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Hochman: Biggest battle is still to come for Rams

Hochman: Biggest battle is still to come for Rams

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. • And so, it could end here, fittingly, in a fancy newfangled California NFL stadium, with thousands of empty seats at kickoff.

The St. Louis Rams play the San Francisco 49ers, and then will wait to see if they’re still the St. Louis Rams.

But is this their future, or really, any team’s future in Los Angeles? The NFL is a marketing marvel as it gains and grows fans and fanbases, but when it comes to those eight Sundays, it all seems quite simple: If a team is good, the team’s fans will go watch the team. If the team is bad, they won’t, regardless if the stadium is straight out of an episode of “The Jetsons.” The 49ers have a time-honored fan base, yet there have been as many empty red seats at Levi’s Stadium as at the Edward Jones Dome. (I’ll still never understand why they made the Rams’ seats red. It’s as weird as if the seats at Busch were blue.)

Of course, it’s quite possible that St. Louis itself will have its own Levi’s Stadium. The riverfront project is invigorating and forward-thinking and could revitalize downtown in the way modern NFL projects sometimes do in our nation. But will it all backfire if the Rams remain Rams-bad?

It’s all a gamble. All of it. Stan Kroenke looking at LA. The St. Louis stadium project. The NFL in general looking at LA.

So if the league wants to make the safest bet, I just don’t see how the voting owners can look at the three cities and say: Let’s move the one team of the three that could possibly remain viable in their current city, because of a new stadium plan.

St. Louis does not get enough credit. The city is lumped into this trio of San Diego and Oakland, as if they’re all woebegone NFL cities, but that’s not the case. Say what you want about them avoiding the public vote, and say what you want about the Board of Aldermen making it rain with taxpayers’ money for a stadium, once again. The reality is, St. Louis has an energized plan. St. Louis is ready to make its own gamble, and do so with its own money.

“Since the beginning of time, pro sports teams have been more interested in exploiting fan loyalty than appreciating it,” explained Drew Magary on Deadspin.com. “This is not the first time a fanbase has been given the Sophie’s Choice of A) Losing their team or B) Making a spoiled rich (owner) even MORE of a spoiled rich (owner).”

Back to the LA decision, you can also look at it this way: How could the NFL decide not to solve its California problem by moving the two California teams with hopeless stadium situations into one amazing new stadium in California’s biggest city? Oh, and with the help of the man who runs Disney, too.

Well, it’s loomed for years, and now it’s all going to happen really fast. This coming Wednesday and Thursday, it’s been reported, the NFL’s Los Angeles relocation committee and the league’s stadium committee and finance committee will all meet in New York. And then, on the 12th and 13th, all the owners will meet in Houston. It’s possible that on Jan. 14th, there won’t be a St. Louis Rams team.

In order for either Stan Kroenke’s Inglewood stadium project or the Chargers/Raiders Carson stadium project to become a reality, 24 of the 32 NFL owners must vote in favor of it. Rumblings as of now say there aren’t 24 votes for either project.

Even with all the reporting and investigating going into this NFL-to-LA stuff, it’s quite possible that the outcome could be something different than speculated.

We all know of the business shrewdness of Kroenke, who so often gets his way. One wonders what a desperate and hungry Kroenke could pull off? Would a forced marriage between him and San Diego owner Dean Spanos be the only way Kroenke can make his billion-dollar Inglewood dream come true? What concessions would he make to Spanos?

And a part of me is not convinced that Kroenke would settle for the riverfront stadium deal in St. Louis, even if it meant free money being handed to him for a new stadium. Could he build his own Taj Mahal? Again, in the modern NFL, it’s all about development. It’s not just the stadium, it’s the parking, it’s the nearby shopping and restaurants and bars. Stadiums aren’t just that Disney castle these days; they’re Disney World.

Control is the most powerful aspect here.

If he gets to a point where he concedes — and declares he won’t flirt with other cities and the Rams are St. Louis’ team — he could then say he wants to do it his way. He’s the Sinatra of business. He made his fortune in development. Perhaps his masterpiece could be somewhere in our city’s region.

Hey, this would be a great problem for St. Louis to have.

But now, all St. Louis can do is wait. The toughest NFL battles involving St. Louis this season have yet to happen.

Here in Santa Clara, the Rams and 49ers will play a meaningless game in front of a predicted paltry crowd. I can see the refs saying: “Take it easy on the turf, guys. We’ve got a real game here next month.”

Indeed, Super Bowl 50 will be here. And that’s the flip side of all this. Sure, fans don’t come to even awesome stadiums to watch bad teams. But awesome stadiums lead to windfalls such as the title game and everything that comes with it. Here’s guessing that Los Angeles will definitely host an upcoming Super Bowl. And who knows, maybe St. Louis will, too.

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