Two hours before kickoff, football fans pile onto the light-rail cars that will carry them downtown for that day’s contest between their hometown Rams and the visiting Denver Broncos.
Some wearing Rams blue and gold fret aloud about the legendary passing prowess of Denver’s Peyton Manning, who, to their unexpected joy, will come up short at the end of the day (Rams 22, Broncos 7).
But in the rear of the train, talk centers not on the battle with Denver but on the long-term game plan of 67-year-old Rams owner Stan Kroenke.
Will he keep the Rams in St. Louis? Should he get something less than the promise of a new, taxpayer-financed stadium to replace the drab Edward Jones Dome?
Or might the billionaire husband of Wal-Mart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke move the team to its former home, Los Angeles, as early as next year if Missouri taxpayers refuse to pony up?
“It’s all about corporate greed,” says Roger Clausen, a 60-year-old computer programmer from suburban Crestwood, Mo.
Across the aisle, 37-year-old Kurt Deschler of Concord, Mo., nods amen. But he concedes that Kroenke and the Rams have the upper hand thanks to a stadium lease that many consider lopsided in favor of the team.
Unless local and state taxpayers as far away as Kansas City come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to essentially rebuild the dome or help pay for a new open-air stadium, the Rams could bolt with league permission in 2015.
If that should happen, St. Louis would become the rare two-time loser of an NFL franchise, having seen the Cardinals depart for Arizona in 1988 and not getting another team until the Rams arrived in 1995.
“Suddenly people are in the same position again,” Deschler says. “They’re shell-shocked.”
That may be more a matter of civic pride than pocketbooks.
Many economists and sociologists say the benefits of being a major league sports city are highly overrated, both in terms of the economic and emotional benefits.
Yet according to a Harvard University study, $18 billion in public subsidies have gone for building and improving pro stadiums in the past 20 years, including hundreds of millions for stadium upgrades in Kansas City.
Gov. Jay Nixon maintains that keeping the Rams in St. Louis is not only one of his personal priorities but also “a matter of city and state pride, and one of international significance.” The day after the November election, Nixon appointed a pair of St. Louis area business executives to come up with a stadium plan by the first of the year.
If that plan were to include big public subsidies, it would face big hurdles, starting with stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly.
“Something like this would be extraordinarily difficult to pass and justify,” the incoming speaker of the house, Rep. John Diehl, from the St. Louis suburb of Town and Country, told The Star.
Any new local tax dollars used to build stadiums must also receive voter approval in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Passage could be a tough sell, even in a city that still cherishes the memory of the Rams’ 2000 Super Bowl victory.
For one thing, Kroenke hasn’t exactly endeared himself since becoming majority owner in 2010. His nickname is “Silent Stan,” owing to his public silence during the two years the stadium debate has been raging.
Then there’s the team’s poor performance since losing the 2002 Super Bowl, says Ken Joggerst as he looks out from the concourse of the Jones Dome to where a new stadium might be built nearer the Mississippi River.
“We haven’t had a winning season in 11 years,” the St. Genevieve, Mo., man says.
The 66,000-seat Edward Jones Dome was built on spec in the early 1990s for the express purpose of landing an NFL team after the Cardinals left town.
Built at a cost of $300 million (more than $500 million in today’s dollars), it was financed almost entirely with public money.
Were the Rams to skip town, that obligation would continue several more years: $12 million annually from the state and $6 million each from city and county governments.
For Missouri taxpayers, it was the largest subsidy ever directed in support of a professional sports venue. To appease Kansas City interests, the state agreed to earmark $3 million a year for upkeep at the Truman Sports Complex and $2 million for the Bartle Hall convention center.
The Kansas City subsidy continues. The state also awarded $50 million in tax credits initially for the most recent renovations of Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. The Chiefs later got an additional $25 million in credits for stadium improvements and a training facility in St. Joseph.
But nothing comes close to the tax support awarded the dome, which, according to the Rams and others, is a lousy place to watch football when compared to some of the newer NFL stadiums.
Two years ago, Time magazine ranked it the seventh worst in the league, which is crucial. The stadium lease requires that it always be “top tier,” which means among the top eight among all 31 stadiums in the league based on certain measurements.
Otherwise, the Rams can get out of the lease, which is where we are now.
Back in 2012, the team proposed a major stadium renovation to achieve top-tier status. It was estimated to cost between $700 million and $900 million and would have meant tearing down half the dome to expand seating areas and add more natural light.
A retractable roof and transparent wall that opens to let in fresh air on a nice day were on the wish list.
For fans in the dim and claustrophobic upper deck, that would have been a blessing.
“It’s dark and it’s depressing,” says an off-duty police officer named Tim on the day of the Denver game. While he declines to give his last name because he is on a drug task force, he gladly gives his opinion.
“You feel trapped in here,” he says.
Depending on where you sit, it’s hard to track the action. While the murky sound system has been replaced, stats on the video boards can be hard to see.
At 520 square feet, the screens are less than one-tenth the size of the biggest board at Arrowhead Stadium.
The dome’s owner, the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, countered with a more modest plan valued at about $120 million that would have required the Rams to kick in half. But an arbitration board sided with the team in 2013.
As of Jan. 28, the Rams can get out of their 30-year lease 10 years ahead of schedule and then can choose to go year to year.
Move to LA
To leave St. Louis, Kroenke would need approval from three-fourths of his fellow team owners and prove that the community was refusing to take steps to satisfy the lease.
Nixon’s efforts negate that argument for now, but it hasn’t stopped speculation that Kroenke has his sights on the more lucrative Los Angeles market, where some say the team would be worth twice what it’s worth now.
At $930 million, Forbes ranked the Rams last in the league, compared to the Chiefs at $1.1 billion and No. 1 Dallas at $3.2 billion.
Kroenke only added to the conjecture when he bought 60 acres in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood last winter. Then on Nov. 6, the same day Nixon made his announcement, Rams representatives met privately with that city’s mayor.
Many fans fault Kroenke for not being more candid about his intentions, but Rams operations officer Kevin Demoff made it clear in a radio interview this fall that the status quo won’t do.
In an era where watching games on TV is often preferable to seeing them in person, a new, state-of-the-art stadium is a must.
“Whether it’s downtown, whether it’s in the county, whether it’s somewhere else,” Demoff said, “I think we’d be in favor of it.”
To some, a move would seem like an act of betrayal. Enos Stanley Kroenke grew up in Mora, Mo., and was named after two St. Louis Cardinals baseball hall of famers, Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.
That he might now be thinking of packing up for LA unless a new stadium is built is “sickening,” says 27-year-old Rams fan Ryan Hoff at a tailgate party before the Denver game.
“But that’s the way of professional sports.”
This wouldn’t be the first time a potential move to Los Angeles figured in a stadium deal.
Since the Rams and Raiders left in the ’90s, the possibility has prompted the legislatures in Minnesota and elsewhere to open their purse strings to keep the local team.
“There’s always talk of moving to LA,” said Rick Eckstein, a professor at Villanova University who co-authored the book “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums.”
But Eckstein said he’d be “stunned” if the Rams moved.
His prediction: They’ll squeeze something out of the taxpayers that will improve their situation.
Whatever that is, if it involves state money, expect Kansas City officials to want something as well, says Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority.
That wouldn’t necessarily mean more money for Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. Other Kansas City projects could benefit instead.
“For a long time,” he said, “there’s been this competition between the two cities, like two siblings competing to see who gets the most toys from the parents.”
NFL’s newest stadiums
▪ Taxpayers and the team are splitting the $1.02 billion cost of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings now going up in downtown Minneapolis.
▪ Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, cost $1.2 billion, of which $850 million was financed by the stadium authority.
▪ MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and Jets, opened in 2010 and cost $1.6 billion, most of it private money.
▪ At $1.15 billion, AT&T Stadium in Dallas was in 2010 the priciest stadium ever built, thanks in part to taxpayers kicking in $325 million in bond funding.
▪ The Colts contributed just $100 million of the $720 million cost of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, with taxpayers fronting most of the rest.