Fans: No need to throw stones

Before we protest too much over the Rams’ heartless departure from St. Louis, we should remember that fans in stadiums with big glass windows shouldn’t throw stones.

Yes, NFL owners can be heartless, mercenary bunch, only giving lip service to civic loyalty when it is in their economic best interest. Yes, the league clearly abandoned Missouri for greener monetary pastures of Southern California. Yes, this is a business in which many owners would trade a first-born son for a new stadium and increased TV revenue.

Despicable? Perhaps that is so, especially if you happen to live in a city holding an empty seat at the NFL table.

So what? You don’t have to like it, but you at least have to appreciate the crass cronyism and cash-creating genius of it all.

The NFL is the most successful pro sports organization in the world. It has grown while employing a ruthless business strategy while endearing itself to fans.

If it was not so, the Colts would not be in Indianapolis. For that matter, the old Browns would not now be the Baltimore Ravens. Indeed, the Cleveland Rams might never have set out on a Cleveland-L.A.-St. Louis-L.A. pilgrimage.

Still, this latest chapter in musical franchises is especially stinging in the Midwest, where the Rams came 21 years ago to replace the fleeing St. Louis Cardinals.

“It’s historic, important news that football is returning to Los Angeles after 21 years away, but the decision wasn’t about history or magnanimity,” wrote Pat Sullivan for The Associated Press. “It was about what NFL ownership has always been about. It was about what it will always be about. Owners adding to their billions.”

Amen. That is the lesson here. For all the loyalty and support shown to their local teams, fans do not necessarily receive fair value in return.

It’s true that fan exuberance for the Rams waned in St. Louis, and the old stadium should be blown up. The part of this story that owner Stan Kroenke leaves out in justifying the move is that over the past decade-plus, the Rams served up a terrible product.

St. Louis hasn’t had a winning season since 2003. Since then they’ve gone 8-8, 6-10, 8-8, 3-13, 2-14, 1-15, 7-9, 2-14, 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-1 and 7-9.

That’s not exactly how a franchise builds a generation of fans. It’s no wonder support for a new local stadium was lukewarm at best.

Come here, L.A. beckoned. We’ll give you a new stadium and much more. NFL owners, long pining to return to the nation’s second-largest market, were happy to facilitate the move. No need for midnight Mayflower vans here.

In the end, St. Louis fans lost a second NFL team in the past three decades, again to the West Coast.

All that especially should be noted in Indianapolis, circa 2005, when Mayor Bart Peterson announced an initiative for a new stadium with a large retractable window and roof. At the time, rumors of a Colts’ departure to Los Angeles or elsewhere were swirling.

The $720 million stadium was financed by the state with a 1 percent increase to the food and beverage tax for central Indiana counties. The Colts contributed $100 million. Short-term budget shortfalls almost doomed the project before it was off the ground, but the legislature passed a fix that allowed the building to be completed in 2008.

The quid pro quo of stadium construction was a commitment by the Colts to remain in Indianapolis.

Smart minds may differ on the wisdom of Lucas Oil Stadium construction. The amount of control and cash ceded to Jim Irsay’s Colts is mind boggling. I couldn’t help but think at Center Grove’s state football championship how a big portion of each $5 cola bought by fans goes into Irsay’s pocket. Whether professional sports teams really justify their tremendous civic and tax investments in Indianapolis or elsewhere is very much an open question.

What is beyond debate, though, is that the Colts would be playing in L.A. or elsewhere — certainly not Indianapolis — if Lucas Oil Stadium had not been built. That is simply a fact of NFL life.

Yes, the Rams’ departure from St. Louis was cold and heartless, with little regard for the fans. So was their departure from L.A. 21 years ago. And the Browns’ departure from Cleveland. And the Colts’ departure from Baltimore. And so on.

In Indianapolis, where the NFL lives only because it died elsewhere, we are not entitled to criticize the system of NFL blackmail that we helped create. Fans in stadiums with big glass windows shouldn’t throw stones.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.