PHOENIX — Man, it’s hard being an NFL fan in St. Louis. After experiencing the ups and mostly downs of the last 55 years, here we are again faced with the prospect of losing an NFL team. And, worse, listening to questions about whether our market can support a team that would play in a new stadium being planned on the riverfront.
In short, having to prove we’re worthy. Ugh.
Several owners spoke strongly about St. Louis, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a member of the league’s Committee on Los Angeles Opportunities. Kraft said the league has an "obligation" to have a team in St. Louis if it steps up with a new stadium. Commissioner Roger Goodell said all the politically correct things in remarks at the end of the meetings Wednesday.
Grubman, however, sounded an ominous tone in words to the Orange County (Calif.) Register.
"Your supposition is that it’s just public money that turns the key in the lock that opens the door that makes the market viable," Grubman said. "That’s not all there is. Let’s put the pieces together. You have to have a stadium and a financing plan wherever that money comes from, public, private or a combination of the two. You have to have a market assessment that suggests that the market can and will be healthy for the long term so that stadium plan is supported.
"And if you do that, then you’ve demonstrated viability against relocation guidelines, but it still goes to a vote. But the reason I make that distinction is that I could see a scenario where a financing plan is assembled and land is assembled and an entitlement is assembled, but the market assessment is dim. And in that scenario, I don’t know that the owners would necessarily feel compelled to keep the team there."
Seriously? A market assessment that’s "dim"? The league is doing surveys in all four markets, but shouldn’t history trump that? What more should St. Louis have to do? It’s as if Grubman is setting up an "out" for the owners should they decide to let the Rams move.
What truly hurts is the absurd notion that we have to somehow prove ourselves as fans. Through a survey, no less.
We were questioned in 1988, despite Busch Stadium being filled for Cardinals games to well over 90 percent capacity despite the losing seasons. Former Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill told the league he had issues competing in a baseball town, carefully neglecting to mention the team’s 107-125-4 record for the final 16 seasons under his watch. They were allowed to leave for Arizona in 1988 after 28 seasons in St. Louis despite not having a promise for a new stadium.
Then when the St. Louis NFL Partnership was working to be chosen as an expansion city in the early ’90s, we frequently heard league people refer to St. Louis as "a baseball town." It certainly is, but more than two decades of winning will do that. In the ’70s, a decade of losing for the baseball team, Busch Stadium was often a ghost town. There were years where the Cardinals averaged a mere 15,000 fans a game.
After the NFL picked Carolina and Jacksonville — Jacksonville? — over St. Louis as expansion teams, fans came through again a year later, purchasing PSLs to the point that many hopeful buyers were shut out. The deal was closed, enabling the Rams to arrive in 1995. Only later did we learn how bad that deal would turn out to be.
The club’s negotiators simply wanted a provision that money be put away every year or every five years to keep the dome up to top standards. Our civic leaders refused. Instead, they agreed to the controversial first-tier clause that mandated the dome be in the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums in 2005 and 2015 on a lease that would expire in 2025. The Rams gave the city a pass in 2005, but not so the next time around. And that’s why we are where we are, with the Rams allowed to go year to year on their lease.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp, Inc., was involved in the talks then.
LET’S GO, RAMS: Check out these photos of fans and the excitement around Rams football.
"St. Louis only has itself to blame," Ganis told me this week at the league meetings. "We didn’t want this deal. We knew it wouldn’t be good for the community. I remember walking out of a room and telling Dick Gephardt (U.S. representative from Missouri from 1997-2005), ‘You’ve got to convince them not to do this.’ But they didn’t want to spend the money, and we were only talking in the single-digit millions each year."
Former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who spearheaded the negotiations for the city, also knew it would likely come back to haunt us. Eagleton reportedly said to confidants, "I know it’s a bad deal, but I’ll be dead when it does." Eagleton passed away in March 2007.
There have been good times with the Rams, including two Super Bowls and one championship, but not many. They have an overall record of 135-184-1 in 20 St. Louis seasons and are 49-110-1 in the last 10, the best of which was 8-8 (once).
Yet fan support has remained strong, despite the losing and uncertainty hanging over the franchise. That certainly was not the case with the Rams in Los Angeles, where attendance was well below 50,000 a game in several years before they moved, and never in their last 13 seasons in LA did they average as much as 60,000. By comparison, the St. Louis Rams have never been below 52,000, and in 12 out of 20 seasons they’ve been over 60,000, including 10 above 64,000.
And now, just as we did from 1985 until the Cardinals left, we face the threat of a team abandoning us … again.
How ironic it is that after the Rams arrived in 1995, we all thought how great it was that Kroenke became a part-owner. It had to be a plus that Enos Stanley Kroenke, named for former Cardinals baseball greats Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial, was Missouri-born, right?
The team was valued at $200 million then, $750 million when he bought 60 percent of the team in 2010 and, according to Forbes, is now worth $930 million, a number that is probably low after the Buffalo Bills recently were sold for $1.4 billion.
Now, 20 years after the Rams arrived, Kroenke is threatening to rip out our hearts once again. How much more can we take?
The 2015 season will be the 49th for the NFL in St. Louis. The city’s overall record is 321-386-15 with 29 losing seasons. The 50th Super Bowl will be played in the San Francisco area in February. Will we be able to watch the NFL here for a 50th season?
We don’t know now, but the thought of the answer being no is something we never should even have to contemplate.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.