ST. LOUIS – The atmosphere at Baer Park across the street from the Edward Jones Dome was festive on Sunday. It was a glorious fall afternoon, the Rams were about to play one of their biggest games in years, and as fans tossed footballs, downed beers and shared laughs a country band offered a soothing, soulful beat in the background.
In a word, it was perfect.
Yet anxiety hung in the air as thick as the smoky aroma of a tailgate party.
And it had nothing to do with the hated San Francisco 49ers being in town or the how the Rams were on the brink of moving over .500 for the first time this late in a season in nearly a decade.
“We’re pretty nervous, to be perfectly honest” said 56-year-old Rams fan Jim Freymark.
There is a clock ticking right now in St. Louis, and it could mark the end of the Rams 20-year existence along the banks of the Mississippi.
It’s no secret Rams owner Stan Kroenke has his heart set on moving his franchise back to Los Angeles, where it played from 1946 to 1994.
And he believes has the legal freedom and justification to pursue his dream.
The multi-billionaire and Missouri native is making a $1.7 billion dollar bet that the mega-entertainment vision he has for a privately financed stadium/development in Inglewood will convince fellow owners to grant him his wish.
With Kroenke essentially turning his back on the stadium plan Missouri leaders are putting together to keep him in St. Louis, local hope rests with NFL owners.
Do they agree with Kroenke, who believes St. Louis’ refusal to honor the original lease the Rams signed upon moving here in 1995 gives him free agent status, eligible to look elsewhere for a long-term home?
Or do they side with St. Louis, which insists the stadium plan it hopes to deliver makes any Rams move illegal by virtue of the NFL’s relocation guidelines?
Complicating matters is the Raiders and Chargers L.A. plan, the result of each teams frustration over years and years of fighting for new local stadiums in Oakland and San Diego.
“It’s an extremely difficult situation,” said 49ers CEO Jed York, who holds one of the 32 votes that will ultimately decide who stays and who goes. “And there are no easy answers.”
And let’s not forget that the future of professional football in Los Angeles rests in the balance. It’s been two decades since the NFL resided in the second-biggest market in the country. Depending on who you talk to, getting back to L.A. – and doing it right – trumps everything else in this complex situation.
“There is no doubt L.A. is a huge priority,” said York, who also stressed the importance of giving all three home markets a fair, honest look over the next three months.
“This isn’t a decision we can take lightly,” York said. “We’re talking about something that affects multiple fan bases and relocating teams from one market to another. The NFL has to be extremely prudent, and while it might seem like it’s taking longer than people would like, this isn’t a decision you can rush. And that’s why the NFL wants to take its time with it, to make sure the right decisions are made. These are long-term decisions.”
Rams fans hope the NFL has their back. But they are nervous.
“They have all these relocation guidelines, but will they actually follow them?” wondered 27-year-old Rams’ fan Mike Sparks. “Just look at Deflategate. The NFL flipped flopped a thousand times on that. We hope for a fair shake. But how can we be sure we’ll get it?”
This much is certain: The Rams want out of Missouri, and it doesn’t matter much what St. Louis ultimately delivers on a stadium plan.
The argument they make to fellow owners, and one they will continue to stress moving forward, is they’ve been free agents ever since St. Louis decided against paying the $700 million dollars an arbitrator ruled was necessary to upgrade the Edward Jones Dome. In doing so, it triggered a clause allowing the Rams to go to a year-to-year lease with the right to relocate.
Furthermore, they believe they meet the relocation guidelines. Yes, St. Louis is presenting a stadium plan. But if it isn’t compelling to the Rams it shouldn’t bound them to St. Louis.
And as a high-ranking NFL executive pointed out, a home markets obligation isn’t simply coming up with the best plan it can. It’s coming up with a plan a team is excited about and on board with.
If the Rams aren’t compelled by what St. Louis is offering – and there is nothing to suggest they are – can fellow owners force them to accept a deal they don’t believe is worthy?
Of course, the Chargers and Raiders point out their own local stadium issues as justification for a move to L.A.
But with room in Los Angeles for a maximum of two teams and one new stadium, who gets the nod?
“I can see validity in all the arguments, and that’s what’s so hard,” York said, “You have three markets that might not be the best markets in the league and you have L.A., a potentially great market.
“So there’s a lot of things to weigh and hopefully we’ll have a good answer in a couple of months.”
Meanwhile, the fans in the home markets wait in angst.
“It’s terrible because one day you think they’re going to stay then the next a different story comes out and they’re gone,” Freymark said.
And while he looks to the NFL for support, he isn’t sure St. Louis will get it.
“I don’t know, I don’t trust them. I know I should. But I don’t know,” Freymark said. “One minute they say they have (relocation) guidelines the next they say they’re only suggestions. So what are they, exactly?”
If it makes fans feel any better, York insists he doesn’t know yet which way he’ll vote.
“I honestly don’t,” he said. “Some people, obviously, have their staunch opinions on what is right but I still think there’s information we need to dig into. I want to make sure my vote truly counts. And that means putting everything into it. I don’t want to have a preconceived notion going into a vote of this magnitude.”
As decision day looms, St. Louis Rams fans soak in a season that is shaping up as one of the best in years.
The reality is, it might be the last one ever.