NFL can bend cross-ownership rules for Stan Kroenke

By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
04/14/2010


Because 15 years worth of history has conditioned us to expect an endless supply of soap opera silliness, unpredictable cloak-and-dagger intrigue and mind-numbing misfortune with just about everything at Rams Park, I'm still not quite sure why none of us anticipated this wild throw from left field.

It is the Rams we're talking about, so how else could a so-called streamlined, by-the-numbers sale of the franchise go but whirling into a shocking Barbarians at the Gate tailspin?

OK, this is not quite as contentious as that notorious business deal, but oh, boy, it sure is starting to have that sort of provocative feel. Minority owner Stan Kroenke's bold attempt to take over 100 percent control of the Rams is being played out on the sports pages, but it could end up on the pages of The Wall Street Journal or maybe even a tantalizing made-for-TV screenplay as time goes on.

This 11th hour move by Kroenke was a quintessential, big-time high-finance power play, but we'll just have to wait a little longer to see what else the multibillionaire has up his sleeves. Was this a stroke of pure strategic genius, a ruthless act of conspicuous consumption, or does Kroenke's business mind really work so many steps ahead of the rest of us that we're automatically conditioned to come up with Machiavellian motivations and miss the simplest one of all: Does Stan just want to be a full-fledged member of America's most exclusive billionaire sports lovers' club, NFL ownership?

Looking at his business history, Kroenke has carefully built his $2.9 billion empire in real estate and by collecting professional sports franchises like we get fancy watches. He has at various times owned one of each in the NBA and NHL (Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche respectively), professional soccer (Colorado Rapids and Arsenal), major league lacrosse (Colorado Mammoth) and a 40 percent stake in the Rams for the last 15 years.

And now he's decided that he wants more. And now he's asking the NFL, which supposedly has plenty of rules standing in his way, to do what it has done quite a few times in the past.

Bend its rules to accommodate a good friend.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has already told everyone that the rules on cross-ownership won't be bent for Kroenke or anyone else. Rules are rules, the commish says, and since we have rules, well, we have to actually abide by them.

And for the most part, that's true, except when it isn't.

The NFL used to have a rule that prohibited its owners from owning any other franchise in another professional league.

And then they changed that.

And then it had a rule that said you could only do cross-ownership as long as it was in the same town as your NFL franchise.

And then they changed that.

And then they said that if you were going to have controlling interest in an NFL franchise, the minimum percentage you had to own was 30 percent.

But then they changed that, too.

So we now have an NFL ownership fraternity that allowed Paul Allen, who has owned the NBA Portland Trail Blazers since 1988, to buy a majority stake in the NFL Seattle Seahawks in 1997. And there's Wayne Huizenga, who during a six-year period from 1993-98 owned three major sports franchises in the city of Miami the NFL Dolphins, baseball's Marlins and hockey's Panthers.

And last October, in reaction to the difficulties the Rooney family experienced in retaining ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the league revised its rules to assist current owners with future succession plans to help keep family ownership intact.

So in other words, when it comes to strict rules concerning ownership, the NFL doesn't necessarily view them as hard and fast rules but rather as extremely flexible guidelines.

Apparently, in the NFL, where there's an ownership rule, there's also a loophole.

But it has to be the right person to leap through those loopholes. Some owners get favored nation status, while others get treated like stepchildren in a fairytale.

Unfortunately, right now we don't really know what sort of juice Kroenke has in ownership circles.

But if we know anything about NFL owners, we do know that Kroenke doesn't have to be a big political wheeler dealer as long as he's connected to someone who does have the necessary political cache. The current majority owner, Chip Rosenbloom, does have the clout of an old-school NFL name in his pocket, and we might be about to find out how much weight the Rosenbloom name still carries in ownership corridors.

If it looks like the Rams sale could go south (and more important, the franchise could go West, if you get my drift), and if Kroenke is the last best hope of keeping the whole thing intact, I just don't get why the NFL wouldn't be willing to do a little bending in the name of Rosenbloom (or the semi-retired John Shaw, their owner-by-proxy who is always lurking in the political shadows).

Maybe it won't even take the crafty boardroom wheeling and dealing to allow Kroenke to get his 100 percent stake approved. Maybe he will simply test the political waters, then take the path of least resistance to league approval (which could mean handing off ownership of his stake in his Denver sports holdings to his equally wealthy wife and children).

But it just seems to me that since Kroenke's already in the inner sanctum, already has proven to have more money than most developing nations, and his cross-ownership in the NBA and NHL isn't hurting anyone, maybe this is the perfect time for the NFL to do a little limbo under the cross-ownership rules once again.