I never became a Rams fan despite the opportunities presented to me.
When I was in grade school, the Rams were the closest NFL team to my hometown. On the first weekday of each pro football season, most boys came to class wearing blue and white – the team’s colors back then – to signal their fandom, or to blend with the “in” crowd.
Years later in St. Louis, I bought a home within walking distance of the Rams’ stadium and was at Ground Zero for the huge showing of civic pride as the team won its only Super Bowl.
Around the same time, I became a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and had a hand in gathering the information that thrilled the Rams’ fan base. I worked closely with the reporters and columnists who sifted team minutiae for tidbits about Rams players and plays. I learned how to spell Oshiomogho Atogwe before Rams fans did.
A few years after that, I joined a company that had a professional and public partnership with the Rams. On occasion, I worked beside Rams staff, players, and cheerleaders at community-outreach events.
All those chances to emboss the curly horn on my psyche – and still, nothing. The Rams remained as distant to me as New England, or for that matter, Newfoundland.
Well, for one thing, the qualities of pro sports that most fascinate me, going back to my youth, are best described by dollar amounts, not player numbers. I prefer watching what goes on behind the scenes – the business deals, the machinations, the politics. Perhaps because I am not a player-sized person and lack player-sized athletic talent, my attention gravitated toward the average-sized guys working off-field to make a winner, or struggling to maintain one.
For another thing, I never believe that any team on any field, court, or rink plays for “me.” Pro sports in America started without spectators; the crowds came later because the games were entertaining distractions from the workaday routine much like movies and circuses were. Soon enough, the players and team organizers realized they could charge for attendance, and a revenue stream was born to justify continuing the games for reasons other than sport.
Today, pro sports – football, in particular – rely on TV revenue to build wealth. The same basic principle of recreational diversion applies, only now an NFL team can profit without a single fan showing up in person at the stadium (although, if that were to happen, the team would lose out on huge income from sales of concessions).
Team owners understand and relish this stark reality, and that is why every pro football city outside of Green Bay, Wis., is at risk of suffering the same way as St. Louis. If an owner can be persuaded to think that better TV revenue exists in another city, that same owner can be persuaded just as easily to relocate his team to that city.
Green Bay will never suffer that indignity. The smallest city in the NFL, at just over 104,000 residents, also has the sweetest ownership agreement. Its Packers franchise is publicly owned by more than 300,000 stockholders, none of whom are allowed to possess more than 4 percent of outstanding shares. The Packers are also a registered nonprofit corporation – the only one in U.S. professional sports.
This happened because back in the 1920s, before the NFL as we know it was born, the team’s owners elected to hold a stock sale as a means of escape from beneath crushing debt. Since then, the Packers have had four other stock sales, the most recent in 2011-2012 to upgrade its home stadium, Lambeau Field.
No other NFL team can attempt that business model now. The league outlawed it three decades ago but grandfathered in the Packers’ arrangement.
I should disclose here that I am among those 300,000-plus Packers shareholders. Given my pro-sports proclivities, the notion of owning a couple shares of stock appealed to me more than owning a Brett Favre jersey.
This means I am in league, figuratively and literally, with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, except nobody will ever ask me for input on how to pay for three levels of depth at inside linebacker, let alone try to sell me on moving the Packers to a new stadium in suburban Los Angeles.
Another key difference between us is that I feel the pain St. Louisans suffer now from their wounded pride. I see that pain in many of the faces I pass in downtown St. Louis, and I read it in social media comments. This city embraces its pro sports profile much the way Green Bay does; its love for baseball’s Cardinals and hockey’s Blues verges on passion, and that is why St. Louis routinely ranks high on lists of best sports cities in America.
A thoughtful, committed NFL team owner would have paid to produce a franchise worthy of comparable passion. But as St. Louis learns for the second time, pro sports run on money, not love. Kroenke took his team to where he thought the TV money was better and the love was negotiable. If Kroenke truly thinks that is central to producing a successful team, however, Los Angeles will suffer a worse indignity than St. Louis by losing the same pro franchise twice.
Despondent Rams supporters should switch their allegiance to the Packers. The fans own the team, not the other way around. And because of that, the Packers aren’t packing to leave Green Bay anytime soon.