St. Louis Rams: The Winning Team
By Lori Shontz
Of the Post-Dispatch
Ten years later, it's still tough to track how it all happened. Given the ups, the downs, the twists, the turns, how did it ever come to pass that the Rams, formerly of Los Angeles, decided to move to St. Louis in 1995, returning professional football to a city that had been deprived of it for seven seasons?
Did it start with a ****tail napkin? A clipping from a Baltimore newspaper? A financially unsuccessful Michael Jackson world tour?
Was the driving force beer distributor Jerry Clinton? Former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton? U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt?
The fact is, the drive to find a professional football team to replace the Cardinals, who left for Phoenix in the spring of 1988, encompassed so many stages, it's impossible to give credit to any one person or act. The tale is one of big dreams, big money and big egos - and a big payoff, as the Rams won the Super Bowl in 1999, bringing more attention and acclaim to St. Louis than any of the principals had ever imagined.
"I think St. Louis has a higher self-esteem because of the stadium - and because of the success the Rams have brought to the community," said Allison Collinger, who was "a fly on the wall" during the negotiations when she worked at Fleischman Hillard and is now the Rams director of corporate relations and community outreach. "I think you can't underestimate the esteem and prestige value that an NFL team brings to the community, whether you're successful or whether you're not. It's an important measure of the vitality of the region."
In his book "Major League Losers," about the use of public and private funds to build stadiums, author Mark S. Rosentraub titled his section on St. Louis, "Chasing the Dream of an NFL Team: A five-act melodrama with epilogues."
And that barely sums up the series of events.
The short version goes like this: Former mayor Vincent Schoemehl introduced Clinton to Fran Murray, who owned 49 percent of the New England Patriots after bailing out the Sullivan family, which had taken a financial bath on Jackson's world tour, and the pair formed a partnership to bring an NFL expansion team to St. Louis.
They became the driving force to secure public funding for a stadium, with their master stroke being to combine the stadium with a new convention center, assuring that the building would be used more than eight Sundays a year.
The partnership, which eventually included former NFL star Walter Payton and businessman James Busch Orthwein, quickly made St. Louis a favorite to get an expansion team.
But financial issues, primarily caused by the NFL's steeper-than-expected expansion fee, $140 million, caused the partnership to deteriorate. Orthwein bought the Patriots - the team was seen as St. Louis' back-up plan if the expansion movement fell short - and no longer had the capital to give the St. Louis group. By the time the topic of expansion came up at the NFL meetings in October 1993, the St. Louis situation was so jumbled - Clinton possessed the stadium lease but not the necessary capital, the quickly formed Gateway Partnership had the capital but not the lease - the NFL was unable to award a franchise to the city.
The NFL did give St. Louis another chance, awarding one franchise to Charlotte and announcing the next team would be chosen the next month. Essentially, it gave the city a month to get its act together. But the various forces in St. Louis were unable to do so, and on Nov. 30, 1993, the NFL awarded its second expansion franchise to Jacksonville.
But about 10 months later, a group of state and local politicians jump-started the process, making overtures to the Los Angeles Rams, who were dissatisfied with their stadium lease. After another arduous process - which included everything from facing down NFL opposition to purchasing Clinton's share of the lease - the Rams moved to St. Louis in time to play the 1995 season in Busch Stadium.
That's something Murray is still proud of, although he was long gone from the St. Louis team by the time the Rams started playing here.
"I was told more than once that I was not from Missouri and that the likelihood of our achieving that was miniscule at best," he said. "We were so committed to the exercise that we really didn't calculate the impossibility."
The area's citizens, too, had a role in the saga - from the beginning, when the voters of St. Louis county approved a hotel tax to fund their share of the stadium's construction, to the end, when football fans responded in unprecedented numbers to buy personal seat licenses, which were a key factor in the money and NFL approval needed to lure the Rams.
Losing the Big Red
The people who became involved in the effort to bring professional football back to St. Louis did it because they believed the loss of the Cardinals had hit the city hard, beyond the disappointment of sports fans.
"We were feeling pretty much like losers here," Clinton said. "People were talking about the days we lost the St. Louis Browns baseball club, and then we lost the St. Louis Hawks basketball team, and now we're losing the football team. I know what that can do to a community, it puts it on a negative spin, and it affects a lot of people in adverse ways."
So then-mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr. began immediately to look for a team to fill the void. He doesn't consider himself a sports fan - he has attended, he said, maybe two games since the Rams arrived - but he nonetheless thought the city needed an NFL team.
"Like the arts, sports are important to a community," said Schoemehl, who now works for the Grand Center. "It's the role of government to do things to make life a fulfilling and complete experience. Education, community activities, arts, sports - they make the quality of life in a community."
So that's how Schoemehl and lawyer Walter Metcalfe of Bryan Cave - whom Schoemehl calls the "intellectual architect" of the plan - came to meet with Murray, who at the time owned 49 percent of the New England Patriots. By the end of their meeting, Murray had sold an option to buy the Patriots for $10. The transaction was recorded on the now legendary ****tail napkin.
That's how Murray, an East Coast guy, ended up at the forefront of the St. Louis expansion movement, along with Clinton, president of Grey Eagle distributors, who brought political capital and some financial resources to the effort.
Once the expansion effort failed, the city took some time to recuperate from the experience. Then, in the summer of 1994, a movement to attract a team dissatisfied with its current situation gained momentum.
That's when the newspaper clipping came into play, political operative Joyce Aboussie said. Then an aide to Gephardt, she had received a copy of the Baltimore Sun from a friend in Baltimore who wanted to gloat that his city was en route to securing an NFL team - the Los Angeles Rams - while her city had failed.
She said Gephardt saw the paper on her desk, read the article and suggested that she get in touch with John Shaw, the Rams president who was quoted in the article. She said Gephardt told her, "If they can do this, we can do this."
So Aboussie made the call, got an appointment and then set about putting together what she called the "gang of five" for a Sunday night dinner meeting. Gephardt, St. Louis county executive Buzz Westfall, St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., John Ferrera, chairman of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, and Bob Baer, chair of the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex authority.
And then, when the group needed a respected figure to head the movement, named FANS Inc., Aboussie helped to recruit Eagleton, who became the public face for a movement than involved dozens of people behind the scenes.
The group opened negotiations with the Rams, then set about trying to secure the rights to the lease from Clinton, who still owned 30 percent of it and was not willing to let it go until he was compensated.
Clinton makes no apologies for holding out for the best possible deal for the lease. He said was one of two people who responded to the first call to invest in the team - "when there was risk," as he put it. He thought he should be rewarded not only for his hard work, but for the money he invested.
"I wasn't allowed to be living up to the terms of the agreement that we had with this project," Clinton said. "No. 1 reason was that there were other people offered an opportunity to come in when there was risk, and they turned that down. Then, if we didn't receive a franchise, I had two years to entice an existing NFL team to take advantage of that lease."
Gradually, Eagleton and the other politicians, with help from Civic Progress, a group of business people who helped to secure the funding, worked a deal that was satisfactory to all parties. In the process, Clinton's public perception changed from someone who had worked hard to bring a team to St. Louis to someone who became a roadblock toward a team actually coming.
Some involved in the process say that characterization is not fair.
"Jerry Clinton is the reason St. Louis got a football team," Murray said. "Because Jerry not only embraced me and my ideas on what to do and how to do it, but he opened his offices, opened his pocketbooks, took his lifelong relationships with the community and politicians and standing in the community and his business and he put them, really, on the table for this enterprise. For the pursuit of a football team for St. Louis."
Aboussie, while paying tribute to Clinton's effort, believes the St. Louis Rams would not exist without Gephardt, who had the political capital to pull the project together in the home stretch.
"It took us to get it done," Aboussie said of the politicians. "Nobody else could figure out how to move the community forward."
And yes, she said the first process had to fail for the second, successful effort to work. "I think it needed to get to that point to get on our radar screens," she said. "We weren't focused on it until it failed."
The end result paid off as those who started the effort had hoped. St. Louis got not only a football team, but a state-of-the-art domed stadium and convention center. The dome, particularly, has enabled St. Louis to attract other prominent events to the city, such as the upcoming Final Four.
"The interesting lesson in this is that political people, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, often can work together for the common good in a community and sort of put their economic swords aside because they don't necessarily have a monetary payoff," Collinger said. "It's more the benefit for the region. I think in this case, what succeeded ultimately was the vision and the stick-to-it-iveness of those public leaders coming together."