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So far, St. Louis doesn’t get it.
The uncharted new world of Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s official free agency has begun with two news items this week that indicate a suspension of reality on the part of those charged with persuading the team not to leave.
The first was an amazing comment by Greg Smith, attorney for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC), threatening to sue the Rams should they break their lease. The second was the open assertion that St. Louis was “making a pre-emptive strike” against the Rams by retaining the services of Goldman Sachs to figure out what to do next.
As to the first item, in the context of soothing unfounded fears that the Rams would somehow be bolting immediately—a ridiculous straw man—here’s how the story was reported by the Post-Dispatch:
"Officials with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which runs the Dome, say there is no clause that allows the team to buy its way out. The CVC’s attorney, Greg Smith, said he would sue to block the Rams from leaving early.
'The Rams are obligated to play all of their home games at the Edward Jones Dome through March 15, 2015,' Smith said. 'Remedies set out under the lease would include injunctive relief.'
What does that mean?
'It means a judge,' he said, ‘could tell them they can’t move.'”
Here’s the problem with this story: It speculates about a threat that does not exist and has never existed. Kroenke and the Rams have said or done absolutely nothing to suggest that they intend to break their lease with the CVC before the end of 2014.
You do not do this. No rational landlord threatens a tenant in good standing with litigation based on a hypothetical (and in this case, highly unlikely) scenario in which they might break a lease at some future date.
I don’t care whether it was in response to a reporter’s question, or whether he was just overreacting to some unwarranted criticism that the CVC has received for the dome-arbitration loss, but it was foolish and irresponsible for Smith even to imply that a hostile legal action would be taken against the Rams. Be assured that a public statement like this will come to the personal attention of Kroenke.
This is what’s known as tugging on Superman’s cape.
The next day, the Post-Dispatch also reported that the public agency that owns the Edward Jones Dome “has hired Goldman Sachs...to keep the Rams in the Dome or, if that’s not possible, hang on to a football team in St. Louis.”
There’s plenty of fodder for cynicism here, beginning with the preposterous notion that for a mere $20,000 per month, Goldman’s “guru of sports stadiums in the United States” can somehow make St. Louis’ dome situation all better. Perhaps there’s a role here for Goldman Sachs and its financing expertise—a dubious proposition, but not impossible—but once again, the fundamentally flawed mentality of the people in charge was exposed by the story.
Citing Jim Shrewsbury, former aldermanic president, who now heads the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, the story had this incredible passage:
“The deal is also a pre-emptive strike—Shrewsbury made a point to note that Goldman is working for the Dome authority and not for Rams owner Stan Kroenke.”
A pre-emptive strike? The key officials charged with persuading Kroenke to give St. Louis a chance are speaking openly about pre-emptive strikes against him?
Do these people not understand who they are dealing with? St. Louis does not control its NFL destiny, not even a little bit, because as of the end of the 2014 season, Kroenke and the Rams can take their team wherever they please.
Instead of exhibiting bravado for local consumption, those hoping to keep the Rams here might want to consider a little more humble approach to dealing with a man who's holding pretty much all of the cards in his hands. As far back as November 2010, I’ve been saying as much.
I’ve always said this is a business decision for Kroenke, not an emotional one, and that St. Louis should be most concerned about its apparent decline as an NFL market. Ranking 30th in attendance and 31st in franchise value out of 32 teams is not a good sign.
I’ve also said, and continue to believe, that if Kroenke were presented with the opportunity to return the franchise to Los Angeles—a move arguably worth tens of millions annually and hundreds of millions in the long run—he would do it in a heartbeat. And if L.A. were not available, some other market offering more than St. Louis might open up.
Kroenke, as a free agent with a year-to-year lease as long as he’d like, can simply sit back and wait until the right opportunity presents itself.
I have been called “Chicken Little” and a Rams hater and worse for saying all of this. But this isn’t about me, not any more than it’s about the dreamy sportswriters at the Post-Dispatch, who misconstrue realism about the business side of football as panic or cynicism or shortsightedness or even hatred.
With public support from state government completely out of the question, and both the city and county struggling to provide basic services, it’s hard to imagine that St. Louis can produce anywhere near the amount of public subsidy that the NFL and its franchise owners demand. For my part, as a season ticket holder from day one, I sure hope that the Rams stay, but I can’t imagine supporting a raid on the taxpayers to keep them from leaving.
Besides, even if Goldman Sachs were to work some sort of stadium-financing magic here (an extreme long shot), it’s not at all a certainty that St. Louis has either the corporate base or fan base to compete with Los Angeles or other markets.
About the only way St. Louis has a prayer of keeping the Rams here is if local corporate honchos (with whom Kroenke doesn’t appear that close) can convince him that they’re so enthusiastic about the team that they will dramatically increase their sponsorships of his team if it stays. He’d also require all sorts of free land and corporate welfare and Lord knows what else. But at the end of the day, filling the luxury suites and club seating and selling the stadium's naming rights and advertising and sponsorships is what matters most to an NFL team.
I’m not sure this is a real possibility here. I don’t think we can say for sure that St. Louis’ private sector is either willing or able to support three professional sports franchises in 2013 and beyond.
But this much is certain: St. Louis won’t be in the game at all if it keeps kicking Kroenke around.
SLM co-owner is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.
Commentary by Ray Hartmann