Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Temple of Dome

In Football on February 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

At least the tickets were free. That was the one saving grace. It had started to rain as I drove downtown, and I had to walk five blocks to get to the stadium. A guard patted me down at the gate — I half-expected him to say, “Welcome to Shawshank” as I went inside. I got lost in the labyrinthine hallways and staircases as I searched for my seat. It’s easy to find the cheap seats at a baseball stadium; you just keep going up until you see the sky. But there is no sky in the Edward Jones Dome — only drab, gray sound-absorbing panels…

…I originally wrote this article as a pseudo-history of the Edward Jones Dome and a diatribe against what the city contrived, with some ideas for the future of the stadium. But it was long and it was boring and I was ready to scrap it entirely. Then I read Bryan Burwell’s column in Tuesday’s edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So thanks, Bryan, for stealing my thunder. But, in Burwellian fashion, his one good point — that St. Louis needs to plan for the next two decades, not the next two years — and his accurate point — that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is an astute businessman — are overshadowed by his misconceptions and bad analogies.

After his opening paean to the Rams owner, Burwell says that, through stadium negotiations, St. Louis has a chance to become a “blue-chip” municipality, whatever that means. To achieve this, city leaders have to decide whether they’re ready to play Kroenke’s game, or chicken out and lose the team. It’s hard to understand how Burwell can praise Kroenke’s business acumen in one paragraph and then apparently forget why he is a successful businessman in the next. Kroenke is going to approach the stadium negotiations exactly how he approaches any other lucrative contract — he’s going to look for the best deal. Like any other sports owner, Kroenke wants two things: autonomy for team operations —broadcasting rights, ticket prices, Personal Seat Licenses, etc. — and money in the form of municipal tax breaks and public funding of stadium construction and upgrades. My economic theory was never very good, but it’s easy to see that, at a certain point, St. Louis would be giving away more in breaks to the Rams than it would gain financially from retaining the team. If keeping the Rams downtown requires the city to bend over backward to beat a bid from a market like Los Angeles, then city leaders should walk away from the table.

Burwell then says that St. Louis should look to Indianapolis for guidance. He holds up the city’s construction of the Indiana Convention Center and Hoosier Dome as shining examples of how cooperation between professional teams and civic leaders can lead to a municipal rebirth. In Burwell’s mind, the ICC/Hoosier Dome did three things: convinced the Baltimore Colts to relocate to Indianapolis in 1984, grew the city’s economic and population bases, and brought Super Bowl XLVI to the city. Each of those statements is technically true. The Colts did move to Indy, the city’s population has increased nearly 20 percent since 1980 and the New York Giants and New England Patriots will meet in the Super Bowl next Sunday. But Burwell is mistaken in attributing anything beyond the Colts’s relocation to the ICC/Hoosier Dome. Except from 1970-1980, Indianapolis has never had a population decrease. In fact, from 1960-1970, a time when suburban sprawl began to ravage many American cities, the population of Indianapolis more than doubled. Economically, just as much credit for the city’s growth belongs to the refurbished and expanded Indianapolis International Airport as it does the Colts franchise. As for Burwell’s connection of the Hoosier/RCA Dome to the city hosting its first Super Bowl as a “crescendo” — the Giants and Patriots will face off in the brand new Lucas Oil Field, a $720 million facility built with 86 percent public funds. The Hoosier Dome was demolished in 2008.

Burwell says that St. Louis needs to start thinking big. Look to Indianapolis, the Midwestern success story, and St. Louis will make it to the economic and athletic Promised Land. But Burwell ignores two crucial facts: 1. St. Louis is not Indianapolis. 2. St. Louis has already tried to emulate Indianapolis. The population of Indianapolis in 1980, just before the construction of the ICC/Hoosier Dome was 700,000. Today, it is just over 829,000. In 1980, the population of St. Louis was 452,801. Today, it’s 319,294. Since constructing the ICC/Hoosier Dome, Indianapolis has hosted four NCAA men’s Final Fours. St. Louis has hosted one. True, St. Louis has hosted two Big XII football championship games, but none since 1998. Ultimately, Indianapolis has a massive population and economic base to work with for civic projects, and St. Louis simply can’t match it.

Moreover, after the departure of the Cardinals for Phoenix in 1987, St. Louis officials did look to the ICC/Hoosier Dome for a blueprint for luring an NFL franchise and economic growth. The new team didn’t materialize as fast as St. Louis expected. While the city was a frontrunner for a new franchise during the NFL’s 1993 expansion, the league ultimately awarded teams to Charlotte, N.C. and Jacksonville, Fla. In the meantime, America’s Center — the shiny, new stadium and conference center — sat vacant. It took the nostalgia of an NFL owner with St. Louis ties, the late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, before the Edward Jones Dome would see its first snap.

Burwell says that the city needs to plan for the next two decades, not just the next two years, of the Rams and their stadium debacle. I agree with that sentiment, but his words reek of the “if you build it, they will come” mentality that dominated the America’s Center construction negotiations in the early 1990s. Eventually, St. Louis has to learn something from its own experiences. The goal back then — “we want an NFL team” — was deceptively simple. Really, city leaders didn’t know what they would get, so they didn’t know what to build. Stadiums certainly factor into a franchise’s decision to relocate, but they’re not the only factor. Tax breaks, potential fan bases, projected ticket sales, proximity to other franchises, football history, weather and any number of other issues affect a team’s decision to move. A nebulous goal leads to nebulous results. Following Burwell’s arguments, St. Louis knows what it wants — to be a great city again — but it doesn’t know how to get there. Somehow, the Rams fit into Burwell’s vision of citywide rebirth, and that might be true. But his reliance on an underperforming football team to realize that goal is shortsighted and naïve.

Instead of flashbacks to 1987, St. Louis could have a great opportunity. Burwell and I agree on that. But instead of being forced to appease the Rams — or any other professional tenant — the St. Louis Regional Sports Authority could draft a new plan for the use of the Dome that is closer to its roots in America’s Center. Instead of a home field, a post-Rams Dome could be transformed into a high-quality host field. Renovations could focus on attracting more NCAA events like the Final Four. The University of Missouri’s move to the Southeastern Conference has created some talk of moving a bowl with an SEC tie-in to Missouri. A newly renovated Dome would be an ideal host for such events, and would bring in fresh tourist dollars rather than recycling money St. Louis residents already have. The Dome wasn’t built for the Rams, and that was a mistake. But renovating it to please them could be a bigger one.

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