Thursday, March 01, 2012

Call The Rams Bluff

Once again, a professional sports franchise is holding our city hostage, and we should call their bluff.

The St. Louis Rams have a clause in their lease with the city that states that The Dome must be among the top tier of NFL venues, and if it's not, the team can pack its bags, break the lease, and move somewhere else.  The next time they can exercise that option is in 2015, but the contract says the Convention and Visitors Commission has to give them satisfactory plans for those upgrades this year.  On February 1, the CVC submitted its proposal, which would cost $124 million, with the team kicking in 52% of that and the region (i.e. taxpayers) covering the rest. Today, the Rams formally rejected that proposal. They now have until May 1 to present their counter-proposal, and if they can't agree on a deal by mid-June, it goes to the arbitrators.

Whatever the Rams come up with, the CVC should say no.  In fact, they shouldn't have offered to spend a single public dollar in the first place.  Why?  Because we -- St. Louis city and county and the state of Missouri -- are broke.  In fact, we have so many money problems we can't even see broke from here.  For example, the state announced last month that, instead of a 3% tuition hike at the University Of Missouri, the increase would have to be 6.5% because of yet another budget shortfall. Have fun paying off those college loans, Mizzou students!

The taxpayers will gain nothing by paying to upgrade the dome.  It won't create more business downtown, and it won't make our home viewing experience better.  We get zero return on our investment.  So, let the two groups who will benefit from the upgrade pick up the check.  One would be those who do attend the games. If the Rams raise the ticket price ten bucks for each game, that's $100/year for 8 regular season + 2 pre-season games. Multiply that by 60,000 seats, and in 10 years, you'll have $60,000,000.

The other party to benefit would be Stan Kroenke. The Rams owner is a multi-billionaire, one of the 150 richest people in the US.  Stan Kroenke has a fortune made up of dollars from his other teams (Colorado Rockies, Denver Nuggets, Arsenal soccer), his real estate holdings, and his wife's family's business, a little mom and pop retail chain called Wal-Mart.  We (the taxpayers) are so broke we can't even afford to shop at Wal-Mart.

We certainly shouldn't buy the argument that having the team is a boon to St. Louis and that a better facility will bring more businesses to downtown.  We fell for that in 1995 when we were told that having all those Rams fans nearby was going to guarantee the success of an adjacent indoor mall called St. Louis Center, which would make it the pre-eminent shopping destination in the area.  Or not.  It turned out that suburbanites already had their own malls nearby, so there was no reason to shop downtown, and very few Rams fans stuck around downtown after the game (they go early to tailgate, but that doesn't help local businesses except parking lot owners).  Contrary to the promises made, St. Louis Center wasn't the Magnificent Mile in Chicago or Madison Avenue in New York or Faneuil Hall in Boston.  It was a boondoggle that only increased business for the lumber yards that sold the plywood used to cover up the empty spaces after retailers abandoned St. Louis Center and left it looking like a ghost town.

We fell for this nonsense with the Cardinals, too. They wanted to replace their home field (the second Busch Stadium) with a new one -- but only if taxpayers helped cover the $365 million cost.  In return, the Cardinals owners promised to team up with some developers to build Ballpark Village (a mixed-use facility with offices, apartments, retail, restaurants, movie theaters) on the adjacent ten blocks at a cost of $650 million. Like St. Louis Center, we were promised that Ballpark Village would bring all sorts of new business to downtown.  Of course, to get what they wanted, the team's multi-millionaire owners threatened that if the city didn't want to cough up the big bucks to keep the Redbirds in the city that's always been their home, they would forsake Cardinal Nation to go elsewhere.

I was on the air at the time and regularly railed against public financing of the new stadium, pointing out that there was no metropolitan area in the country of a comparable or larger size (except DC, which was already in the process of acquiring the Montreal Expos) that didn't already have a major league baseball franchise, so the Cards really had nowhere else to go.  It was an empty threat. Despite my repeated warnings, the city eventually gave the Cardinals what they wanted, and the third Busch Stadium opened in 2006 on the plot of land next to its predecessor. Fans love the place, and World Series titles don't hurt.  But what about Ballpark Village, which was to be built where Busch II had stood?  Six years later, not a single brick has been laid there.  Promise broken.

As for the Rams, they're not as popular as the Cardinals, mostly because they have sucked for a long time. We had a couple of good years a decade ago with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, but the rest of their 16 years in St. Louis have been about hiring and firing coaches, rebuilding through draft picks, and counting the number of concussions suffered by a series of quarterbacks. They don't have a lot of goodwill left in their fan base, which explains the drop in attendance -- and the fact that they're going to play one home game each year in London for the next 3 seasons doesn't help.

The Rams supposedly want to move back to Los Angeles, but that town never gave them the kind of support they needed.  If it had, the Rams wouldn't have moved here! During their run in LA (and 15 years in Anaheim), Rams home games were often blacked out on local TV because the stadium seats weren't filled. The Oakland Raiders discovered the LA's-not-an-NFL-town lesson, too, when Al Davis moved them there in 1983. Even though they made the playoffs in 7 of their 13 seasons in southern California, the fans still didn't show up, so Al moved back to the Bay Area, where their fan base has always been.  By the way, California's even more broke than Missouri, so why would its taxpayers want to underwrite a new home for Kroenke & Company? Even if they do, why should St. Louisans let bad fiscal decisions by Los Angeles force us to do the same?

New head coach Jeff Fisher will likely change the Rams' on-field fortunes, but I know a lot of people who, like me, will never go to the dome to watch them play under any circumstances because the NFL has become the ultimate TV-friendly sport.  I can enjoy the games much more in my living room with a big-screen HDTV, a DVR, cheaper food, and no line for the bathroom.  No amount of corporate suites at the dome will get me there in person.

If we have to offer the Rams a deal, let's keep it simple: we'll pay to upgrade your house when you pay to upgrade ours. You can start by re-paving my driveway.