St. Louis blues pushed out NFL, but city sings different tune now

August 06, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- Only 29,623 fans dropped in for that final, farewell game at Busch Stadium on Dec. 13, 1987.

Cardinals owner William V. Bidwill had made no secret of his interest in moving his NFL team. But fans of the Big Red reacted with a municipal yawn, underscoring the reputation of this city as loyal only to baseball. One fan brought a sign to the final game: "Keep the Cardinals, discard Bidwill."

"I'm surprised no one in town has rallied around the team and tried to keep us here. It's typical of the lack of respect we receive in this town," said offensive tackle Luis Sharpe.

Curiously, the NFL still respects St. Louis. The city tops nearly everyone's list as the place most likely to win one of the two expansion franchises to be awarded in October.

That's right, St. Louis. The city that immortalized Stan Musial in bronze and has all but forgotten quarterback Jim Hart. The city where fans flock seemingly by instinct to one of baseball's ugliest stadiums. The only city in modern times to be officially voted out of the NFL because of its lack of support for the team (Baltimore lost its team without a vote of the owners).

"You're not going to see anything like baseball in St. Louis. There's a lot of history, and it's been supported," said local fan Ed Whelan, while watching -- what else? -- a baseball game.

But national football writers call St. Louis a lock. A taxpayer-supported, $250 million domed stadium/convention center annex is already under construction downtown. The battle, according to this logic, is between Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., for the second team. Memphis, Tenn., the other finalist, is viewed as too small and its stadium too old.

How could a league be so eager to return to a city it formally

abandoned just six years ago, after nearly 30 years of failing to capture the hearts and minds of fans?

Part of it is simple demographics. With 2.4 million citizens, St. Louis is the biggest metro area and television market without an NFL team. Baltimore, with a few thousand fewer residents, is the second-biggest, and its TV market blends at the edges with Washington.

This area is rich in dollars, corporate headquarters and sports-obsessed media. And it sits squat on the banks of the Mississippi River, near the geographic center of the nation, 250 prairie miles from the nearest NFL team (Baltimore, by contrast, is 50 miles from the Redskins and 100 miles from the Eagles).

And, after years of effort, political leaders put aside their differences and approved public financing for a new stadium that almost guarantees the team owner millions in profits as long as he remembers to unlock the doors on game day.

Right connections

Then there are the political factors. The lead investor, James Busch Orthwein, a retired ad executive, has the connections his name would indicate. He's a major stockholder and director of Anheuser-Busch, the mega-brewer whose logo shows up at more sporting events than CBS.

Mr. Orthwein already has done much to ingratiate himself to the league. He bought the foundering New England Patriots from Victor Kiam last year, relieving other team owners of having to contribute money to keep the franchise afloat. Since then, he's been behind the closed doors of the owners meetings, getting to know the men who will pick the expansion cities.

And one of his co-investors is Walter Payton, the beloved Hall of Fame running back whose dedication and sportsmanship represent a lot of what the league likes to think it represents. And he'd bring the first black owner to the NFL.

"I think the confidence level here is very high, but we still need 21 of 28 votes," said Mike Dyer, executive director of the St. Louis Sports Committee. The winning NFL expansion cities will have to garner 21 votes from among the 28 existing teams.

But skeptics, while acknowledging the strength of the St. Louis application, note some problems. For one thing, Mr. Orthwein already owns a team, and the league won't let you own two. He says he will sell the Patriots, but he needs to maneuver a better stadium deal first. And he hasn't ruled out moving the Patriots to St. Louis.

And a strong argument can be made for rating St. Louis' financial package second to Baltimore's, whose lottery-backed bonds are in place to build a football-only stadium and renovate the Colts' old training center at Owings Mills. Team owners in Baltimore would get almost all the revenues from parking, concessions, tickets and stadium advertising.

The stadium going up here will not have its own parking, meaning the owners probably wouldn't get that revenue. And because the facility doubles as a convention center, the investors would have to finance and build their own training center and offices. The prospective owners asked the league to allow them to divert ticket revenue from the purses of visiting teams to fund a training complex. NFL officials have resisted.

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