It is absolutely surreal to be sitting here in 2016, mentally preparing myself for a second NFL team to leave my hometown as the Rams hope to get the votes necessary to move to L.A this week. In March of 1988, the NFL’s 28 owners voted to allow the St. Louis Cardinals, the only team I had ever known, to leave for the Valley of the Sun.
Now, the league’s 32 owners are prepared to vote, perhaps to send my team since 1995, the Rams, back to another transient Sunbelt city, Los Angeles.
The differences are stark. The Cardinals were the team of my youth. The Rams are the team that brought me a Super Bowl as an adult. The Cardinals were the team that I was introduced to football with by my father, who first bought season tickets in 1971. The Rams are the team that I introduced my kids to football with, as a charter PSL holder in 1995. The Cardinals played in an era in which players had to work in the town they played in during the off-season, and fostered friendships with people and stayed in their town. I still run into Jim Otis, Steve Jones, Bob DeMarco, Dan Dierdorf, Jackie Smith, Roger Wehrli and more around St. Louis, and know them as friends. In this day and age in the NFL, the money has changed dramatically, for the better for the players. Their year-round job is to work out for their team, and when they aren’t, they return home or to a Sunbelt city.
When Bill Bidwill first announced that he wanted a new stadium for the Big Red after the 1984 season, he did so because he had to. Teams made about $16.8 million a year from TV in those days, and there was no salary cap. The Bidwill family was, and is, a football family. The NFL is their source of income. In the 1980’s, it was possible for a franchise to lose money. Without an improvement over Busch Stadium II, the Cardinals could lose money, and if they didn’t get a new stadium in St. Louis, they had to get one somewhere.
Now, each team gets $234 million a year from TV and NFL properties, and there’s a salary cap of $121 million. The Rams pay into player benefits, employees, insurance, travel expense, and $250,000 a year in rent. There is virtually no way the franchise can lose money.
In addition to the income, the year after the Cardinals moved to Phoenix, Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million. Now that franchise is worth $4 billion. Kroenke purchased his original 40% of the Rams for roughly $60 million, and then bought the remaining 60% for about $450 million. So he has about $510 million invested in a property that was worth $775 million when he bought it, $1.45 billion now and probably at least $2.5 billion if he’s allowed to move it. Add to that the fact that Kroenke’s net worth is reported at $7.6 billion, and he doesn’t need to do this.
The Bidwill family had to move and didn’t want to. Kroenke doesn’t have to move, and is the only owner in sports that doesn’t want to keep his team in his home market.
In an ironic twist, St. Louis leadership did virtually nothing to keep the Cardinals in St. Louis, and have bent over backward to keep Kroenke’s Rams here. In 1989, when Missouri Governor John Ashcroft signed off on financing for a new domed stadium in St. Louis, Jim Holder called up Bidwill to ask about it. When Jim asked Bidwill what he thought, he said “if they would have done this three years ago, this would be a local call.” The Cardinals would have been happy with the Dome and we never would have had to meet Stan Kroenke.
Another difference between now and then is that the internet didn’t exist in the mid 1980’s. The emotional roller coaster fans have been on is by and large a product of information…accurate or not…gleaned from the internet.
In St. Louis, we knew Bidwill was shopping, but wondered if he had it in him to pull the trigger on a move. We didn’t know how far or close cities like Baltimore and Phoenix were to getting the team.
In 2015-2016, we knew immediately when Kroenke bought land in Inglewood, when he announced his stadium plans, when the team turned in its vitriolic relocation proposal, and how he feels about St. Louis.
I don’t ever remember seeing the Cardinals’ relocation proposal, but the Cardinals attorney Bob Wallace told Fox 2’s Martin Kilcoyne that it actually fawned over St. Louis fans and the market. It’s not that way now, obviously. Add instant information to the misinformation inherent in a story that lasts for years and there’s going to be a roller coaster.
When approval was given to the Big Red in 1988, they were the only team on the move, and it was just a matter of them getting the rubber stamp to relocate. Now, with three teams trying to fill one or two spots in an unknown Los Angeles stadium (Inglewood or Carson), there is anxiety that wasn’t a part of the Cardinals departure.
Both situations are emotionally devastating. I was younger then and didn’t know where life would take me. I didn’t even think about whether I’d get another chance to follow the NFL in my hometown. This time, I’ve lived an NFL life. I had a chance to watch the greatest offense the league has ever seen in person, and had a chance to watch my team in two Super Bowls. My Super Bowl Champion was one of the three or four best teams in the league’s history. Even if they’d ever get good again, NFL football for me could never match what I got from 1999-2004. If they go, I’ll be upset because I love my city and would hate to see the young people of St. Louis be deprived of a chance to have their own NFL team, but for me personally? It’s already been as good as it’s ever going to be.
But there’s one more aspect to this that I thought about all weekend. I think St. Louis got the Rams at the perfect time, and, if they lose them, it may be at the perfect time.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the NFL has reached its apex.
Look at any stadium during the regular season, and you’re going to see empty seats. Even Commissioner Roger Goodell admits getting people to stadiums is one of the biggest challenges the NFL faces. It’s expensive and time consuming to go to games, and the TV product is outstanding. I can’t tell you how many Rams games I’ve been to in the last seven years in which I’ve asked myself “why am I here?” When the product is bad, it’s easy to stay away.
Concussions are a huge problem, and are taking young athletes away from the sport. The rules have also taken the legal big hit out of football. The new CBA prevents players from being able to practice as much, and the product quality is not what it was even five years ago. Players aren’t coached as much, and aren’t as good. The league is greedy, with Goodell admitting that his primary focus is getting league revenues to $25 billion by 2027. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted last March “just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.” The way things are going, with this relocation process included, Cuban may be right.
The NFL turned its head when the Patriots perpetrated Spygate, and couldn’t punish people when the Patriots allegedly deflated footballs to gain an advantage. Some people wonder whether there might be more cheating. There are so many rules that games have no flow.
Numerous players have been arrested for domestic violence, including defensive end Greg Hardy, who was welcomed back to the league by the Cowboys with a big contract.
The league spends an inordinate amount of time in court. That’s focused on as much or more than what happens on the field. It becomes a grind.
I’m not saying the league has reached its peak, but that it may have. Either way, the league we lost in 1988 and the league we may be losing now are dramatically different. It’s never good to lose a billion dollar industry or a pro sports team. But as much as it’ll hurt, trust me on this.
Once you get into the next season, you’ll be fine if you don’t have the NFL in your city. Bad football is better than no football, but no football isn’t the end of the world.