When the unpleasant hue of brightly-colored seats begins to regularly make a colorful rainbow around an NFL stadium during home games, owners grow concerned. And when owners grow concerned, tough decisions are made. And when tough decisions are made, the hearts and souls of fans are trampled, neglected, and torn repeatedly.
In their depressed and emotionally charged state the fan will forget that running an NFL team is not a cheap or particularly easy business venture. The mere thought of a team relocating is always a delicate one that leads to an irrational discussion. The fan base will claim loyalty, saying that they’ve supported Team X through all the losing, and steep peaks and low valleys.
This is not what support looks like:
That’s been a painful sight for St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s eyes this year, with the regular blend of red and blue leading to an average of about 11,000 empty seats for Rams home games. There’s only so much mind reading we can do after Kroenke and commissioner Roger Goodell officially announced that the Rams will become the league’s first London “home” team, playing one game per year across the pond for the next three years, starting with an Oct. 28, 2012 game against the Patriots.
We can do some pocket reading, though, and there’s mounting evidence that a far more attractive supermodel at the bar has Kroenke’s attention, and he’s just tolerating his stagnant and strained marriage to St. Louis. While he’ll make all the right bland public relations statements through bland press releases, Kroenke’s strongest communication today was blunt and direct. He took three home games away from St. Louis, telling fans that traveling across an ocean is a far greater business opportunity than another routine, lackluster turnout, and an empty Edward Jones Dome.
This is the beginning, and the end could be a much more permanent flight in a different direction further west to a highly lucrative market in Los Angeles with plans to build a state-of-the-art stadium. Officials and fans in L.A. are just waiting for one small detail to fall into place: a team.
Earlier this week Kroenke was inevitably asked about the Rams’ future in St. Louis during the press conference to officially introduce Jeff Fisher as the team’s new head coach. He knew the question was coming, and he had the opportunity to express his confidence in the city. He didn’t even have to believe his own words, and it could have just been a sentence or two that briefly quieted local concerns, and relieved his headache.
Hell, Kroenke wouldn’t have been the first professional sports team owner to drop a little white lie for personal gain. As long as he didn’t call up the Mayflower moving company in the middle of the night, the immediate harm would have been minimal. People know that men wearing suits lie.
But he didn’t. Instead he said little when a reporter popped the question, and in doing so he hinted at a possible divorce.
“I think this is all out there. The chronology of what occurs with the lease is public knowledge. I think for me to comment on that process is particularly (un)timely. The city, or the (stadium) authority, they’re dealing with their side of it. And they present a proposal to us by Feb. 1. So there’s a team in place that deals with all that. So we’ll see how that process sorts itself out. But it’s a thing that takes place over time.”
When pressed further to make a commitment to the city Kroenke still wouldn’t budge, saying only that he’ll “see how the process works out.”
Written into the Rams’ lease at the Edward Jones Dome is an opportunity to escape the 17-year-old facility and St. Louis if the dome isn’t deemed a “first tier” facility in three years. It won’t be, and everyone involved knows it, so essentially the lease will expire in 2014, and the Rams are free to move.
Kroenke is also a majority owner of Arsenal, the English Premier League soccer club that was seventh on Forbes’ most recent ranking of the 50 richest sports franchises, so the connection to London is clear. That made the Rams an obvious candidate during Goodell’s search for a regular London home team after a new deal was announced earlier this season to have a regular-season game at Wembley Stadium for at least the next five years.
A permanent jump to London still feels a little premature, although it’s getting more plausible with the growing ownership ties, and Goodell’s fondness for building an audience in a foreign market. Those ambitions could still percolate for a decade or so.
But Kroenke’s disconnect with St. Louis is now abundantly clear, and while one leg took a step towards London today, the other went subtly westward. This team already lived and died once in Los Angeles, and the new life breathed into the NFL in L.A. today may seem faint right now, but it’s very real.