National Football League

Dear Bob: Here’s why I can’t get over it…

Last week, in an interview on the Bernie Miklasz show with Michelle Smallmon on 101 ESPN, Hall of Fame broadcaster and St. Louisan Bob Costas told any St. Louisan who’s still upset by the relocation of the Rams back to Los Angeles to “get over it.”

I’ve actually told myself to do that over the last three years without much success.  I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to tell someone how they should feel, but I do feel I owe it to those who think I should get over it why I am having trouble with it.  This starts a long time ago, so bear with me.

I should point out that I CAN get over a team leaving my town, despite the emotional and financial investment I’ve made in it.  I have before.  But when I’m lied to, deceived, and my city is disparaged, I don’t have such an easy time of it.

In 1970, at the age of seven, I watched my first Super Bowl with my dad.  It was Super Bowl III, and for some reason in my inaugural season following the NFL closely, I was a Colts fan.  I remember watching that day as Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore offense couldn’t get anything going, and the Jets beat them.

Later that year, my dad bought season tickets to the St. Louis Football Cardinals, and over the next seventeen years football became our primary bonding vehicle.  The NFL has since coined the marketing phrase “Football is Family,” and for us, that was the case.  He and I would attend every home game and watch every road game together.  My favorite childhood memories with my father are of spending time together watching or talking about the Big Red.  I made an emotional investment in that sport and that team.

When Bill Bidwill took that franchise to Phoenix after the 1987 season I was heartbroken, but I got it.  By that time, I was in the media, and I knew that Bidwill wasn’t going to get the football specific stadium he wanted in St. Louis.  At that time, the revenue generated by a stadium was a significant part of an NFL team’s income, and he wasn’t a billionaire.  His family business WAS the NFL.  He didn’t buy the team because he had a bunch of money.  His business would not have succeeded in St. Louis, and he had to leave.  As it should have, the NFL approved the move.  It was the only thing to do.  St. Louis messed up.

Looking back, because Bidwill didn’t do anything wrong, I “got over it” quite quickly.  The NFL followed their rules. I didn’t lose respect for the league and found another team.  Former Cardinal coaches Jim Hanifan, Joe Gibbs, Wayne Sevier, Emmitt Thomas and Chuck Banker were on the staff of the Washington Redskins, so I followed them closely for seven years.

A couple of years after Bidwill’s departure, local Anheuser-Busch distributor Jerry Clinton worked with local and state government to finance a new stadium for an expansion team.  I remember on the day Governor John Ashcroft signed the bill to finalize financing, Bidwill was asked what he thought.  On the phone from Phoenix, he said “if this had happened four years ago, this would be a local call.”  As stadium construction began, I was lucky enough as a media member to tour this “state of the art facility” during the building process with other broadcasters and writers…and an impressed league executive named Roger Goodell, who was strongly in St. Louis’ corner in the expansion process.

Alas, St. Louis messed up again in expansion.  The NFL deemed Clinton not wealthy enough to be a part of their club.  He was using the 30-year lease he had negotiated for the new domed stadium as collateral…which would have more than covered any expenses…but he didn’t have cash in hand.  St. Louis civic leaders, literally called Civic Progress, recruited billionaire Stan Kroenke from Columbia to own the expansion team.  But Clinton still had that lease and wouldn’t part with it without a fight.  The NFL decided they didn’t want to get involved in any litigation, and in 1993 chose Charlotte and Jacksonville as the new teams to begin play in 1995.  St. Louis had messed up again.

I remember getting on a plane home from Chicago with Jim Holder after the meeting in which Jacksonville was awarded the 32nd franchise.  We were near the front, in row seven or eight, and we were each on the aisle; Jim on the left, me on the right.  And as soon as we sat down, I said to Jim “the only way we’re going to get a team is if we get the Rams.”  I knew of the difficulty the Rams were having getting a new stadium in Anaheim.  Their situation was identical to the one Bidwill experienced in St. Louis.  There were well meaning fans that wanted to keep the team there, but community leadership, just like in the Cardinals situation in St. Louis, came up woefully short.  I researched other teams that had moved or threatened to move, put together a letter and a packet on what cities were doing to lure existing NFL teams, and sent it to Kroenke, Clinton, County Executive Buzz Westfall, Mayor Freeman Bosley and several others.  It probably had no effect on a St. Louis pursuit of the team, but I was invested in the league being in my city and was doing everything in my power to get it back.

When Bernie Miklasz and Jim Thomas first met former Rams President John Shaw, he said owner Georgia Frontiere really liked Baltimore because she had such fond memories from there when her late husband Carroll Rosenbloom owned the Colts.  Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was protective of that market and it wasn’t going to work, but the Rams franchise was going to leave Southern California one way or another.  To get the franchise…to line owners Georgia Frontiere and Stan Kroneke’s pockets and to finance a practice facility…St. Louisans bought PSL’s.  My job was a night job, so during the day I would volunteer, making calls to St. Louisans trying to sell them licenses that would allow them to buy season tickets.  In 1994, this was a novel concept, but 72,000 people requested the licenses…including me.

Yes, Stan Kroenke was one of the owners.  Georgia told friends, and it was quite obvious, that she could not have moved the team on her own.  She needed a co-owner, and who better than the native Missourian Kroenke to help shepherd the team to his home state and assure the region’s football fans and partners that they wouldn’t have another team taken away?

I wanted to buy PSL’s because I wanted to have the same experiences with my son that I had had with my dad.  I wanted him to grow up spending time with me, and I wanted that mutual bonding experience.  In January of 1995, in a showy ceremony, Frontiere and local officials announced the move of the franchise to my city.  It brought tears to my eyes.  I was totally emotionally invested.  I’ll never forget going to their first draft in St. Louis, at Mike Shannon’s restaurant, or to their first practice at Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls club, thinking “wow, the NFL is back in St. Louis.”

I went along for the ride.  Their first game at Busch Stadium was exhilarating, as was the first game at the Dome at America’s Center.  You know the story.  They were 7-9 and just missed the playoffs in ’95, followed by seasons of 6-10, 5-11 and 4-12.  In the pre-season of 1997, with my dad and my three-year-old son in tow, we tailgated as we always did.  Three generations of Karraker men.  And my dad said at some point during the day “it doesn’t get any better than this.  With my son and my grandson.”  And he was right.

The 1999 season and the next two were magical.  The electrification of one of the greatest offenses in NFL history.  Pure joy when they snapped a seventeen-game losing streak against San Francisco.  We brought champagne and glasses to clink in anticipation of the result, and got to do that in the tailgate parking lot afterward.  Elation when Kurt Warner hit Isaac Bruce for a 77-yard touchdown on the first offensive play in a playoff game in St. Louis history.  This was happening in MY town!  The euphoria when Warner hit Ricky Proehl in the corner of the end zone, and the amazing last few minutes to beat Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship game.  Total.  Emotional. Immersion.

The years after 2003 weren’t so great.  The team never had a winning season, but we were still invested.  We still bought hope.  In fact, my daughter Katie became a fan and attended games for the better part of 2006-2015.  In fact, she became as dedicated as we were.

Chris Rongey asked me last week about my FINANCIAL investment in the St. Louis Rams, and with tickets and merchandise, it was north of $60,000 over the 21 years they were here.  Heck, when they left, I loaded up five large trash bags of clothing and took them to Hot Shots, where they were sending gear to homeless veterans in L.A.

Georgia Frontiere died in January of 2008, and her offspring got caught up in estate issues and couldn’t afford to continue to own the franchise.  Kroenke had a right of first refusal on the 60 percent of the team he didn’t own, and in April of 2010 matched the offer of Champaign businessman Shad Khan.  Kroenke told Bernie in the POST-DISPATCH “I’m going to attempt to do everything that I can to keep the Rams in St. Louis.  Just as I did everything that I could to bring the team to St. Louis in 1995. I believe my actions speak for themselves.”  Kroenke also said in that interview that “I’m born and raised in Missouri.  I’ve been a Missourian for 60 years. People in our state know me. People know I can be trusted. People know I am an honorable guy.”  As his coup de grace, Kroenke said, “I’ll do my damnedest,” to secure the Rams’ future in St. Louis.

In August of 2010, when owners approved his purchase of the franchise in Atlanta, Kroenke said “I’ve been around St. Louis and Missouri a major portion of my life.  I’ve never had any desire to lead the charge out of St. Louis. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here to work very hard and be successful in St. Louis.”  Yet the words and the actions were dramatically different.

Kroenke’s henchman, Kevin Demoff, did the lying for him.  From saying on multiple occasions that he hoped the team would stay, to blasting Los Angeles as a sports market in meetings with season ticket holders, to deceiving fans of an entire region.  A quick timeline as an example.  In January of 2014, Demoff leaked to the Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times that Kroenke had purchased his Hollywood Park land in L.A.  Either he, Kroenke or Goodell, now the commissioner, lied at Goodell’s Super Bowl press conference when Goodell said “instead of overreacting, we should make sure we do what’s necessary to continue to support the team locally as the fans have done in St. Louis. And make sure we do whatever we can to make sure that team is successful in the St. Louis market.”

“Our policy is that you have to keep us informed of any developments, or anything that goes on in the Los Angeles market,” Goodell said. “(Kroenke) has kept us informed of it. we’re aware of it. There are no plans to my knowledge of a stadium development.”

That was in January of 2014 that Goodell said that.  But the day after the vote to move the team two years later, the Los Angeles Times had this Q & A with Kroenke and Demoff…

Kroenke: In the summer of 2013, I really started looking hard. I knew the general lay of the land in Inglewood. To me, there was one obvious place, and it had been approved previously by the NFL: Hollywood Park.

I didn’t know if it would be put together or not. But I started looking. I was driving around at 5:30 a.m. That’s what real estate developers do.

Q: Why were you up so early?

Kroenke: That’s the best time because the traffic isn’t out, so you can get around quickly. I started looking at different sites to make sure I had them in my head. What do they look like? What could be done? How does the long term look for the areas? And when you drive up to Hollywood Park, it’s a great site.

Q: Kevin, do you remember getting that early-morning call from Stan?

Demoff: There are moments in your life you never forget. I was standing by the window in my office [in St. Louis] and Stan called. … I remember he said, “This is an unbelievable site.”

In September of 2014, more than a year after they had found their site, I got word from an excellent source that the Rams had indeed decided to move.  Two weeks later, Demoff came on The Fast Lane and I asked him about it, and he said “don’t believe what you hear on this show.  Don’t believe the rumors.  Just enjoy the game.”  The guy came on my show and told you…the people that listen to and trust me…not to believe me.  How quickly should I get over THAT?

During the six seasons after he took over full ownership of more than a $1 billion property, Kroenke never met the mayor of the city of St. Louis.  Never met the head of the organization that ran the Dome.  Never met with Dave Peacock.  Only met with the Governor less than a month before the team moved.  After taking over the franchise with five years until he could leave under terms of the lease, Kroenke ran out the clock.  He never did ANYTHING, let alone his damnedest, to secure the team’s future here.  He wasn’t honorable.  He couldn’t be trusted.

He never offered a dime to partner with St. Louis interests to help build a new stadium in St. Louis, yet is financing…on his own…a development that’s approaching $5 billion near the L.A. airport.  In what world does that look like doing his damnedest to keep the Rams in St. Louis?

He DID hire Jeff Fisher as head coach, who had been the head coach when the Houston Oilers moved to Memphis for a year and then Nashville, becoming the Tennessee Titans.  Fisher consistently told the St. Louis media that he didn’t know anything about a potential move and didn’t want to know.  Yet in the days after the team was moved, he told L.A. reporters that the new L.A. stadium “is very, very impressive. Been involved with some of the meetings over the last year and the wow factor is off the charts.”  Upon being fired in 2016, Fisher said “I decided on L.A., or St. Louis, at the time, knowing that there was going to be a pending move.”

The NFL told St. Louis what it needed to do to keep the team, and we did it, but they kept moving the goalposts.  They allowed Dave Peacock to spend a year of his life and almost $15 million arranging for a stadium to be built.  He had a year to get it ready, and he did.  That surprised the league.  When that happened, Jerry Jones and the other billionaire owners took over and made sure a move would occur.  This despite the repeated statements of Commissioner Goodell that “we are a league of rules.”  They completely repudiated their own relocation guidelines.  He said at one point “we also will make sure that we’re engaging the business community and the public sector in a way that can help us lead to solutions that work in those communities, and in your case, St. Louis, and to make sure that it works for the community and the teams.”  Goodell’s lieutenant, Eric Grubman, met with Peacock, but certainly didn’t “engage the business community” of St. Louis.

The only thing the Rams did, which was their right under terms of their lease, was to offer a $700 million plan to upgrade the Dome to be in the top 25% of league stadiums.  That would have extended the lease ten more years, and if accepted would have been the greatest public outlay for a sports facility in U.S. history.  Oh, and the Rams knew that the CVC, which was charged with keeping the Dome in the top 25%, wasn’t a revenue generating entity.  There was and is no way that the Convention and Visitors Bureau was going to raise $700 million.  That was the ONLY attempt the team or the league made to stay in St. Louis.  They never even considered Peacock’s offer of $400 million in public money to build a brand-new stadium

In the Rams final days in St. Louis, with the knowledge that their move would be approved (Demoff and General Manager Les Snead moved their families to L.A. over the Christmas break), they took it upon themselves to rip the region on the way out the door.  In their relocation proposal, Kroenke and Demoff asserted that St. Louis “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.”  The proposal also said “Compared to all other U.S. cities, St. Louis is struggling. One recent study reports that St. Louis ranks 490 out of 515 U.S. cities and 61st among the 64 largest U.S. cities in economic growth in recent years. That same study reported that St. Louis had the lowest rate of population growth of any major U.S. city from 2008 to 2014 – registering a loss of 1.74 percent of its citizens while most cities registered gains. Thus, the City of St. Louis ranks near the bottom of all U.S. cities of any size in terms of economic and population growth.”  Of course, anybody that has lived or worked in the St. Louis area knows that the city is a small part of the region.  St. Louis county, St. Charles county and Southern Illinois are bigger parts of the region in terms of population, yet the Rams focused on the city (and denigrated the region) with the deceit in their essay.  There was more, as Forbes’ Mike Ozanian pointed out

After twelve consecutive non-winning seasons, as we know, the Rams were allowed to move for the 2016 season.  Unlike St. Louis in the early eighties with the Cardinals or Southern California in the early nineties, we didn’t mess up.  Our city did everything it could to abide by the league’s relocation guidelines and lost the team anyway.  We didn’t mess up.  We had an owner who couldn’t wait to get to greener pastures, and the league paved a path for him to do so.

So yeah, I’m upset.  There IS a difference between Anaheim losing the Rams and St. Louis losing the Rams.  SoCal didn’t try to keep them, and St. Louis did.  And amazingly, L.A. didn’t even try to bring them back.  It was all Kroenke.

And then, NOW the team makes an effort to compete and gets to the Super Bowl?  That just rubs salt into the wound.

I understand that some people don’t make the investment in sports that I do.  That’s probably better for their health and well-being.  But I am what I am.

So, because of that, Mr. Costas, with all due respect, I’m not going to just “get over it.”