A month after NFL owners overwhelmingly rejected the Los Angeles Rams' proposed move to St. Louis, they reversed their field yesterday and approved the switch, leaving the nation's No. 2 television market with the Los Angeles Raiders as the only professional football team in town.
Faced with the threat of a $2.25 billion antitrust lawsuit by the Rams and the state of Missouri that would have been filed this morning in St. Louis, the owners voted 23-6 to accept an offer made by the Rams for a minimum payment of $46 million, with the possibility of another $12.5 million if Fox television asks for a rebate on its contract.
"The decision to have peace and not to have war was a big factor," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said at the conclusion of a special seven-hour owners meeting in Dallas. Under league bylaws, the Rams needed a three-fourths majority to move, or a minimum of 23 votes. In the previous vote on March 15 in Phoenix, the vote was 21-3 against, with six abstentions. At that meeting, the Rams had offered the league $25 million in exchange for the right to move.
Six teams voted against allowing the move yesterday -- the Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals. Raiders owner Al Davis abstained, but sources indicated he was prepared to vote in favor of the move if the Rams had come up one vote short.
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg of Save the Rams felt betrayed by the owners' decision.
"Clearly, the league has decided here that the violation of their guidelines governing franchise relocation isn't important," Steinberg told the Associated Press. "The NFL's got some mighty tall explaining to do as to how violations of their own relocation policy by the Rams suddenly became acceptable."
Under the agreement, the Rams will pay a relocation fee of about $29 million, almost a four-fold increase over the $7.5 million that Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill paid his fellow owners to move his team from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988. They will also share with the owners $17 million of revenue earned from $74 million in personal seat licenses raised in St. Louis to help pay for the Rams' move from the West Coast, their home since 1946. As a fund-raising strategy, St. Louis offered fans the opportunity to buy the rights to season tickets.
The Rams moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland and had a rich tradition over the years as the first major sports franchise to head west. The team moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim in Orange County in 1980, and attendance had slipped badly in recent years. A league spokesman said the team probably would not leave its Orange County training facility until all its minicamps have been concluded by the end of May.
"It had become clear during this process that the relationship between Southern California and the Rams was dysfunctional, and that the Rams many of us grew up rooting for no longer exist," Steinberg said. "I can go home tonight and tell my son that we did everything we could to keep his team in Southern California."
Tagliabue said the entire $29 million will either go to NFL Charities or to help establish a stadium trust fund to help jump-start the building of a new facility in Los Angeles and other cities also now playing in antiquated or inadequate stadiums.
The Rams, lured to St. Louis by the prospect of as much as a $25 million a year profit from a new 65,000-seat domed stadium that will be ready by October, will have to pay the league $20 million of the relocation fee up-front. The remaining $9 million and the $17 million in personal seat license money will be paid out over a period of 15 years, according to Joe Browne, an NFL vice president.
"It was determined that in light of circumstances, the best business interests of the league would be to have a team move to St. Louis immediately," Browne said yesterday from Dallas. "The difference between this vote and the last one was they agreed to concepts they wouldn't agree to the last time."
According to the AP, Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, a native of St. Louis, said "the game is over and I won't say we won, but . . . well, I guess we won one. I think we all won."
The agreement also includes a provision that calls for the St. Louis team to forfeit its 1/30th share in expansion fees if the NFL expands within the next 10 years. If Los Angeles does get an expansion team over that time span, the St. Louis team would receive the appropriate share of the fee. In 1993, owners added two new teams in Charlotte and Jacksonville that will begin play this season. The expansion teams each paid a fee of $140 million.
The Rams also agreed to give their proxy vote to Tagliabue when the next vote on realignment occurs. The Rams will continue to play in the NFC West at least for the 1995 season. But Tagliabue has been given the power to realign the league by the '96 season if the owners cannot agree on a new plan, and Browne said the Rams could be moved to a different division or conference.
The move leaves the NFL with only one West Coast team -- the San Francisco 49ers -- in the NFC next season. The Rams will play in the NFC West with the 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and the new expansion Carolina Panthers. The expansion Jacksonville Jaguars will play in the AFC Central.
Because the Rams are moving from the No. 2 TV market to the No. 18 market in St. Louis, a drop from 58 percent of U.S. television households to 53 percent, Fox might ask for a rebate from the league for the next three years of its $1.58 billion contract to show NFC games through the 1997 season.
"We're studying the ramifications of losing the number two television market from our NFC package," Fox spokesman Vince Wladika said. "It's an open issue for us to discuss."
Browne said last night the NFL "still believes there's a strong need to establish an NFC team in Los Angeles as soon as possible." Whether that happens either through expansion or the move of an existing team, sources said the league would like to have another team ready to play there by the 1998 season in order to establish its West Coast presence in the first year of any new television contract. The Bengals have threatened a possible move if Cincinnati cannot come up with a feasible plan for a new stadium. The Cleveland Browns also are trying to get a new stadium in that city and could use a possible move west as leverage.
Owners also discussed without any resolution a possible new stadium in Los Angeles for the Raiders at a site near the Hollywood Park racetrack. The Los Angeles Times reported in its Wednesday editions that the league will be asked to guarantee Los Angeles two and possibly three Super Bowls over a 10-year period in a proposed new stadium and promise to approve some form of funding, including money from a stadium trust fund or personal seat licenses.
The owners also yesterday approved the sale of 30 percent of the Rams to Stan Kroenke, a Columbia, Mo., businessman who had initially sought an expansion team for St. Louis before Carolina and Jacksonville were awarded franchises. Asked yesterday if he had a message for St. Louis fans, Tagliabue said: "I hope they enjoy the kickoff game. We're anxious and delighted they're back."