By ALAN J. ORTBALS
If the NFL owners had a walk-up song, it would be, “I’ve Got the World on a String.” They truly control their universe and everyone else just pays homage.
Because of salary caps, gargantuan TV contracts and revenue sharing, even the biggest fool can be a successful business tycoon in the land of the National Football League. I don’t know of another business like it.
The folks who dress up in their favorite player’s jerseys, paint their faces and party in the parking lot before the game are a small fraction of those, like me, who watch it on TV in the comfort of their homes. Last season TV viewership of NFL regular season games averaged 17.6 million. They were the top 20 in the Nielson ratings and accounted for 45 of the 50 most watched shows. It’s this very popularity that is our Achilles heel.
And it is the team’s financial structure that puts them in the driver’s seat. Because of the huge, shared TV revenues, NFL owners can make millions even in small markets like Green Bay, Wisc., Buffalo, N.Y., and Jacksonville, Fla.
And, because of that — and because their NFL colleagues give each other broad latitude—owners can pick up and move if they don’t feel adequately venerated. The Colts jumped from Baltimore to Indianapolis; the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore; the Oilers from Houston to Nashville; the Rams from Cleveland to Los Angeles to St. Louis to who knows. This is the short list.
It’s been well documented that public financing of sports stadiums — particularly NFL arenas — is a financial loser for taxpayers. The fans tend to come from the immediate area and would simply spend their money on other things if they weren’t blowing it at the ballgame. But, time and again you see cities and states fall all over themselves laying gold at the feet of these avaricious oligarchs in an attempt to win their blessings. The public has picked up more than half of the tab for new stadiums since 1997.
Now we are hoping and praying that the NFL ownership will pick the Chargers/Raiders LA plan rather than the Stan Kroenke pitch. And that by throwing more hundreds of millions of dollars at him, Kroenke — or some other greedy NFL owner — will bless us with his presence.
There is maybe only one NFL city that is safe from this shameful shakedown. Since 1923, the Green Bay Packers has been a publicly owned, non-profit corporation. So it can play in a town of 100,000 people in some of the worst weather in the lower 48 but the people of Wisconsin don’t have to play the NFL owners’ game because they own their own team.
I think we’ve set our sights on the wrong goal. How about we switch our focus from trying to keep Kroenke or lure one of his billionaire buddies with a pretty new stadium, and concentrate instead on buying a team?
The NFL owners are scheduled to meet in January to decide the fate of San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis. If they OK the Chargers and Raiders to move to LA and tell Kroenke to stay in St. Louis, what will Silent Stan do?
If there is a more reviled man in St. Louis, I don’t know who it is. I heard they had a punching bag with his face on it at the home opener. And, I suspect that his play all along was to move the team back to LA, maximize its value and cash in his chips. If that gambit fails, he might just decide to sell the team and seek other adventures.
If he does put the Rams up for sale, we shouldn’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to save the day; we should buy the team ourselves. Public ownership puts us in the driver’s seat and would produce profits not sock taxpayers.
If, on the other hand, Kroenke gets the green light to go to LA, we should look for another team that might be available (Chargers? Raiders, Broncos?).
How could we do this, you ask. Via the Bi-State Development Agency.
Most people think of Bi-State as the bus and light rail operator but it’s much more than that. It covers the City of St. Louis plus seven counties on both sides of the river; has the authority to buy and sell real and personal property, borrow money, and engage in economic development activity throughout the two-state region. It already operates the third busiest airport in Illinois, excursion boats on the Mississippi and the trams to the top of the Arch.
The smart move is to put an end to this extortion; take control; and hop on the NFL gravy train. Bi-State is the vehicle to do it.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1977.