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Commentary: Go, you purple stallions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2010 - Until last week, it appeared that the majority interest in the St. Louis Rams would be acquired by a local businessman with strong ties to the metro region. The prospective owner, Shahid Khan, is reportedly a self-made billionaire and an avid Illini supporter with a reputation for civic philanthropy. The city at long last would host an NFL franchise with stable and secure ownership committed to the community and to on-field excellence.

Then, just as the Age of Gridiron Aquarius was about to dawn over the Edward Jones Dome, the present minority owner, Stan Kroenke, made an eleventh-hour announcement that he intended to exercise his option to buy the team. Unfortunately, the league’s cross-ownership rules prevent him from doing so because of professional sports holdings he has in Denver. It has been speculated that he may sell those assets to his wife, but nothing is certain at this time.

Instead of competitive football, we get dueling tycoons. The team’s bright future is suddenly clouded by veiled intents, Byzantine intrigue, the prospect of Machiavellian plots hatching protracted lawsuits and outright treachery. In short, things have returned to normal.

Before I offer my analysis of Kroenke’s maneuver, it might be helpful to briefly recap the checkered history of professional football on the western banks of the Big Muddy.

In 1923, the St. Louis All-Stars joined the fledgling National Football League. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the team disbanded at season’s end. The pro game came back to town in 1934 when the NFL’s version of the Cincinnati Reds moved here and became the St. Louis Gunners. The Gunners went out of business the following year — although the team’s name was presciently appropriate for a city that would one day gain national renown as the “Murder Capital of the U.S.”

Flash forward to 1960 and civic leaders are presented with an option. On the one hand, the newly formed American Football League was selling franchises. On the other, the Bidwill brothers were looking for a new home for their late father’s Chicago Cardinals.

Either get in on the ground floor of an exciting, but risky, new venture or adopt an established NFL team that had posted one winning record in the last 10 years.

The choice was obvious: Why shoot for the stars when you can relax in secure mediocrity? By decade’s end, the upstart AFL was in the process of merging with the senior league and basking in the celebrity of stars like Joe Namath and Lenny Dawson while the then-St. Louis Cardinals struggled to conclude yet another 14-game season with the eerily recurrent record of 4 wins, 9 losses and 1 tie.

Posting exactly 10 winning seasons out of 28 played here, the team left for the greener pastures of the Arizona desert at the end of 1987 because the city wouldn’t build a new football stadium. It was then that the real fun began…

In deference to spatial limitations and the reader’s gag reflex, I won’t attempt to recount the details of the subsequent efforts to replace the departed franchise. At one time, I’d considered writing a storyline for a Three Stooges’ remake based on what transpired but rejected the idea because I feared the plot was too juvenile for the target audience.

Suffice it to say that the league announced that it would add two franchises in 1993. As the largest TV market without a team, St. Louis was considered a dead mortal lock for one of them.

What happened next is difficult to believe even in hindsight. It involved clashing egos of entrenched wealth; old money vs. new, cross purposes; would-be movers and shakers who couldn’t afford to pay attention; a $10 option to buy the New England Patriots; an actual rich guy who really did buy the New England Patriots, and the construction of a publicly financed “Convention Center Expansion” that looked suspiciously like a domed football stadium for a team that technically didn’t exist.

The only thing generally agreed upon was that the team would be christened the “Stallions” and its colors would be purple and gold, soon dubbing it the “Purple Stallions” in the public imagination. A local radio station even composed a fight song for the Arcadian enterprise.

The league ultimately despaired of making sense of the St. Louis bid and awarded expansion franchises to Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Part of the deal to lure the Rams here to inhabit the vacant Convention Center annex involved Stan Kroenke buying a 40 percent interest in the team for $80 million, according to the St. Louis Business Journal. 

At the time, Kroenke’s action was interpreted as the philanthropic gesture of a wealthy sportsman from Columbia, Mo. Indeed, it was. It was also a shrewd business deal.

Last September, Forbes magazine valued the Rams at $913 million. Most observers consider that appraisal to be high, given the current state of the economy and the pending labor negotiations with the players' union. The Khan bid reportedly set the purchase price at $750 million.

If Kroenke had sold his holdings, he’d have received $300 million — 3.75 times his original investment. However, under the current scenario, he can purchase the remaining 60 percent for $450 million, giving him the franchise free and clear for the bargain basement price of $530 million (his previous investment + the cost of buying the remainder of the team).

Per the original lease agreement, the Ed Dome has to remain in the top 25 percent of the league’s 32 stadiums or the Rams are free to move elsewhere. The facility is to be rated every 20 years, making the end of the 2014 season the drop-dead date for compliance.

Next January, an as yet unnamed arbitrator will determine a.) whether the Ed is one of the NFL’s 8 most attractive venues and, if not, b.) whether there is a realistic possibility of replacing it with one that is by the end of 2014.

As the league now has 18 newer stadiums than the 15-year-old Ed, it doesn’t figure to make the cut. And as both the city and state are currently broke, the public lacks the wherewithal to replace it.

According to a source close to the negotiations, once the arbitrator reaches the obvious conclusions, the Rams can seek a court judgment declaring an “anticipatory breach of contract” — essentially a ruling that because one party will be unable to fulfill its end of the bargain, the other party is relieved of further obligation. The Rams could thus move anywhere they wish at the conclusion of the upcoming season, making the now portable franchise far more valuable than one chained to the Arch.

Of course, Kroenke still has to get league approval for the deal to go down, but one can only presume that he and his advisers have considered this matter. As of this writing, he has remained silent about his plans for the team, but he is reportedly a member of the committee to build a new stadium to bring a team back to L.A. The issue of lease arbitration becomes ripe next New Year’s Day.

During their stay in St. Louis, the football Cardinals posted a .479 regular-season winning percentage. Playoff success during the glory years notwithstanding, the regular-season winning percentage of the St. Louis Rams stands at .442.

We now enter the much anticipated 2010 NFL draft with a mediocre team, a confusing ownership situation and an extremely uncertain future. The déjà vu’s getting rather deep around here…

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.