St. Louis in­dif­fer­ent about Rams’ suc­cess

For­mer home still pay­ing down debt on sta­dium team de­serted af­ter 2015

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Brent Schroten­boer | USA TO­DAY

SU­PER BOWL LIII 6:30 P.M. ET SUN­DAY, CBS

The bil­lion­aire owner of the Rams never came clean with the peo­ple of St. Louis be­fore he moved his team to Los An­ge­les in 2016. • “Silent” Stan Kroenke didn’t re­ally say any­thing pub­licly, not even af­ter news broke in Jan­uary 2014 that he had pur­chased land for a po­ten­tial new sta­dium near the Los An­ge­les air­port. • “Kroenke never shot straight with them,” long­time sports­caster Bob Costas told USA TO­DAY. • And now comes their big­gest reminder yet of all that he took away from them. Three years af­ter they aban­doned St. Louis for LA, the Rams will play in the Su­per Bowl against the Pa­tri­ots on Sun­day. • St. Louis foot­ball fans have a root­ing in­ter­est in this game, if not a team. • That’s against Kroenke, who “strung them along” be­fore bail­ing, said Costas, who has deep ties to St. Louis.

The fran­chise spent 21 years in St. Louis af­ter be­ing lured there from the LA mar­ket in 1995 with a new tax­payer­funded domed sta­dium. The city, county and state still are pay­ing down the debt on that fa­cil­ity, with about $60 mil­lion owed as of Dec. 31.

“I can’t think of any­body I know who is a big Rams fan or overt about it,” said Dave Pea­cock, who is from the area and is the for­mer pres­i­dent of St. Louis­based An­heuser-Busch. “I do know some fans who have adopted the (Kansas City) Chiefs as sort of their team. You’re go­ing to have that when any team moves. Each city has to do its best to re­tain their team, which is what at least we tried to do.”

About 6 miles east of the old Rams’ dome, a sports col­lectibles busi­ness has a sim­ple way to sum­ma­rize the cur­rent value of the Rams in St. Louis. It has more than 1,000 items for sale, many of them fea­tur­ing the city’s beloved base­ball Car­di­nals and hockey Blues. Only two of all those items are of the Rams: an au­to­graphed photo and hel­met of for­mer Rams quar­ter­back Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to the Su­per Bowl in the 1999 and 2001 sea­sons.

“It’s re­ally hard to sell Rams’ mem­o­ra­bilia,” said Bet­tina Wool­bright, who owns Dog­town Sports Col­lectibles & Fram­ing along with her hus­band, Clyde. “Cus­tomers buy Kurt Warner, not Rams. Their mem­o­ra­bilia has been hard to sell the last five or six years. Im­pos­si­ble to sell since they moved. Luck­ily we didn’t have a huge in­ven­tory of Rams’ items to take a loss on. The owner re­ally hosed St. Louis their last years here.”

St. Louis tried to keep the Rams with a new $1.1 bil­lion river­front sta­dium pro­posal that pitched $400 mil­lion in pub­lic fund­ing. Pea­cock helped lead that ef­fort, af­ter be­ing asked by then-Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nixon in 2014 to look at ways to en­sure St. Louis stayed in the NFL.

Kroenke re­jected it. In its ap­pli­ca­tion to re­lo­cate, the team sub­mit­ted a doc­u­ment to the NFL in Jan­uary 2016 that said “any NFL club that signs on to this pro­posal in St. Louis will be well on the road to fi­nan­cial ruin.” It said the team had a con­trac­tual right to leave St. Louis be­cause the dome was no longer among the top 25 per­cent of NFL sta­di­ums, as stip­u­lated in its lease.

This doc­u­ment in­sulted the com­mu­nity af­ter it cir­cu­lated in the me­dia.

“Com­pared to all other U.S. cities, St. Louis is strug­gling,” the Rams doc­u­ment said. It also claimed that “St. Louis is not a three-pro­fes­sional team mar­ket,” in­clud­ing the Car­di­nals and Blues.

“Peo­ple here are pretty proud,” Pea­cock said. “They didn’t like how things were char­ac­ter­ized.”

Kroenke in­stead de­cided to pur­sue a 298-acre sta­dium project in In­gle­wood, Cal­i­for­nia, that now is pro­jected to cost more than $4 bil­lion, all pri­vately funded un­der one de­vel­oper — Kroenke.

St. Louis Rams sup­port­ers be­lieve this de­fied the NFL re­lo­ca­tion pol­icy that says each team’s “pri­mary obli­ga­tion” is to ad­vance the in­ter­ests of the league in its home ter­ri­tory and that no club has an “en­ti­tle­ment” to re­lo­cate just be­cause more money can be made else­where.

Costas said Kroenke didn’t ap­pear in­ter­ested in stay­ing.

“If he had sim­ply said, ‘Look, there are prospects in Los An­ge­les that no busi­ness­man, no mat­ter his per­sonal loy­alty, would turn his back on — and we thank St. Louis for all the great years, and we leave with ap­pre­ci­a­tion and grat­i­tude,’ that would have been fine,” said Costas, who thinks of St. Louis as his home­town. “But in­stead he strung them along, and St. Louis came up with some $400 mil­lion to try to re­tain the team and build a new sta­dium. And ev­ery­body jumps through hoops when the whole thing was bo­gus to be­gin with. They were never go­ing to stay.”

The team’s per­for­mance in St. Louis added to the sus­pi­cion about Kroenke’s in­ten­tions. The Rams’ last sea­son there, in 2015, was their 12th in a row with­out a win­ning record. But shortly af­ter the team moved to LA, the Rams made ag­gres­sive ros­ter moves, trad­ing to get the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft and mak­ing sev­eral player ac­qui­si­tions last year that led to their cur­rent Su­per Bowl run.

“NOW the team makes an ef­fort to com­pete and gets to the Su­per Bowl?” St. Louis sports ra­dio host Randy Kar­raker re­cently wrote on the web­site for 101 ESPN ra­dio in St. Louis. “That just rubs salt into the wound.”

Rams ex­ec­u­tive Kevin De­moff has worked closely with Kroenke and dis­putes this no­tion, not­ing the team ob­tained sev­eral cur­rent stand­outs be­fore the move to LA, in­clud­ing run­ning back Todd Gur­ley and de­fen­sive line­man Aaron Don­ald.

“We had great fans in St. Louis,” De­moff told USA TO­DAY. “Re­lo­ca­tion is hard on ev­ery­body. I hope there are some in St. Louis who are still root­ing for the suc­cess of the team. I un­der­stand there are peo­ple who may be root­ing against us. That’s just the re­al­ity of re­lo­ca­tion, but there’s noth­ing that can be done at that point to change the minds of those whose were made up. I do hope there is some seg­ment that is still pulling for the play­ers but may be up­set at oth­ers of us.”

Such a seg­ment is hard to find these days. Even Pea­cock, who tried to keep the team in St. Louis, told USA TO­DAY he’s “some­what in­dif­fer­ent” about the fate of the Rams in the Su­per Bowl, es­pe­cially be­cause he has had busi­ness re­la­tion­ships with the Pa­tri­ots.

The Rams still face sev­eral law­suits re­lated to the re­lo­ca­tion from St. Louis. Their de­par­ture was the sec­ond time the NFL has left the city since 1988, when the foot­ball Car­di­nals re­lo­cated to Ari­zona.

Other kinds of foot­ball soon might catch on in­stead. St. Louis is sched­uled to get a team in the new XFL pro foot­ball league next year. It also has been pur­su­ing a Ma­jor League Soc­cer fran­chise.

But the Rams are dead to many of their old fans, hated even more than the Pa­tri­ots, their op­po­nent Sun­day and the team that beat them in their last Su­per Bowl, in 2002.

“As much as they hate the Pa­tri­ots, they still will root for them over the Rams this year,” said Clyde Wool­bright of the sports col­lectibles shop. “The Rams’ owner aban­doned St. Louis, and the fans won’t for­get it.”

AP

Work­ers re­move the Rams’ Su­per Bowl ti­tle ban­ner from the Ed­ward Jones Dome in St. Louis in 2016.

KIRBY LEE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Rams bolted from St. Louis af­ter the 2015 sea­son.

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