National Football League

Litigation-Happy Culture Casts More Doubt on Rams’ Stadium Situation

As the Rams appear headed for an end to their multi-year lease after next season, and either go to a year-to-year arrangement or end their stay at the Edward Jones Dome, there’s bound to be an emotional roller coaster ride for fans who have a passionate attachment to football and their team.

Fans in Minnesota are seeing that situation right now. On Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court received documents from three litigation-minded citizens who filed suit against the sale of bonds to build a new stadium, the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. The Department of Budget argued in its filing that the sale of bonds was legal, while the three litigants – a former mayoral candidate who is an unemployed nurse, his non-practicing attorney wife and a former school board member – say that they “have a right to restrain a public official from the unlawful use of public funds,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

If they get the delay they desire, the three litigious non-football fans could cause a one-year delay in stadium construction. As the Sports Facilities Authority filing noted, once again according to the Star-Tribune, the suit threatens “to disrupt the delicate timing of the bond issue and related transactions, creating delay and added costs, through meritless arguments that cause harm not because they are valid, but merely because they have been asserted.” If the suit goes forward, a planned 2016 opening for the new Vikings stadium would be pushed back at least until 2017 and perhaps longer.

There hasn’t been much argument in Atlanta as Falcons owner Arthur Blank prepares to finance 70-80 percent of a new stadium for his team. The government portion of the financing will come from a hotel-motel tax that’s already in place and has been used to pay for the existing Georgia Dome. Financing for a new Braves stadium in Cobb County, Ga., is under intense scrutiny from citizens and concerned (about being re-elected) politicians.

In San Francisco, the original plan to replace Candlestick Park came in 1997, when Eddie DeBartolo wanted to build a new stadium on Candlestick Point. That plan was rejected. The 49ers announced plans for their new stadium in 2006; they started negotiations with the city of Santa Clara in 2007, and will move in next fall, in 2014. It’s taken eight years from plans to move-in for the 49ers.

There are always going to be litigants who will try to gum up with works when a sports team and the government try to build stadiums. Rarely, if ever, do we read about lawsuits filed against TIF financing for shopping centers, hotels or mixed-used developments. But when a sports team is involved, because people who have a lot of money own teams and people who make a lot of money play in them, and they’re so high-profile, lawsuit-minded citizens have a tendency to get involved. (As an aside, I find it curious that Stan Kroenke’s development company regularly uses TIF financing for shopping centers, and I’ve never heard of one lawsuit trying to prevent that financing because Kroenke is a billionaire who could build it himself.)

It’s already happened here in St. Louis. Retired St. Louis Post-Dispatch employee Fred Lindecke, who leads the charge for the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, utilized his time in the early 2000s to get laws enacted that require votes in St. Louis City and County for public funding for a stadium. That uproar was in response to the Cardinals asking for financing for their new stadium, which they ultimately paid for primarily out of their own pockets. Because the law is already in effect here, if we ever reach the point where St. Louis or St. Louis County funds would be requested to help keep the Rams in St. Louis, a vote would be necessary. And I think we all know that the public desire for funding a stadium in this economy is minimal.

That being said, the law is a good thing. If the Rams plan to stay in St. Louis and want funds from the region’s citizens, we’ll know if the populace wants to have one of the 32 NFL teams in our region, or if they feel like it’s not a necessary part of who we are.

We get a question or more in “The Fast Lane” pretty much every day: What’s the latest on the stadium situation? And the sad reality is that there isn’t a latest on the stadium situation, and may not be for years. It took Minnesota nearly a decade to get to this point, and they’re still lurching toward the finish line. It’s taken San Francisco 17 years from first proposal to moving in. The Arizona Cardinals moved to Phoenix with the promise of a new stadium in 1988, and moved into that stadium for the 2006 season. The Chargers have been asking for a new place to play for more than a decade, and even though San Diego knows they won’t get another Super Bowl until Qualcomm Stadium is replaced, they haven’t been able to pull the trigger on a new one. That’s with the knowledge that the Chargers can terminate their lease and leave after any season.

It’s not going to be an enjoyable ride for St. Louis football fans. If you’re one of those who won’t support the team until you know they’re staying in St. Louis, you’re going to have to be strong in your convictions if the team pulls out of its malaise and starts winning. And if you’re a big-time fan who really does care regardless of the lease situation, you’re going to have some gut-wrenching times over the next few years dealing with speculation about the team moving. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but we can be sure of one thing: If a new stadium in St. Louis gets close, there will be someone ready to block it with a lawsuit.