Saying Goodbye: The Politics of Franchise Relocation in the “New NFL” Era

By Nick Sacco

In his 2014 publication on the history of the National Football League, historian Richard C. Crepeau declares that the game of football has become “America’s New National Pastime.” It’s easy to see why. Football has always been a popular sport in America, but the “New NFL” era—which began in the early 1990s and continues to this day—has fostered unprecedented growth and interest in the sport. The emergence of network/cable television and the internet brings the NFL experience home to millions of eager viewers while the league and team owners reap the financial benefits of huge TV viewing rights contracts. A society concerned about the status of masculinity in a culture that some believe is becoming increasingly “sensitive” and emasculated has turned to football for “expressions of masculinity through vicarious violence,” according to Crepeau. Governments at all levels have consistently demonstrated a willingness to use public funds to subsidize the sport and, most importantly, shrewd NFL leaders have manipulated and exploited these various forces to their financial advantage.[1]

As membership-based religious groups and civic organizations struggle to maintain a stable influence on American life and popular media offers an endless array of viewing pleasures, the NFL stands as one of the only cultural institutions in the United States that brings people from all walks of life together for a shared entertainment experience.[2] That NFL experience—tailgating at games, wearing football jerseys, buying expensive memorabilia, watching games and sports shows on big screen televisions, playing fantasy football, or just simply watching the Super Bowl every February—has ritualized our Sundays and created “nations” of fans who express undying loyalty to their favorite teams the same way patriots express love for their country. It’s the sort of thing that gives fuel to American Studies programs throughout the country, where students study the ways Americans use sports to express ideas about social norms, patriotism, nationalism, and how the world should work.

The Rams celebrate a touchdown during their last game in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Scott Rovak/Los Angeles Rams

The Rams celebrate a touchdown during their last game in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Scott Rovak/Los Angeles Rams

The “New NFL” era of football has maintained a ubiquitous presence in my sports-watching habits. The St. Louis (football) Cardinals left the city the same year I was born, but my Grandfather became a charter season-ticket holder when the Rams left Los Angeles for the Gateway City in 1995. We attended the first game at the Edward Jones Dome and many, many more after that. We were there in 1999 when Rickey Proehl made “The Catch” against Tampa Bay to send the Rams to Super Bowl XXXIV. We were there when the “Greatest Show on Turf” regularly broke records and crushed opposing teams. We were also there, unfortunately, for lots of terrible play and humiliating Rams defeats over the years. But we always kept going because these games offered a chance for the two of us to spend time together and experience the excitement of NFL football. Grandpa died in 2014, but the last game we attended together was another victory over Tampa Bay. And, coincidentally enough, when my father and I went to the last Rams home game in St. Louis last month, it was yet another victory over none other than Tampa Bay.

During that last home game the team brought out a number of Rams legends from the Greatest Show on Turf years. Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, and Orlando Pace all made appearances and, in an improvised yet symbolic gesture to good times past, Warner took off his suit jacket and launched a forty-yard pass to Holt in the end zone. The crowd enthusiastically cheered during that moment, but I couldn’t help but mention to those around me that it felt like this was all one big goodbye ceremony for us. I thought about that halftime show when media outlets reported on January 12 that the Rams were leaving St. Louis and moving back to Los Angeles.

A Flawed Process

It should go without saying that I find this course of events extremely disappointing. Blame should go all around to include the state of Missouri, Rams owner Stan Kroenke, and the entire NFL. A few criticisms are worth mentioning here.

The state of Missouri agreed to pay $300 million to build the Edward Jones Dome in 1991 (before any team agreed to move to St. Louis), but the process of repaying the loans and covering upkeep costs for the dome will be closer to $720 million by the time the building is paid off in 2021. The lease signed with the Rams stipulated that if the dome wasn’t a “top tier” facility in 2015, the team could opt out of the lease, even if the dome wasn’t fully paid off. The vagueness of a term like “top tier” created a void that was filled by contentious politics between the Rams and the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (CVC). When a three-judge arbitration panel declared in 2013 that the CVC would be on the hook for another $700 million to make the dome “top tier,” it gave enormous leverage to Kroenke. The CVC understandably balked at the prospect of thoroughly modifying an already expensive stadium that would now cost taxpayers upwards of more than a billion dollars to satisfy the Rams and the terms of the lease. This lease agreement will go down in NFL history as one of the worst ones ever enacted between a team and its home market. Moreover, the city of St. Louis did itself no favors in 2015 by attempting to push through a plan for funding a new $1 billion-plus stadium without a public vote, which engendered some skepticism and hostility within the community against the plan.

The Edward Jones Dome as viewed from the St. Louis Arch. Photo Credit: Kelly Martin/Wikimedia Commons

The Edward Jones Dome as viewed from the St. Louis Arch. Photo Credit: Kelly Martin/Wikimedia Commons

Stan Kroenke and the Rams behaved disingenuously during the entire process. Rams COO Kevin Demoff admitted after the stadium arbitration process that the Rams had let down the community with their poor play on the field and that they were working diligently to establish a new lease with the CVC. Kroenke himself completely disappeared after a brief press conference in 2012. He never addressed the concerns of the fanbase about a potential move, never addressed St. Louis media outlets about the situation, and he never met with the St. Louis Stadium Task Force that proposed a new riverfront stadium for the team. He violated the NFL’s relocation bylaws by not exhausting all resources to find a workable solution for keeping the Rams in their home market, and the NFL has given Kroenke a pass on owning the NBA Denver Nuggets and the NHL Colorado Avalanche even though there are rules banning owners from owning non-NFL sports franchises in NFL markets. That Korenke gained the support of thirty owners for his relocation efforts despite such obvious violations indicates that the NFL is not governed by concrete and enforceable rules so much as by the dictate of owners eager to fill their pockets with more money. To add insult to injury, the approved Rams application for relocation used faulty data that lacked context to criticize St. Louis for allegedly not supporting the team while portraying the city’s economy as spiraling hopelessly towards its deathbed. St. Louisans were not the only ones outraged. After reading the relocation application journalist Will Leitch asserted, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an owner be crueler to the city that hosted his team . . . than what Stan Kroenke has been to St. Louis.”[3]

A New Way of Doing Business

I believe the NFL’s approval of the Rams relocating to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future relocation crises and marks a low point—and perhaps a breaking point—in the history of the “New NFL.”

An interior view of the Edward Jones Dome. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An interior view of the Edward Jones Dome. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Journalist Mike Freeman argues that we should “not feel too sorry” for St. Louis since they originally played economic hardball to take the Rams from Los Angeles in 1995. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Indeed, historian Andrew D. Linden has previously analyzed on this website how the Rams relocation is merely one episode in a long history of franchise relocations and contentious debates between NFL owners and civic governments over the use of public money to subsidize football stadiums and facilities. But the Rams relocation marks the first time that a team was allowed to move when the home market came up with public funds and a tangible plan to build a new stadium. The NFL effectively rejected hundreds of millions of public dollars for the first time in its history. This development should be a cause for concern to fans all across the league, especially those in smaller markets with struggling economies. It suggests that the NFL will allow a team to move from its home market even if that market risks the financial well-being of its community by committing public dollars to building a new stadium. Ten or twenty years from now there could be another emerging market clamoring for professional football. Pre-existing home markets with owners anxious to cash in could still lose their team even if they offer new stadium plans and public money. The owners have gained leverage in making any future move easier thanks to the Rams relocation.

Another assertion that has been made both nationally and locally is that St. Louis fans should take solace in that the Rams are returning “home” to Los Angeles. But this claim has its problems too, aside from the fact that the Rams’ beginnings as a franchise are technically rooted in Cleveland, not Los Angeles. The assertion suggests that Rams fans in St. Louis should have never invested their loyalty and support into the team since it was never theirs to take ownership in in the first place. The Rams relationship to Los Angeles is akin to the relationship described in the famous song “Hotel California” by The Eagles: “You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!” And so, by this logic, it was naive of St. Louis fans to expect that the team would be theirs for the indefinite future so long as they continued to support the team financially and emotionally. But if the Rams tenure in St. Louis was merely a temporary separation from the team’s rightful “home” and not a true break from Los Angeles, then what does that say about all of the franchises that are currently playing in cities different from their rightful “home?” Such an argument reinforces my belief that any talk of team “homes” and “fanbases” is completely incompatible with the rhetoric of markets and customers that dominates the “New NFL” business model in both theory and practice. Nothing demonstrates the NFL’s marketplace bottom-line mentality more than the fact that nearly half of the NFL’s franchises have threatened to relocate to Los Angeles in the past twenty years.

The narratives being constructed in popular media about the Rams’ move also possess a unique quality within the history of franchise relocations. Coverage of previous relocations took a mostly reserved, somber tone in explaining why the changes were occurring. Particular focus was given to the economic weaknesses of the failed home market and their inability to meet the NFL’s demands for new stadiums and improved facilities, as evidenced, for example, by articles written by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times at the time of Cleveland’s move to Baltimore in 1995. These episodes, generally speaking, were not celebrated by the league or its fans save for the people in the new home market. Conversely, the Rams relocation has been greeted with gleeful joy from numerous media outlets. ESPN’s flagship program SportsCenter greeted the news with a set that included yellow signs in the background that read “I LOVE LA.” One sports website’s headline that has since been removed cheerfully read “Rams Ready to Relocate and Forget St. Louis.” One New Jersey-based website focused exclusively on how fans in Los Angeles reacted to the news without accounting for the reaction of St. Louis fans or delving into any discussion of the economic ramifications of the relocation. Still other websites aware of the role of social media in shaping popular perceptions of news events reported the celebratory tweets of popular Los Angeles celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest, Colin Hanks, and Magic Johnson welcoming the team back. Some current NFL players even joined in the action. New York Jets Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall tweeted his approval, while Rams Linebacker Akeem Ayers expressed his excitement for the move without even bothering to thank St. Louis fans for their support of the team. It seems that the “New NFL” business model, at least in some quarters of the media, has been embedded within a larger narrative that uncritically accepts the NFL’s policies and agenda.[4]

Where Does St. Louis Go From Here?

As much as I would have loved to keep the Rams in St. Louis, my concerns as a citizen and member of the St. Louis community far outweigh my allegiance to any sports franchise. Stan Kroenke’s relocation application was unfair to St. Louis, but he is right to point out that the city does have serious problems that urgently need to be addressed.

Five St. Louis Rams players support protestors with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture before a game against the Oakland Raiders in 2014. GIF from SBNation.

Over the past five years there have been 13,000 victims of gun crimes in St. Louis city, and in 2015 alone there were 178 gun-related murders. The city currently ranks number three in the country for highest murder rates for a city. Nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, is ranked number one. When Alderman Antonio French threatened to withhold his support for funding a new stadium unless Mayor Francis Slay worked with the Board of Alderman to develop a plan for addressing this crime epidemic, he was subject to relentless verbal abuse on Twitter from stadium advocates. When the Board of Alderman finally approved public funding for the now-dead stadium proposal, it included a comprehensive plan for addressing violent crime in the city that will hopefully have a positive effect on the city’s long-term health.

Likewise, the St. Louis Public School District has experienced years of tumult and failure. The district has been unaccredited since 2007 and the student population has rapidly declined amid the highest thirty-year rate of building and neighborhood abandonment in North American history, according to journalist Charles Jaco. Facilities are crumbling, teacher wages are flat and in some cases declining, and charter schools are struggling to stay open. Current district Superintendent Kelvin Adams has been attempting to right the ship. He, like the Rams, was recently rumored to be relocating to Los Angeles to take over that city’s school district, but he’s staying after the district hired an internal candidate. This development is a good one for St. Louis. Other concerns about the city’s infrastructure and economic climate will also need to be addressed in the near future.

It could be argued that the failed stadium bill is a blessing in disguise for St. Louis. Other cities that recently helped foot the bill for expensive stadiums have struggled to balance their budgets. a 2009 feature in the New York Times chronicled how Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Newark, and Glendale all built sports stadiums believing they would increase commerce and sales tax revenues, only to realize that they all faced budget shortfalls and were forced to consider raising taxes to make the difference. Cincinnati in particular faced a $14 million deficit and angry public school administrators that year who had deferred their share of the city’s sales taxes and suffered with many of the same problems as the St. Louis Public School District as a result. Hopefully the money designated for a new stadium can be put to good use for these purposes. Being a two-sport city is not a bad thing. Nashville stands as a great example of a thriving two-sport city that has diversified its offerings beyond sports to give residents and tourists a mix of cultural attractions that include cutting edge music venues, restaurants, and museums, and historic sites. Other two-sport cities like Kansas City and Indianapolis are growing as well. St. Louis offers many of the same amenities as these cities, and we should strive to follow their example.

During the press conference announcing the Rams move back to Los Angeles, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remarked in his usual self-congratulatory way that the league had “made a big step forward” by leaving St. Louis and getting a team back to the nation’s second-largest television market. Some of my friends in the St. Louis area have been talking about shifting their allegiances to new NFL teams such as Kansas City, Arizona, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. But I think I’m going to take a small step forward in my own life and absolve myself of any future support for such a greedy, hypocritical organization.

Nick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He regularly blogs about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past.”

Notes:


 

[1] Richard C. Crepeau, NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime (Champaign, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2014), ix; see also Michael Oriard, Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[2] See also Jason Kaufman, For the Common Good?: American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); for ideological shifts and fractures during the 1980s, see Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011); for changes in popular media, see William Boddy, New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States (New York: Oxford Television Series), 2004.

[3] That Kroenke is a Missouri native named after St. Louis Cardinals baseball legends Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial was not lost on anyone in the St. Louis community.

[4] I am indebted to historian Andrew McGregor for pushing me to think about the role of media in explaining the Rams relocation to Los Angeles.

2 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye: The Politics of Franchise Relocation in the “New NFL” Era

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: NFL Franchise Relocation Roundtable | Sport in American History

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