St. Louis Needs to Plan Ahead

While there isn’t much football to discuss these days because of the NFL lockout, there are some things happening that affect the Rams, and perhaps their future in St. Louis.

Last Friday, a bill was introduced in the Minnesota legislature that would eventually give the Vikings a new stadium. The Vikings have already told everyone that will listen that they simply can’t keep playing in the Metrodome, and that they need a new facility. If the state of Minnesota can’t get legislation passed for a new stadium in the next month and a half, and then get the Vikings to agree to a deal to stay, the franchise will head into the final season of their stadium lease in 2011.

There are problems with the bill, although several politicians say they’re optimistic. It calls for the state, the team and the local municipality where it’s built to contribute $300 million each to construction. It calls for new taxes on pro sports memorabilia, satellite dish users, luxury boxes and naming rights for the stadium. Typically, owners like to keep every penny their stadium makes to themselves. And, folks don’t like to pay new taxes.

Other provisions would be that a site wouldn’t have to be chosen until next February, and if the Vikings ever did leave, their name, records and trophies would be forfeited to the state. In short, there’s a lot to agree on in the next six weeks if Minnesota is to be sure of keeping its NFL franchise.

All of this must take place as Minnesota faces a $5 billion budget shortfall. The headline about the bill in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reads, “Vikings stadium bill faces third-and-long at the Capitol.” That will be an interesting situation to watch as the Minnesota legislative session heads down the stretch in May.

In San Diego, the Chargers have a lease at Qualcomm Stadium through 2020, but they have the ability to pay an early termination fee and buy out the remainder of the lease any year, if they so choose. Chargers president Dean Spanos met with San Diego’s mayor more than a month ago, but aside from both saying they want to keep the team there nothing came out of it, and nothing has happened since. The Chargers have been trying to get a new stadium for nine years, but to no avail.

Causing problems for the Chargers are the lockout. No stadium discussions will be held until a new labor agreement is reached and the apparent uncertain future of any redevelopment funds in California.

Meanwhile, a privately built stadium in Los Angeles moves forward. The Los Angeles Times reports that, because AEG, the builders of the stadium, would want to move and improve the Los Angeles Convention Center, the stadium would require Los Angeles County approval. And earlier this year, stadium point man Tim Leiweke told the Times, “We’re not asking anything out of the county because we don’t want to deal with them.” No government entity is going to vote against free improvements, though, so it would be a shock if L.A. County would vote against the new stadium and convention center.

The Rams have a lease through 2014, and certainly would like to have an upgrade in their facility. The biggest problems at the Edward Jones Dome are cosmetic. There isn’t enough natural light and it has a warehouse feel. The problems in Minnesota and San Diego run deeper. They have problems with the number of premium seats to sell, and with the age of the stadiums. They are, literally, falling apart.

There are several things that would be really good for St. Louis. Of course, the best thing would be if we, as a community, would solve our stadium problem ourselves. If St. Louis and Missouri (or Illinois) could find a way to upgrade the dome or build a new stadium we wouldn’t have to worry about the threat of Los Angeles.

But there’s another good thing that could happen. If the governments in Minnesota and San Diego fail to get deals done soon to keep their teams, the league will have the two Los Angeles entries it wants. It will still serve Southern California with the Chargers, and would get an NFC team in the market, and in the stadium, with whatever the Vikings become.

Would that solve our problems? Of course not. Just like St. Louis, Baltimore and Cleveland, if Minnesota and San Diego lose teams, they’re going to find a way to build new stadiums and pursue other franchises. Having the NFL in your community is a great thing, and it’s something that can’t be replaced. Regardless of the current state of a franchise or the state of a locked-out league, eventually things change. And when the home team is playing and winning, a community can’t overpay for the value that franchise provides.

St. Louis had no foresight when we lost the football Cardinals. The big wheels in town just assumed we’d get another franchise and when Bill Bidwill moved the Cardinals, we were lucky to get one. If we lose this one, we won’t get another. Not with the exodus of so many Fortune 500 headquarters since the Rams arrived in town.

We, as a community, better look ahead. If we want the NFL, if we want to be a big-league sports town, we better have a plan for an improved stadium situation for Stan Kroenke and the Rams. Otherwise, we’ll lose another NFL franchise.