Aware that my checkered past included a stint as a sportswriter, a colleague asked me last week whether Stan Kroenke was the new Bill Bidwill.
It’s understandable. People see one National Football League mogul intent on moving his team out of St. Louis and they confuse him with the previous NFL mogul threatening to pull his team out of St. Louis. They’re different guys. What they have in common is a bunch of saps.
Billy was a football guy. Not a very savvy one, to be sure. But the Bidwills were league pioneers. Charlie “Blue Shirt” Bidwill had bought the Cardinals in 1932 for $50,000, which would buy what $861,000 buys today.
When the team moved to St. Louis in 1960, Charlie’s son Billy was 29. He bought out his brother in 1972. Today the Arizona Cardinals are valued by Forbes magazine at $1 billion. The team is the biggest reason the Bidwill family is rich.
Kroenke, on the other hand, was rich long before he bought into the Rams in 1995 as a minority partner when Georgia Frontiere decided to move to St. Louis. He bought out Frontiere’s heirs in 2010. He has $750 million invested in an team valued by Forbes at $930 million.
Now he’s said to be ready to move the Rams back to Los Angeles, into a Jerry Jones-like mega-stadium that he and his partners plan to build in the center of a giant mixed-use real estate development. This could double or even triple the value of the franchise.
It’s hard to see Kroenke’s investment in the Rams as anything other than a very long, very shrewd real estate play.
A person should measure his life by the family he raises, the friends he makes, the good he does. Me, I measure my life by the stadium sagas I have written about. I am not proud of this.
In my years of writing about stadium sagas, the most trenchant thing I ever heard anyone say was uttered by then-St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl in March of 1988. He had just returned from having the door slammed in his face in the city’s last-ditch effort to keep the NFL from approving the Cardinals’ bid to move to Phoenix. He was not a gracious loser, saying of the NFL owners and officials:
‘’The fact of the matter is, these are not reputable people, and I don’t think it’s becoming of a city to extend themselves to postures that allow them to kiss the backsides of such people. ... These aren’t nice people, in my judgment.”
But kiss them we have, even though the NFL has treated St. Louis like a prom queen dealing with a puppy-dog date. Bidwill’s team was a laughingstock for most of its 28 seasons here. After he moved to the desert, it remained a laughingstock for 18 more seasons (during which the Cardinals finished above .500 only once) until he finally got his new stadium.
In the meantime, the St. Louis Saps built a new stadium on spec, paid for entirely by tax dollars from Missouri, the city and St. Louis County. The concept was that the stadium would pay for itself with “net new fiscal benefit.” Who but a sap would buy that?
Boosters were confident the new dome would lure an NFL expansion team. Team colors — purple and gold — and a team nickname — the Stallions — were chosen. The NFL’s marketing arm signed off on the logo, a stylized horse’s head. (At least the logo didn’t go to waste; a variation of it can now be seen on the side of the Denver Broncos’ helmets).
Because in October 1993, the NFL dumped on St. Louis again. The Purple Stallions died a’borning, even though Columbia, Mo., billionaire Enos Stanley Kroenke had been recruited to help bolster St. Louis’ expansion bid. Kroenke, who was busy building tax-subsidized shopping centers anchored by Walmarts, smelled an opportunity.
We saps loved Stan Kroenke. What could go wrong with a guy named after Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial?
Desperate for a team to put in a stadium that was then under construction— even though it had been advertised as a convention center annex that didn’t need an NFL team to prosper— we saps were fleeced by a man named John Shaw.
Shaw ran the Rams for Georgia Frontiere, who preferred show tunes and horoscopes to football. Shaw spotted a sucker. St. Louis signed what has been called the worst lease in the history of sports. It gave the Rams practically all the revenue generated by football in the new stadium, including “personal seat licenses” that saps snapped up, plus a new practice facility. Shaw reportedly threw in a “state of the art” clause, allowing the team to move after 20 years unless the stadium was “top tier,” just for yucks. The saps signed it anyway.
Twenty years are up at the end of the month. We saps, in a city and state that won’t pay for basic services, will be asked to compete with a mega-billion real estate deal in Tinseltown. All to keep a team that — except for a few years of divine intervention in the form of Marshall Faulk and a former supermarket shelf-stocker who nobody knew was any good — has been a relentless disappointment.
We saps have a choice. Let football go and suck it up. Or pucker up.