los Angeles.
I’ve been in the publishing business for 34 years here, and I’ve rarely seen anything quite like the news blackout that has been imposed on the subject of the possibility that the St. Louis Rams could once again become—in the not-too-distant future—the Los Angeles Rams.
St. Louis should not only be tracking what’s happening in Los Angeles, but it should be following the local stories in the various markets that are also considered candidates for relocation to L.A. This is a dynamic and evolving and interesting situation, and it’s just stunning that the Post pretends that it’s not happening.
When Post sports columnist Bernie Miklasz indignantly attacked me for bringing up the subject, he suggested it was a waste of time to speculate about this because it is what it is: Either our side will put together a deal that Kroenke can accept or he won’t. There’s nothing we can do about it, so why panic?
It’s the sports-business equivalent of refusing to cover Milwaukee Brewers’ games when they win on the theory that it’s just a downer for Cardinals’ fans, and there’s nothing we can do about it if the Brewers widen their lead in the pennant race.
The news is traditionally not limited to subject matter that the reader can do something about.
The NFL return-to-L.A. story is news. It may be good news or bad news or somewhere in the middle, depending upon how it unfolds, but it’s news.
In any case, Miklasz has the whole thing upside down. The future of the Rams likely depends less on what St. Louis offers and more on what—if anything—Anschutz and L.A. can bring to the party. And on whether another city scoots ahead of us.
If there’s a viable L.A. option available to Kroenke via his friend and partner, then it’s almost unimaginable that any offer St. Louis produced could compete with it. On the other hand, if there’s no über-opportunity forthcoming from L.A., it’s hard to imagine Kroenke making a lateral move to some other mid-level market.
Translation: It is important to follow the news pertaining to the NFL’s return to L.A.—be it about the stadium; local competitors and critics of Anschutz; the word coming out of San Diego, Jacksonville, and Minneapolis; and so on. I should say it’s important if you wish to be even somewhat informed.
Rather than cover the relevant facts, the Post staffers remain in denial, and I’m not sure why. One explanation is that they really believe—naively—that the presence of a Rams lease running through 2014 presents a “timeline” that would somehow prevent Kroenke from making a deal that might be worth hundreds of millions to him.
One source tells me there’s a good chance that St. Louis will be forced to throw itself into technical default of the lease next year when it’s unable to meet a 2012 deadline for asserting that it can have the Edward Jones Dome in the “top tier” of NFL stadiums.
And even it that’s not true, St. Louis would have little choice but to accept a buyout of the lease from Kroenke next year if he decided to move to L.A. to play in the new Farmer’s Field in 2015.
Would we really want to cling to a lame-duck team for three miserable seasons, knowing that it was leaving at the end of the lease? That’s like having your wife says she’s leaving you for another man, but she’s going to live at home with you for a few years until he gets on his feet.
If the Rams were to decide, however reluctantly, that the team is leaving St. Louis, it would be a decision made and announced next year, not in 2014 or after. And the lease and its “timeline” will be irrelevant.
No matter, the Post sportswriters steadfastly believe that all is well on the St. Louis front. They are happy to report that the Rams are going nowhere.
Just this week, sports columnist Bryan Burwell—like Miklasz, a good guy and a fine writer—took it upon himself to assure Rams fans that things were looking up with a column headlined: “Positive signs suggest St. Louis can keep the Rams.”
The subhead proclaimed, “Not only is the team on the rise, but moves in Jefferson City could signal big news ahead.”
For those of us who follow state politics, that sounds like it came from another universe. It is true that the legislature is considering (in the current special-session economic development package) increased funding for marketing efforts that could help St. Louis and Kansas City lure major amateur sporting events, such as the NCAA Final Four.
But this has nothing to do with funding facilities, it has nothing to do with professional sports, and it has nothing to do with any decision that Kroenke makes or doesn’t make about the Rams. Burwell’s assertion that “state lawmakers finally get it” regarding the need to help St. Louis was breathtaking.
Missouri’s legislature is about as likely to get generous with St. Louis in a way that would be meaningful to Kroenke keeping the Rams here as it is to campaign for Obamacare. It ain’t happening.
Burwell also was strangely impressed that “several informed sources have said that at no point in any discussions with local officials concerning the dome lease has Kroenke ever brought up relocating the franchise back to LA.”
Of course they haven’t. Kroenke and his people are anything but stupid. What possible reason would they have for breathing a word about a return to L.A. if it were a factor?
As I’ve suggested, if Kroenke decides he wants to move to L.A. and has the ability to do so, then the game’s over for St. Louis anyway. Nothing St. Louis could offer would matter, so why bring up L.A. for leverage?
Kroenke already has all the leverage in the world with regard to St. Louis, and smart people on both sides of the table know it. With his resources, he is hardly a captive to St. Louis: He needs leverage like he needs a car loan.
In that vein, it’s actually a little troubling that Kroenke hasn’t simply come forth—out of loyalty to St. Louis and Missouri—and simply stated clearly and without reservation that the team isn’t moving to Los Angeles. Why let speculation about that distract from his exciting team if there’s no chance of a departure?
He has done nothing of the kind, and he could have. It is neither panic nor conspiracy theory to infer that this should be a concern to St. Louis fans.
But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that Kroenke could be persuaded to stay here, as Burwell suggested, by being given a bunch of free land in the Bottle District area of downtown, at the old Chrysler plant, or wherever. That wouldn’t bother me if he was the one paying for the stadium on that land—and not the taxpayers—but I don’t believe it’s Kroenke’s custom to be reaching into his own pocket to pay for that sort of capital investment.
This is not the Walmart way. It’s hard to imagine Kroenke (and the NFL, for that matter) not wanting massive public subsidy for a new stadium, and I can’t imagine St. Louis coming up with it.
Take this to the bank, though: Not one dime for such a purpose will be coming from those folks who “finally get it” in Jefferson City. No way, no how.
Still, the bigger question is whether it matters what St. Louis offers. And with Anschutz now moving quickly over the hurdles to his stadium plan becoming a reality in Los Angeles, the next several months—not years—might be a very nervous time for fans of the handful of NFL teams who are in his sights.
St. Louis is on the list. So Rams fans need to hope that San Diego, Jacksonville, or another city moves ahead of us—which is certainly possible—and then that Anschutz and the NFL aren’t looking for a second team for L.A. That would start the music again.
This isn’t about panic or hysteria, just about reality. Here’s hoping the Rams stay in St. Louis forever.
But we might want to start covering the story.
SLM co-owner Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.
Commentary by Ray Hartmann