RIP, St. Louis Rams: A tough lesson in the business of pro sports

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

If, as Calvin Coolidge long ago declared, the business of America is business, then there are few businesses more American than the National Football League.

And as with any American business, it can be cold and cruel.

Tuesday was a day for the business of business, the league's 32 owners, a collection of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful entities, approved the plan of Stan Kroenke to move his St. Louis Rams to a palatial stadium he will build on an old horse track in Inglewood, Calif.

It sends the Rams back to Los Angeles, the city they ditched 21 years ago on another day that was bitter or sweet depending on your zip code.

The NFL also gave the San Diego Chargers a year to work out a deal to join the Rams, get a new stadium built back home or go to Plan C, whatever that might entail. If the Chargers don't move to L.A., then the Oakland Raiders will have a shot. The NFL will give each franchise $100 million if they choose to build a stadium in their current towns. The Chargers/Raiders proposed stadium in Carson, Calif., is dead.

Time will tell for those franchises and those communities and those fans bases. For Chargers fans, this tense nightmare continues, a desperation chance to keep the team, yet with the depressing reality that they are working with an owner, Dean Spanos, who would've left them dead and buried if he hadn't lost a knife fight of high-stakes politics.

Spanos can join the Rams in Inglewood, but he'll forfeit the NFL's $100 million pledge and pay out a $550 million relocation fee. Besides, the building is being built by Kroenke, and with each day that goes by the Rams will strengthen their position as the area's top team by wrapping up the best sponsors and partners and most devoted fans. That cements the reality that they'll be the NFL version of the favored Lakers and the Chargers/Raiders will be the second-class Clippers.

Tuesday really was a victory out of Kroenke's wildest dreams.

Meanwhile, it's over for the folks in St. Louis, who are left feeling the worst loss imaginable for a sports fan: abandonment and betrayal, a realization they are just powerless pawns, if even that much.

There is no tomorrow, no next game, no next season when the moving vans come. There is just anger and pointed fingers and shaken fists and faded sweatshirts they feel like fools for wearing in the first place.

Kroenke had the right to make the move. Don't get confused on that. The business of business has been good for this country.

And for two decades Los Angeles sat available for anyone to make the NFL happen. A collection of business titans and powerful politicians tried and failed. With multi-billions of dollars behind him and experience as both a real estate developer and a global sports owner, Kroenke cracked the code.

He acquired nearly 300 acres near LAX, has the money to put $1.86 billion – at least – into a stadium, retail and housing development that will be help transform the area. The centerpiece will be a glass-roofed stadium that can seat capacities of 100,000, capable of hosting not just two NFL tenants, but Final Fours, mega concerts, political conventions, Super Bowls, Olympics, World Cups and everything else.

As a businessman, Kroenke makes things happen. The new place will likely usurp Jerry Jones' AT&T Stadium as the nation's premiere stadium-sized venue. It's long overdue for Southern California. From the broad view, it all makes sense. It all seems smart.

This does nothing for those left behind in Missouri, the ones who loudly and loyally supported the Rams, who embraced the franchise, who made it part of their lives and now are told no one cares. The ones who didn't do anything other than what the team asked them to do back in the 1990s – prove that St. Louis was a viable NFL market.

Kroenke grew up in tiny Mora, Mo., attended the University of Missouri and, along with wife, Ann Walton, Kroenke raised their children in Columbia despite outrageous fortune. He was, ironically, brought into the deal as a local minority owner to the L.A.-based Georgia Frontiere, who inherited the team from the fifth of her six husbands.

Frontiere died in 2008. Kroenke took full ownership, and now it's the local guy who is sending them back to L.A., just one more kick in the shins for the fans who understandably feel betrayed by everyone from Kroenke to local politicians, to the system, to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The argument that a multibillionaire has the right to take what felt like a community institution, even if it never really was, so he can make even more money goes only so far when you're explaining to your kid why it's done and gone.

The Rams will play the next three seasons at the L.A. Coliseum as their stadium is built. Within moments of the vote, NFL.com changed the team name to Los Angeles Rams.

That's how pro sports work, and that's what fans should remember the next time they are marketed to as being part of a "[insert team name] Nation," or told they are the greatest in the world. Everything is negotiable. Loyalty has a price. If an owner can make an extra buck somewhere else, there isn't much anyone can do to stop it.

In 1995, St. Louis spent $280 million in public money on a new stadium, guaranteed $20 million in profits for season tickets and held a raucous downtown rally where thousands chanted "Georgia! Georgia!"

Only Tuesday they could only call into talk radio and rant.

Of all the relocation candidates, St. Louis did the most to keep its team, pledging $400 million in public funds and clearing all sorts of hurdles for a new dome stadium. It didn't matter. Oakland did the least – essentially nothing – yet the Raiders are likely staying put … at least for now.

None of it is "fair." None of it ever was supposed to be, though.

The NFL has detailed and arcane bylaws and processes and committees and so forth. Those are mostly worthless. A panel of owners who analyzed dueling stadium bids voted 5-1 in favor the Chargers/Raiders plan in Carson, Calif. That was ignored.

There is no rhyme to it, no flow, no process to follow. Spanos felt confident he had the necessary nine franchises to block the Rams' plan, only enough of them bailed during a secret ballot. In the end, Kroenke had the most money and the most know-how and all along it was fairly easy to predict that the rest of the league wasn't going to turn its back on that.

Money talks. The Rams walk.

"St. Louis is just out of luck?" Giants co-owner Steve Tisch was asked by reporters after the vote.

"Apparently," Tisch said.

Where once Missourians cheered for the Californian who brought the Rams to them, now Californians will cheer the Missourian who brought them back.

St. Louis will be left trying to lure the Raiders, or maybe even the Chargers, or who knows who is next. The hunted will be back to being the hunter.

Round and round it goes, too many cities desperate for a team, too many fans willing to beg, and the NFL barons cheerily playing musical chairs to sweeten pots.

The regular guy doesn't matter, and never has. It's a bad, brutal day, but no one who matters cares.

This is business, and this is America.

 

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