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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 Sports.
And now comes their biggest reminder yet of all that he took away from them. Three years after they abandoned St. Louis for L.A., the Los Angeles Rams will play in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots on Sunday.
The Rams bolted from St. Louis after the 2015 season. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
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 L.A. market in 1995 with a new taxpayer-funded 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.
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“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. Louis-based 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 six miles east of the old Rams dome, a local 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 2000 and 2002.
“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% of NFL stadiums, as stipulated in its lease.
This document insulted the community after it circulated in the news 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.
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“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, Calif., 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 in St. Louis, in 2015, was their 12th straight without a winning record. But shortly after the team moved to L.A., 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 L.A., including running back Todd Gurley and defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
“We had great fans in St. Louis,” Demoff told USA TODAY Sports. “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 Sports that he’s “somewhat indifferent” about the fate of the Rams in the Super Bowl, especially because he has had business relationships with the Patriots.
Meanwhile, 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.”
Follow sports reporter Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: Thumbnails
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