Talks aimed at finding an investor to lead St. Louis' NFL expansion bid continued last night amid reports that a Missouri-based developer was close to striking a deal.
L. Stanley Kroenke was near signing up to lead the St. Louis NFL Partnership, according to one source familiar with the talks.
Al Kerth, a spokesman for the city's bid, declined to comment on the progress of negotiations other than to say, "St. Louis is working to get a team."
Time is running out for the city, one of five competing for a pair of expansion franchises the league is scheduled to award on Tuesday. The other finalists are Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.
Kroenke, of Columbia, Mo., would lead the group, with current controlling partner Jerry Clinton apparently falling back to minority partner, the source said. Kroenke owns a number of shopping malls across the country and is a son-in-law of James Walton, a younger brother of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, quoting sources, said either Kroenke or Robert McNair, a businessman from Houston, would be named majority partner tomorrow.
McNair, who also inquired about owning a team in Baltimore recently, was close to striking a deal last week, but those talks collapsed in part over the issue of Fran Murray's role in the partnership.
Murray, one of the original members of the partnership, was briefly an owner of the New England Patriots before having to turn the team over to James Busch Orthwein, who helped finance his purchase of the team.
Orthwein, a St. Louis businessman and heir to part of the Anheuser-Busch fortune, led the St. Louis partnership until Sept. 9, when he had a falling-out with Clinton and became a minority investor.
Orthwein's abrupt departure from the group's chairmanship rocked the city's bid and led to a month of frenzied negotiations for new investors. Several men expressed interest, but the deals all fell through.
The league is performing background checks on Kroenke and his co-investors. If he checks out, he could be a savior to the city's bid, once considered among the strongest in the running. Orthwein has apparently given his blessing to the group, a factor that may help its chances, a source said.
League officials have said they will consider the applicants as they appear at the finish line, not the final lap.
However, one NFL source said there were bound to be lingering concerns among some owners about the last-minute shuffling in St. Louis. The city, which was voted out of the league just five years ago, was the only one to fail to sell all its sky boxes and club seats during a two-month test-marketing campaign among the five finalist cities this summer.
"I think they will be wary about why it came down the way it did," said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, investors in Memphis are scheduled to seek approval from their local stadium authority tomorrow of a plan that would boost the amount of money visiting teams would earn playing there.
All of the cities have boasted visitor's gate splits well in excess of the current league average of about $500,000. Memphis is currently the lowest, at about $900,000. The group hopes to massage its plan enough to get it up to $1 million, close to what the other cities are all projecting.