Three-Way Fight for Share of|L.A’s Billion-Dollar NFL Market

      ST. LOUIS (CN) – St. Louis has upped the ante in a billionaire boys club’s high-stakes poker game, trying to keep the NFL Rams from moving to Los Angeles, as the Raiders and Chargers have their own plans there.
     The St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Friday gave final approval to help fund construction of a riverfront football stadium to keep the Rams in town. The bill passed by a 17-10 vote, two more than the 15 votes needed for passage.
     The move brings more intrigue to the NFL Owners’ Meetings in Houston in January, where league owners are expected to vote between competing Los Angeles stadium proposals, deciding which of three teams get to move.
     The NFL is expected to approve at least one move, to fatten the profits of a $9 billion business by returning to the United States’ second-largest television market, after a 20-year absence.
     In January this year, Rams owner Stan Kroenke said he would move the team to Inglewood, Calif., to a $2 billion privately financed stadium.
     Four days later, Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz, co-chairmen of Gov. Jay Nixon’s St. Louis Stadium Taskforce, announced plans for an outdoor stadium on the Mississippi riverfront, with a price tag of more than $1 billion. Their plan called for public and private money, with the city contributing about $150 million by extending the bonds used to build the Rams current home, the Edward Jones Dome.
     In February, Chargers owner Dean Spanos and Raiders owner Mark Davis announced a joint partnership in Carson, Calif., between Los Angeles and Long Beach. The teams would share the stadium and divide the construction costs in the privately financed stadium.
     Since the NFL has made it clear that it wants no more than two teams in Los Angeles, the race to the entertainment capital of the world began.
     St. Louis’ issues began with the sweetheart deal that lured the Rams from Los Angeles in 1995. That deal included an ambiguous provision that the Edward Jones Dome had to remain in the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums or the Rams could go year-to-year on the lease after 2014. The ambiguity was what the top 25 percent meant – by revenue? By what measure?
     In February 2013, a three-person arbitration panel ruled that the stadium had failed to meet that requirement – but also found that the Rams’ proposal of $700 million in upgrades was not unreasonable.
     After St. Louis balked at Kroenke’s proposal, Kroenke, without any further publicly known negotiations with St. Louis, announced his Inglewood plans a year later.
     Both the Chargers’ and Raiders’ attempts to work out a deal with their cities stretch back 15 years. California has said it will not provide public money to fund stadiums for privately owned sports teams, and the state’s ever-changing political landscape has complicated the teams’ efforts.
     Neither San Diego nor Oakland has offered a viable stadium plan for their own cities, and both of their home fields are considered to be worse than the Rams’.
     Kroenke’s plan appears to be more attractive to the NFL. It taps into the glitz of Hollywood, with a retail and entertainment showcase that could enter the league’s regular Super Bowl rotation.
     The Carson plan is more of a traditional football stadium. But the addition of Disney CEO Bob Iger to lead the Chargers’ and Raiders’ marketing received an enthusiastic reception from NFL owners and has given new momentum to the project.
     The expected approval by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen stoked the fires for the Carson project. Now the Rams’ move to Los Angeles – once seen as a foregone conclusion – has been thrown into doubt.
     Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, a member of the NFL committee for Los Angeles opportunities, seems to favor the Carson project.
     “St. Louis, they have come up with a proposal that is getting pretty close, in my opinion, to being an attractive proposal,” McNair told the Houston Chronicle this week. “And if they do come up with an attractive proposal, then in my view, my personal opinion, I don’t think the Rams will receive the approval to relocate. So that would mean then you’d have two teams, San Diego and Oakland, that would be going into Carson. They have a partnership to build a stadium.”
     But would the NFL leave Kroenke, whose estimated net worth of $7.2 billion would make him the league’s second-wealthiest owner, out of the Los Angeles sweepstakes?
     Several different scenarios could play out.
     The NFL could approve Kroenke’s Inglewood plan, which could be the most lucrative Los Angeles option. The downside would that the NFL would have just one team in Los Angeles, and only one team of three would get its stadium issues resolved.
     The NFL could approve the Carson plan, which would fix the San Diego and Oakland stadium issues. The Rams, conceivably, would stay in St. Louis in a new riverfront stadium. But Kroenke has shown no interest in the St. Louis stadium plan, which would require him to pony up $250 million for construction.
     In absence of enough votes for either project, the NFL could table relocation for another year. That seems unlikely, as several owners, including McNair and New York Giants owner John Mara, have said they do not want to leave the markets in limbo for another year.
     One of the first two options is most likely, with some twists after last-minute negotiations.
     If the NFL backs Kroenke, the Inglewood stadium could get a second tenant, either the Chargers or Raiders.
     Kroenke, perhaps sensing he doesn’t have enough votes, recently sent a letter to the NFL, saying he would accept a co-tenant who would share in construction costs – but would have little to no say in stadium operations.
     That option seems unlikely, barring a last-minute deal.
     Both Spanos and Davis responded to Kroenke’s overture by saying they already have a partner in Los Angeles – each other. Nor are wealthy businessmen likely to commit to a billion-dollar project over whose operations they will have no control.
     Spanos apparently has some animosity toward Kroenke.
     St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Jim Thomas reported in October that Spanos initially approached Kroenke about being a partner in the Inglewood site, which Kroenke had not known was available. After a few weeks silence, Spanos learned that Kroenke had bought the Inglewood property himself, according to Thomas’ report.
     If Spanos is persuaded to join Kroenke, the Raiders would be the losers in the Los Angeles sweepstakes, with a potential consolation prize on the riverfront in St. Louis.
     Kroenke would have several options if the NFL approves the two-team Carson plan.
     He could defy the NFL and move the Rams anyway. But this could bring harsh sanctions from the league, and a costly and lengthy legal battle.
     Kroenke could broker a deal to let the Carson plan become reality, while working out a deal to acquire the Denver Broncos from Pat Bowlen, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
     Kroenke had to transfer control of the Denver Nuggets and Avalanche to his wife to adhere to the NFL’s cross-ownership rules.
     Such a deal would give Kroenke nearly total control of Denver’s professional sports market.
     Kroenke could go year-to-year with his lease at the Edward Jones Dome, while looking at other cities, possibly London or Toronto.
     Or Kroenke could tell St. Louis thanks, but no thanks, and build his own stadium in St. Louis.
     A Kroenke business associate recently bought 200 acres in Maryland Heights, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, that could house a stadium.
     No one knows yet how this game of high-stakes Texas Hold ‘Em will be played out in Houston in January. And the uncertainty has complicated the lives of the players on all three teams.
     “It’s kind of uncomfortable for everybody,” Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said Tuesday. “I’m not very good at things I can’t control. I’ve struggled with that my whole life, and this is one of those things.”
     The Rams may already have played their last home game in St. Louis, Thursday night, a 31-23 victory over Tampa Bay.
     “I’m appreciative of this place and I’ll play as hard as I can,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said. “You never know, you just never know. As we’ve done all year, you have to worry about doing our jobs and handling what we can control.”

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