More Anguish Coming for St. Louis Football Fans

This will be a week that I thought we’d never see in St. Louis again in my lifetime. Twenty-five years after my childhood team left for Phoenix, and 17 years after St. Louis gave up the farm in negotiations to bring the Rams to St. Louis and the NFL back to town, the back and forth to keep the NFL here begins again.

There can’t be a city and a group of fans that has had a more traumatic relationship with the NFL. I remember when the notion of the Cardinals moving first came up after the 1984 season. I didn’t think there was any way they would leave. After machinations that included a 1987 offer of a stadium in Earth City, called the “McDome” because it was offered by Gene McNary, Bill Bidwill turned it down. The city also made a half-hearted effort. However, a part of the city’s offer included a law that prohibited beer sales. Obviously, Bidwill shot that down, too.

As it turned out, the powers that be in St. Louis were confident enough that they could essentially run Bidwill out of town and get another team. They never were willing or able to give the Cardinals what they really wanted, which was a football-only stadium. As it turned out, that would have been the easiest fix. After the 1987 NFL season, Bidwill, with no new stadium on the horizon here, picked up and took his team to the desert. If St. Louis would have pacified Bidwill and the Cardinals’ simple request (not a demand) of a new stadium then, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

We were also distressed with the lead up to and execution of the NFL’s 1993 expansion awards. It seemed a fate accompli that St. Louis would be one of the teams given an expansion franchise. The late Jerry Clinton jumped through all kinds of government hoops and spent a lot of his own money to get what is now the Edward Jones Dome built. For his efforts, Clinton agreed to a 30-year lease that guaranteed him $30 million a year, and that would have served as his financing for a franchise.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had indicated that one “old city” from among St. Louis and Baltimore, and one “new city” from among Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville would be chosen for the 1995 NFL expansion. In late October, Charlotte was chosen as the first expansion team.

St. Louis, the co-favorite, didn’t have its ducks in a row. The NFL didn’t think Clinton had enough cash on hand to be one of its owners. So St. Louis Civic Progress recruited Columbia billionaire Stan Kroenke to be the owner of the new franchise. The only problem was that Clinton owned the lease. He wasn’t going to go away without a big payoff. The NFL didn’t want anything to do with possible litigation, and said they would name only one team in late October, and basically give St. Louis a month to get its house in order.

That didn’t happen. Civic Progress and Clinton remained at a stalemate. When the league reconvened on Nov. 30, 1993, the St. Louis entry was no further along than it had been a month earlier. For the second time in less than six years, St. Louis football fans had their hearts torn out because of greedy, incompetent leadership in the market. Jacksonville, which had been an afterthought a month earlier, was chosen as the 30th NFL team.

As the 1994 season unfolded and Clinton’s new stadium continued to rise in the St. Louis skyline, St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley, county executive Buzz Westfall and congressman Dick Gebhardt formed Fans Inc., charged with getting St. Louis a new team. The Rams’ lease was running out in Anaheim, and disgruntled fans weren’t showing up at games. Fans Inc., appointed former Senator Thomas Eagleton as their negotiator, and authorized him to do what it took to get the team here. Eagleton worked the deal with John Shaw, and the Rams moved here, with Kroenke buying a minority share of the franchise from Georgia Frontiere.

Shaw held all the cards, and Eagleton had the job of getting the team here. The Rams got a great deal to come. Fans purchased personal seat licenses that garnered the franchise $72 million, which helped build a practice facility and ply the franchise with cash. After the Rams came to St. Louis, owners of the Raiders, Oilers (now Titans) and Browns (now Ravens) moved their teams. When they did, they told new cities they wanted a “St. Louis deal” to move. That’s how good it was. Shaw also got the magic clause that allows the team to move after 2014 if the dome isn’t in the top 25 percent of the NFL’s stadiums.

So, here we go again. St. Louis football fans anguished from 1984 until the Cardinals left after 1987, and then in the time we didn’t have a team. We were crushed when the NFL didn’t award an expansion franchise. We were thrilled when the Rams came, giddy when they featured the Greatest Show on Turf, and beaten down during this 15-65 run over the last five years.

On Wednesday, the Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC), which runs the dome, must make a proposal to the Rams that they believe would make the stadium among the top eight facilities in the league. The Rams have until May to respond, and if the two sides can’t agree, their case will go to arbitration. If they can’t come up with a solution the Rams can leave after three more seasons.

It’s been a roller coaster for the St. Louis football fan for 28 years, and here we go again. Is St. Louis leadership, in the form of the CVC, going to show a level of competence that would appeal to a franchise to keep it here? Does the ice cold Kroenke, now the Rams majority owner, really care about being involved in the St. Louis football scene for 19 years as he claimed at the hiring of Jeff Fisher, or is his primary focus the almighty dollar? Is there a middle ground to be reached here, or are these two sides so dug in that there’s no agreement possible?

We don’t know the answer to that. All we do know is that St. Louis football fans, who have been saddled with non-competitive pro football for more than two-thirds of the 45 years they’ve had it, and have had their hopes crushed by teams and leagues on multiple occasions, are going to be victimized again. Whether the Rams stay in St. Louis or not, emotionally attached customers of the NFL in our town are in for some anguish.