The Working-Class People the NFL Screwed in St. Louis

After the NFL left St. Louis overnight without so much as a thank you, the working-class people in the local economy near the Edward Jones Dome wonder how it will survive.

A day after the NFL rubber-stamped the St. Louis Rams’ move to Los Angeles, owner Stan Kroenke sat down with the Los Angeles Times for a post-mortem. He described his decision to flee Missouri as “bittersweet,” but headlines like “Fuck You, Stan Kroenke, and the Toupee You Rode in Under” would not sway his cheery mood.

“You’re not going to sit there and be a victim,” he said.

Sure, being reviled by an entire municipality must chafe, but if we’re going to honestly assess who’s being victimized, it’s not the individual whose team’s overall value may just have been upped by about $500 million. The fuzzy end of the financial lollipop here is going to the taxpayers, given that “the city, county, and state still owe a combined $152 million to pay off (St. Louis’) Edward Jones Dome.”

It’s worth noting that funds expended on publicly financed stadiums do not lead to economic growth. In the long run, St. Louis is better off avoiding the $477 million they were about to fork over to build a shiny new palace for Kroenke.

But that’s cold comfort to the people who will take an immediate economic hit. Not just the individuals who worked for the Rams, but the ancillary businesses that thrived on game day: the surrounding bars, restaurants, and hotels.

It’s not the same as the removal of an entire team, but as a point of comparison, after LeBron James returned to Cleveland, “bar owners near the arena have seen a 30 to 200 percent increase in revenue on game nights,” Business Insider reported. “Bartenders and waitresses that would normally be laid off until the summer are being kept on the payroll. In addition, demand for local hotel rooms are up 8.6 percent from the same period last year compared to the national average increase of 5.8 percent.”

That’s what’s worrying Patrick O’Neill, the bartending manager of Flannery’s Pub, a sports bar on Washington Avenue and close to the Edward Jones Dome.

“It’s definitely going have a significant decrease,” he told The Daily Beast. “All these games, you could definitely tell, from Friday till Sunday, we would pretty much triple our business for that weekend, especially with all of the out-of-town guests coming in. They’d pretty much be in here from Friday night all the way up until game time Sunday.”

O’Neill isn’t sure what the bar can do in order to make up for the lost revenue, especially with the opening day of the 2016 NFL season still seven months away, but “we’re definitely going to have to think of something,” he said.

The Over/Under Bar & Grill is similarly located on Washington Avenue and was “100 percent packed on game days, 10 days a year between two preseason games and eight regular season games,” Brian McAfee, the bar’s general manager, said. “Those 10 days are now obviously gone, so we’ve lost that.”

McAfee is hopeful that there’s a ready-made solution. Namely, that the St. Louis Convention Center (which includes the Edward Jones Dome) will be now be free to book large, three- to five-day conventions from September through December, months that were unavailable due to the Rams’ presence.

“Everything that the convention center folks tell me is that it’ll be better for the bars and restaurants down here,” he said.

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That may be wishful thinking. The Daily Beast spoke with Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Convention Center Follies.

When told of the St. Louis Convention & Visitor Commission’s optimism, he chuckled.

“No, no, no,” Sanders said. “Every CVB [convention and visitors bureau] in the country says that, but St. Louis is home to one of the great convention center flop sagas.”

Sanders explained that two older hotels were renovated to construct a 1,000-plus-room hotel, based on the idea that “once we get this Marriott Renaissance hotel, we’re going to see a big boost in our convention business,” he said.

The result? After promising to double the total room nights (a figure representing the total number of individuals spending a single night at a hotel) from 413,676 in 1998 to 800,000 in 2004, “Well, lo and beyond, things didn’t quite work out that way,” Sanders said.

St. Louis hosted 33 major conventions in 1998. After the hotel was built, “How did they do in 2004?” Sanders asked. “23. How did they do in 2007? 27. And how did they do in 2014? 26.”

Bondholders foreclosed the hotel, taking ownership in 2009. It eventually sold “for about 32 cents on the dollar,” Sanders said.

And it’s not like the Rams’ presence during the NFL season was driving away business. The Edward Jones Dome itself represents a fraction of the total convention space, and “for most conventions, you don’t want to be on the floor of a big dome. It's not a particularly functional space,” Sanders said.

“Could they try to sell that space? Of course,” he continued. “But what they’re not telling you is what the convention market is nationally. And nationally, right now, the convention business is marked by a glut of space. It’s seriously overbuilt. What most major cities are doing is giving their convention space away for free... In that kind of market, St. Louis doesn’t have a great likelihood of doing much better.”

Even if the city did see a bump in conventions, that won’t replace “the tens of thousands of people who are coming to the games on a regular basis. That’s the distinction that’s really crucial,” he said.

It’s not going to solve St. Louis’s current financial woes, but Sen. Claire McCaskill is vowing to do something to lessen the odds that the next municipality will be left holding the bag.

A spokesperson from McCaskill’s office told The Daily Beast that the process of crafting legislation has begun, and the goal is “to ensure communities are treated fairly in the event that a professional sports team that benefits from public funds (such as playing in a stadium financed by the public) decides to relocate to another community.

“One idea we are looking at is ensuring that the public investment is repaid by the team if they leave before an original commitment is up.”

Even if she’s able to get Congress to regulate the league, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has zero desire to see another NFL team—such as the (for now) Oakland Raiders—take the Rams’ place.

“At this point I’m so frustrated and disappointed with the NFL,” Slay said on Wednesday. “Why would anybody want to, in any way, even entertain any suggestions from the NFL after the way they dealt with St. Louis here? I mean, it was dishonest. They were not being truthful with us.”

That’s a sentiment that is echoed by McAfee, who remains a Rams fan, if a somewhat bitter one.

“The cake was already baked,” he said, describing the decision-making process and somewhat flexible application of the rules by the NFL’s relocation committee. “The whole play had been scripted. It’s just that we didn’t know it.”