NFL: Forget fans – moving Rams to Los Angeles is all about money for Stan Kroenke

Decision by Arsenal’s main shareholder to move the St Louis NFL franchise to LA shows that in American sport the owner is king and can pick up his toys and take them where he wants. Rupert Cornwell reports on a 1,600-mile relocation

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 15 January 2016 18:42
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A bleakly familiar ritual in American sport’s major leagues has just unfolded. A team moves to financially greener pastures. Supporters of the new host city are ecstatic. Fans in the city being abandoned curse the treacherous owner who has betrayed them. This time the saga has a British angle too. The traitor in question is Stan Kroenke, who is also the majority owner of Arsenal.

This week, the National Football League accepted Kroenke’s proposal to move his St Louis Rams to Los Angeles, where he will build a dazzling new $2bn (£1.4bn) stadium complex. The Rams left Los Angeles for the midwest two decades ago. Their return means that America’s richest sports league will be back in the country’s second largest media market.

Simple, but not so simple. St Louis officials moved heaven and earth to keep the Rams; no city in the US would lightly forfeit the prestige of having its own NFL team. But Kroenke, who complained about the existing stadium there, and the inadequacy of a new $1.1bn facility proposed by the city, was having none of it.

Often, threats by owners to take their teams elsewhere amount to no more than blackmailing local officials into providing more public money (that is, taxpayers’ money) to finance the project. Not this time. Kroenke wanted out, and he wasn’t going to be persuaded otherwise.

What’s made everything even harder for St Louisans to swallow is that they thought Kroenke – born and raised in Missouri, and whose father even named him after Stan Musial, arguably the greatest player of baseball’s St Louis Cardinals – was one of them. But in his formal letter to the NFL proposing the move, Kroenke described a “struggling” St Louis. As for the planned new stadium, “any NFL club that signs on to this proposal in St Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin”.

Events of the past week have proved one thing – forget the fans, forget the patriotic hoopla with which the NFL invests its games. The NFL is about one thing: money. It is less a league in the European sense than a self-governing cartel of 32 clubs – or rather their 32 owners, billionaires with few exceptions.

Risks like relegation do not exist: only the certainty that money will be made. And if there’s more money to be made by moving a team across the continent – or by threatening to do so – then so be it. Otherwise why is Kroenke ready to pay a $650m relocation fee to the league and put up a reported $850m of his own money for the new complex?

Not that he can’t afford it. His personal fortune, according to Forbes magazine, is around $7.6bn, built on a hugely successful real estate business and marriage to a Walmart heiress. That makes Kroenke the second richest NFL owner, after the Seattle Seahawks’ Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. But an obvious question arises: why couldn’t a man who professes his love for his home state pay for a new stadium in St Louis?

In Kroenke’s defence, relocation is as old as professional sport in the US. Baseball teams have been moving around since 1902. Old timers in Brooklyn still haven’t forgiven Walter O’Malley for moving their beloved Dodgers to LA in 1958.

In the NFL, the owner of the Baltimore Colts spirited the team’s offices away to Indianapolis in a fleet of trucks at dead of night on 29 March 1984, after the City of Baltimore threatened to seize them to prevent the relocation. And over in the National Hockey League, Quebec still pines for its Nordiques, who in 1995 left for Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche (now owned, incidentally, by the Kroenke family).

The moral of these tales is evident: owners always get their way. Too bad for the fans, or taxpayers in cities vying to land (or keep) a major league franchise.

The Rams’ move, however, is not a guaranteed success. The team left LA in 1995 because of lack of interest and a shrinking fan base, while the one that’s returning hasn’t had a winning season in more than a decade. However beautiful the new stadium, the same might happen all over again.

And the ramifications of all this for Arsenal, whose supporters have little more love for “Silent Stan” than their counterparts in St Louis right now? Probably not many. Kroenke tends to be one for the long term. Nor has he burdened his clubs with debt, as another American NFL owner, Malcolm Glazer, did with Manchester United.

An Arsenal relocation, obviously, is nonsense. And that other touted relocation, of an NFL team to London, has also become much less likely, not just for reasons of logistics and time zones, but because LA was always the hole that the League wanted to fill. Now it has. Of course, Arsenal could always switch codes and turn to gridiron...

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