The St. Louis Rams are moving to Los Angeles, news that is largely insignificant to the Ravens but tremendously conspicuous in Baltimore, a city once left behind by an NFL franchise, only to be inhabited by another.
The circumstances of the Cleveland Browns’ relocation to Baltimore in 1996 and the Rams’ imminent departure from St. Louis vary greatly. Indeed, every franchise’s decision to leave home is fraught with complexity and nuance. Yet in the nearly two decades between moves, familiar narratives haven taken hold.
1. Lease terms loomed large in each team’s relocation.
In 1973, then-Browns owner Art Modell signed a 25-year lease to operate Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a drain on the city’s tax dollars. Modell’s Stadium Corp. assumed responsibility for its upkeep and rented the venue to the Browns and the Cleveland Indians. Under the terms of the deal, he would receive all stadium revenue.
It was a nice arrangement for Modell, with substantial revenue from advertising and luxury suites, until the obligations of maintaining a crumbling 43-year-old stadium became obvious. He took out loans to install luxury boxes, a scoreboard, rest rooms and eroding structural beams. A vicious cycle of borrowing began. “I was denying the football team the resources to be competitive and putting that money, instead, to pay off my obligations on the stadium side,” Modell told Sports Illustrated in 1995.
Unhappy with their substandard facilities and refused revenue by Modell, the Indians convinced the local government that they deserved their own facility. The development of the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex was set in motion — without Modell’s participation — and Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) and Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena) were built in 1994. When the Indians left Municipal Stadium, a revenue stream did, too, and Modell’s Stadium Corp. revenue suffered greatly. Facing rising player salaries and losses of over $20 million in 1993-94, Modell in 1995 requested tax dollars to help refurbish the stadium. The funding was approved, but too late.
In St. Louis, another lease was the undoing. The Edward Jones Dome was leased to the Rams under the condition that they would remain in the city so long as the stadium, by 2015, maintained a “First Tier Standard.” That standard, according to the lease agreement, meant “that the Dome and each component thereof must be among the top 25% of all NFL football stadia and NFL football facilities, if such NFL football stadiums and facilities were to be rated or ranked according to the matter sought to be measured.”
When arbitrators in 2013 ruled that the Rams’ $700 million plan for stadium upgrades would keep the dome a “First Tier” facility, while the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission’s take-it-or-leave-it $124 million renovation option would not, the Rams were allowed to convert their lease to a year-to-year proposition. They did so last January.
Already, Rams owner Stan Kroenke and his business partners had announced plans to build a football stadium just miles from downtown Los Angeles.
2. Both owners had offers to stay.
Modell was asked to be part of the Gateway project, “building a third Gateway sports facility for the Browns, just south of the Inner Belt a couple of blocks from what is now Progressive Field,” according to cleveland.com.
Indians president Dick Jacobs; George Forbes, Cleveland’s former council president; then-Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan; and lawyers were present with Modell at a meeting when the offer reportedly was made.
“Tim and I were saying, ‘While we are doing this, we might as well clear up the whole damn thing and build all three stadiums,’" Forbes said, referring to Jacobs Field and Gund Arena. “This way we don’t have to go back, and future councilmen and commissioners won’t have to deal with the issue. Let’s clear it up once and for all, was our thinking.”
Hagan confirmed that an informal offer was made. Why Modell chose not to listen to Forbes, a friend, is unclear. His public posturing and private dealings by now were at odds. The day before the referendum on refurbishing Cleveland Municipal Stadium with $175 million in taxes would be put to Cleveland voters, Modell announced the team’s move to Baltimore. The ballot issue passed, but it mattered not.
The Rams’ options were more clear-cut. In July 2013, the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority of St. Louis, which oversees the Edward Jones Dome, decided against approving the publicly funded $700 million upgrade the Rams requested for their stadium.
Last month, with Kroenke mum on the team’s plans for 2016, St. Louis approved $150 million in city funding for a proposed $1.1 billion stadium that would be built near the banks of the Mississippi River. The proposal called for $250 million from the Rams and $300 million from the NFL. The state would cover the rest of the financing.
This was problematic, as the NFL routinely provides a maximum of $200 million to help teams build new stadiums. In a sternly worded letter to Gov. Jay Nixon and his stadium task force, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that an NFL contribution of $300 million “is fundamentally inconsistent with the NFL’s program of stadium financing.” The league later agreed to add $100 million in contributions if the city would kick back stadium taxes to the team.
Kroenke and the Rams were unmoved. In a 29-page application for relocation, the organization said St. Louis “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise."
“Putting the Rams’ contract rights under its current St. Louis lease aside, even the most cursory analysis of the St. Louis financial proposal makes no economic sense for an NFL team,” the Rams wrote in their “Statement of Reasons” for relocating. “Any NFL club that signs on to this proposal in St. Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin, and the league will be harmed.”
With NFL owners favoring relocation to Los Angeles, Goodell said in a report distributed to all 32 teams that the proposed solutions to keep the Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers in their home markets were “unsatisfactory and inadequate.”
3. Both teams moved back to cities with franchises similarly poached.
The Browns’ move to Baltimore in 1996 was, of course, not unlike the departure of the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984.
On Jan. 20, 1984, owner Robert Irsay stood next to then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer and shouted: “I have not any intentions of moving the goddamn team. If I did, I will tell you about it, but I’m staying here.”
Two months later, under the cover of darkness, Irsay spirited away the team in a fleet of Mayflower moving vans before the Maryland General Assembly passed eminent-domain legislation that would grant Baltimore power to seize ownership of the Colts. The team’s colors and trophies and records would head to Indianapolis, too. (The Browns’ own heritage, in contrast, did not make the trip to Baltimore a dozen years later.)
Interestingly, the Rams franchise originated in, yes, Cleveland in 1936. In 1946, fresh off an NFL championship, the team moved to Los Angeles after owner Dan Reeves threatened to end his relationship with the NFL if not permitted to relocate.
After a half-century in the city, the franchise, then owned by St. Louis-born Georgia Frontiere, was in a death spiral. Attendance at Anaheim Stadium was down, home games were blacked out, and the Rams were struggling on the field. Discouraged by plummeting fan support and a local economy reeling from the end of the Cold War, Frontiere secured a sweetheart deal from St. Louis to move the franchise after the 1994 season. The NFL initially voted to block the Rams’ relocation, but upon facing Frontiere’s threats of litigation, owners relented and approved the move.
The team opened its first season in the recently completed and $280 million Trans World Dome. In 2001, the stadium changed its name. It’s now known as the Edward Jones Dome, and now it, too, is without an NFL team.