Neil deMause, purveyor of the indispensible website Field of Schemes and occasional contributor to Sports On Earth and Vice Sports, has a term for the St. Louis Rams' current deal with the city of St. Louis at the Edward Jones Dome. He calls it "the worst lease ever."
In an interview with Jim Nagourney, a consultant who was a party to the negotiations between the city and the team to bring the Rams to St. Louis back in the early '90s, deMause writes about how the St. Louis city attorneys had no idea who they were dealing with, and just how outmatched they were. Says Nagourney: "I went to a meeting in Los Angeles one morning. We had a whiteboard, and we're putting stuff down [to demand from cities]. And some of the stuff, I said, 'Guys, some of this is crazy.' And John Shaw, who was president of the Rams at the time -- brilliant, brilliant guy -- said, 'They can always say no, let's ask for it.'"
And St. Louis said yes to all of it. The city was so desperate for a team -- still reeling from the loss of the football Cardinals, with civic leaders eager to show that their downtown could be revitalized again -- that they agreed, essentially, to everything, including paying for a new dome entirely with public money. The deal was stacked against St. Louis in a number of ways -- so many that when the baseball Cardinals (an infinitely more popular team locally) wanted a similar sweetheart deal for a stadium a few years later, they were unable to get one, so burned was everyone by the Rams' debacle -- but the worst, and the one most applicable to today's situation, was the "state of the art" clause. It required St. Louis taxpayers not only to pay for the whole stadium themselves, but also pony up for premium upkeep. The Edward Jones Dome had to rank in "the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums" to meet the lease agreement. If it fell below that (as it inevitably would have to, particularly considering 20 stadiums have been built since the Edward Jones Dome), St. Louisans would have to build them another one, "when the paint is barely dry from the first one," as deMause put it.
St. Louis obviously didn't build the Rams a new stadium, so the Rams are gonna break the lease, and now they're threatening to move. This was a situation entirely born out of desperation 20 years ago. And here we are again.
This morning, The Los Angeles Times reported that Rams owner Stan Kroenke, the beneficiary of this ridiculous deal, plans to build an NFL stadium in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles, kick-starting the already fervid sprint to get a team back in Los Angeles by 2016. The Rams, the Raiders and the Chargers, all with "outdated" stadiums and eager for leverage, have been elbowing themselves for Los Angeles position for a few years now, but Kroenke -- who bought up 60 acres near the Forum last year and has united with a local developer so he can control enough space for a stadium and parking -- now has the inside position.
It's a power move, not just for the rest of the NFL (which now has a clear favorite to fill the long-standing Los Angeles vacancy), but for Kroenke against St. Louis. Kroenke owned 40 percent of the Rams when the 1995 move went down, and he bought out the rest in 2010 from the family of the late Georgia Frontiere. (He also is a majority owner of Arsenal, and he handed over control of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche to his son, Josh, when the Rams deal was in the works.) Kroenke has all the power now, and has put himself in an ideal situation to get whatever he wants.
The Los Angeles market is one that every owner with anything resembling an out clause in his/her deal has tried to corner, but it's worth nothing that the city of Los Angeles is coming into this from a position of strength. According to the LA Times, no taxpayer money is expected to be used for the new stadium or its construction -- though, to be fair, developers always say that. (Supposedly it would only require a ballot initiative, one that could happen this year.) Of course, Los Angeles doesn't feel like it has to pay for a new stadium: The last 20 years have been rather solid evidence that Los Angeles is able to exist just fine without an NFL team, thank you very much.
This leverage, just as it was 20 years ago, is being used against St. Louis. In November, Missouri governor Jay Nixon, who has had a rather tumultuous few months, appointed former Anheuser-Busch president Dave Peacock to head up the city and state's attempts to keep the Rams in St. Louis. (January 28 is the deadline for the Rams to inform the city whether they're going to a year-to-year lease.) This has led some in St. Louis to believe that Peacock is here to save the day.
Awaiting the arrival of Dave Peacock and the cavalry to save the Rams. Need some good news to counter Stan's Inglewood gambit. #STLRams- Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnFox) January 5, 2015
But the city is in the same position it was 20 years ago, maybe even worse: It is trying to convince a team that St. Louis is a better home than Los Angeles. Considering Los Angeles is Los Angeles and St. Louis is St. Louis (and I say this out of deep love for my former home in the Midwest), this is going to require handing over the farm, again. "They can always say no, let's ask for it."
The only advantage St. Louis has at this point is their potential willingness to give the Rams whatever they want. Sam Farmer, the Los Angeles Times reporter, told Peter King this morning, "this move ratchets up the pressure on the city of St. Louis and will smoke out the city's best deal." There are some Rams fans who are scared they will lose their team. But they should be a lot more scared by that statement. Because "smoking out the city's best deal" is exactly what got St. Louis in this position in the first place. If St. Louis had a little more self-respect back in the mid-'90s, maybe they wouldn't have signed this awful deal. The idea that they would double down on a worse one now is what is most terrifying.
Rams-to-LA story by @LATimesfarmer doesn't mean it's a done deal. St. Louis still can make deal to keep 'em. Have my doubts StL can.- Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) January 5, 2015
Yeah, I have my doubts too. But not whether they can: Whether they should. The damage has been done. Don't make it worse. St. Louis should do what it should have done 20 years ago: Tell the Rams to stick it.