Reaction to Friday morning's news that the St. Louis Rams would be playing one of their home games in London in each of the next three seasons was mixed. For many, the news stoked fears about the possibility of the Rams packing up and moving after the 2014 season.
Fans in St. Louis wanted some assurance about the future of their team, more than they wanted games in the UK and even more than they wanted the team to hire Jeff Fisher. Unfortunately, there wasn't much in the way of assurance that Stan Kroenke or Kevin Demoff or anyone with the Rams could provide. As we pointed out yesterday, the franchise, the CVC, the city and others are involved in a fairly sensitive negotiation, a negotiation with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
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Lost in the noise of reaction and demands for meaningless guarantees, Kroenke and the Rams dropped a few breadcrumbs hinting at their position in the upcoming negotiations. What they said falls short of an assurance, but it did signal that they expect to engage the city of St. Louis and Missouri's other public entities in a serious dialog around the stadium issue. It also sounded like the Rams have some expectations for assistance from the public coffers.
"We are committed to try and find a way to get the lease situation fixed, and we're excited about what the city's going to propose in February and where we can go, then we'll start to move forward," Rams COO Kevin Demoff said on KNFS radio.
You can read into that whatever you want. As we've said before, there really isn't much the Rams or the city or the CVC can say as far as specifics. They are signaling an intention to negotiate in good faith. That's just my opinion, but it does match what the Rams have done in terms of reaching expanding their footprint in the community. In the last three years, the Rams have stepped up their presence in the charitable community. Stuck with a faulty on-field product, the franchise worked with corporate partners to buy up tickets, or bought remaining tickets themselves, to make sure games were not blacked out. And, you may have noticed they just agreed to a five-year, $35 million contract to hire the Jeff Fisher, an experienced, established head coach to turn around a team whose glory days have been replaced by a reputation as a glorified practice squad for the league's other 31 teams.
That's a pretty substantial effort to build goodwill with fans. Of course, it won't matter if the team keeps losing games, and they've acknowledged as much. From Demoff's KNFS interview:
The best way to expand our footprint in St. Louis is to win games, become a better organization and to solve the lease situation, that's the best way to expand our footprint in St. Louis. And, we need to figure out ways to continue to increase our revenue, increase our viability and things like this make us a greater player across the league.
Good faith aside, there's still a leverage game to be played around stadium negotiations. The London games are most certainly an attempt to strengthen the Rams' brand. It's hard to overlook the insinuation that it also gives the team a little bargaining power in those negotiations.
Upgrading the Dome to the vaguely defined "top tier" or building another facility in the area is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The CVC doesn't have that kind of money. The City of St. Louis doesn't have that kind of money. To get the kind of public money needed for a project like that, it's going to take those two entities as well as the state government.
Statements from Kroenke and Demoff make it pretty clear that the team envisions something more than just a football stadium, something that can bring other events into town and the economic benefits associated with those kind of events.
From the same interview:
Look, we talk for three years every time the lease questions come up; we need to find a great solution for St. Louis. People look at us as the ones driving the ship, but I look at this as a bigger issue for St. Louis. What happens to Mizzou-Illinois? We want to get Final Fours back, we want to get Frozen Fours back, we want to compete for FIFA soccer events during the World Cup, we want to be able to host a bowl game, we want to be able to do a lot of things in the Edward Jones Dome, and we want a building that works for St. Louis 365 days a year, not just the nine or ten times a year that we play at the Edward Jones Dome.
... we need to get a building that is competitive in the Midwest for events and that can put St. Louis on the map. When you see Kenny Chesney concerts going to Kansas City instead of St. Louis, when you see FIFA soccer going to Kansas City and Chicago, when you see a Super bowl in Indianapolis and when you see a Final Four in Indianapolis, all of those things, there is no reason that St. Louis shouldn't be as competitive with Kansas City and Indianapolis and some of those places. And that's how we view this, because that is what's best for St. Louis; it's not just about us.
The NFL makes money everywhere it goes thanks to a smart economic structure. Jacksonville, Green Bay ... St. Louis can all host profitable franchises. Stadiums, of course, make those franchises even more profitable for owners and shareholders. You can argue the relative economic benefits of a stadium, but consistently bringing in Super Bowls, concerts and other major year-round events do positively impact a city's economy.
And because of that, the Rams sure make it sound as though they expect the elected officials to play ball. Nobody understands that game as well as Kroenke. He's a pretty big political donor, and his model for suburban property development relies heavily on friendly political environments, e.g. tax breaks, abatements, public infrastructure, etc. It's a model that applies to building a Wal-Mart Super Center just as well as a stadium. Stadiums just require a little more concentrated contribution from the public.
They can likely get some contributions from the NFL's reconfigured stadium construction loan program as well to sweeten the pot for the politicians by holding it out as "matching" money.
Of course, the LA talk will remain. Having an open invitation to move to SoCal only helps the Rams in negotiations.
There's a big political debate to be had around using public resources for projects like this. I'm purposefully skirting that, for now, because it has nothing to do with my larger point here. The Rams aren't tipping their hand about negotiations, but it's clear that they do intended to negotiate rather than just entrench themselves for three years until they can beat feet for Los Angeles. They could easily do that given the "top tier" requirements that would allow them to flee.
Kroenke distilled it down to pretty simple terms in his remarks during Tuesday's press conference to introduce Jeff Fisher.
As I said earlier, I started in St. Louis, in one year from now, that will be 20 years, so I've been around here a long time. Contrary to a lot of reports, I haven't taken a lot of ‘jack' out of the market. I think that's what's reported. I have put a lot of ‘jack' into the market.
The Rams are likely to stick around St. Louis, but they'll be expecting some "jack" to do so.