In St. Louis, football finds fragile foothold
The televised spectacle that is Monday Night Football once meant a packed stadium, an enthralled home audience and the sporting nation's undivided attention.
Not in St. Louis, and particularly not this Monday, when the near-dynastic St. Louis Cardinals can anticipate a red army at Busch Stadium for Game 5 of the World Series.
Eight blocks away at the antiseptic Edward Jones Dome - an indoor stadium attached to the city's convention center that the St. Louis Rams say falls far below their needs - the prime-time matchup between the struggling Rams and the Seattle Seahawks will likely feature thousands of empty seats.
The Rams' average home attendance of 55,395 this season is second-worst in the 32-team NFL, ahead of only the Oakland Raiders. On Friday, upper-level tickets could be bought online for as little as $7.
Pro football may have a firm foothold as America's game, but in these baseball-mad parts, the NFL is decidedly second fiddle. And with the Rams' lease set to expire next year and the stadium authority's rejecting a $700 million upgrade sought by the team, fans are girded for the possibility of a second NFL exodus in 30 years. The football St. Louis Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1987, and the city went nearly a decade without a franchise until the Los Angeles Rams arrived in 1995.
''Clearly, the Rams have been terrible and the Cards have been astonishingly good,'' said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Rainford said from 2007 through 2011, the Rams compiled the worst five-year record in NFL history, including a one-win season in 2009 and two-win seasons in 2008 and 2011. That 2000 Super Bowl win is a distant memory.
The Cardinals, by contrast, have been a study in consistent excellence, with World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 and playoff appearances in 10 of the past 14 seasons. The team drew nearly 3.4 million fans to Busch Stadium this season, averaging 41,602, the second highest in the MLB. It was the 10th straight season where attendance topped 3 million, and the 17th time in franchise history.
Meanwhile, fan interest in the Rams wanes as their on-field performance and long-term future is shaky. Season attendance declined from 522,608 in 2006 to 396,925 last year, an average of 49,615 in the 66,000-seat dome.
Apathy has grown so strong that the Greater St. Louis Quarterback Club quietly dissolved several years ago.
''I'm the only person left right now,'' club secretary Kathy Danielsen said. ''The Rams haven't been good for so long, I guess they figured, what's the use?''
The Rams can break their stadium lease after the 2014 season or opt for an annual contract after a non-binding arbitration that favored the team's stadium upgrade proposal over a more modest effort sought by local entities was rejected in July. A clause in the Rams' lease requires the local convention group provide the team with a ''first-tier'' stadium - defined as among the top eight of 32 National Football League teams - by 2005, and again by 2015, or 20 years after the building opened.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has taken over negotiations with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, a rural Missouri native who also owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets, the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, Denver's pro soccer and lacrosse teams, as well as the top-flight English soccer club Arsenal in London, where the NFL plays at least one regular season game since 2007.
Kroenke has previously said he wants to keep the team in St. Louis, though his connection to London and the NFL's increased efforts there make some uneasy. Civic and business leaders in Los Angeles are also pushing for an NFL return, but efforts to build a stadium there have stagnated.
Nixon wasn't available for comment late last week, his spokesman said.
''If I had to predict, I'd say they're going to be here,'' Rainford said. ''They don't have any leverage at this point. L.A. is cloudy, and there aren't any other markets stepping forward. I don't detect any sense of urgency on the Rams' part.''
Nor is there much visible sign of outward enthusiasm for the Rams, as the Cardinals again dominate local interest deep into the fall. Ubiquitous ''Let's go CARDS!'' banners hang from restaurant awnings, front doors, highway overpasses and corporate office towers across the city, including at bars and hotels adjacent to the dome.
Even the tony downtown Missouri Athletic Club, billed in a preseason program as ''the official social club of the St. Louis Rams'' and whose members include coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, had a lobby festooned with red and white balloons as the World Series kicked off.
The Cardinals' dominance - on and off the field - even garners attention in the Rams' locker room, particularly among players who grew up or attended college in Missouri.
''I've been to a bunch of Cards games,'' said kicker Greg Zuerlein, a Nebraska native who attended Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. ''It seems like they're always there, right near the top. And that's where we want to be.''
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