St. Louis Wary After Getting Wish : Pro football: Rams are coming, but fans have only begun to pay Frontiere.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether you're in a restaurant, sports bar, shopping mall or taxicab, the Rams are the talk of the town as excitement builds for today's official announcement that the NFL team intends to move here from Anaheim next season.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the Rams are the toast of the town.

Yes, today's noon (PST) news conference in the downtown convention center will set off numerous parties around the city and county of St. Louis, with area fans, jilted twice in a 1993 bid for an expansion team, celebrating the return of the NFL seven years after the Cardinals bolted to Phoenix in 1988.

Ram owner Georgia Frontiere and team President John Shaw will join a long list of political and business dignitaries, including U.S. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), at the news conference, during which Columbia, Mo., businessman Stan Kroenke will be introduced as the team's new minority owner.

Officials and attorneys from the Rams and St. Louis put the finishing touches on the deal Monday, then celebrated with a private reception and dinner party at the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis.

Frontiere opened the reception by telling the gathering: "I'm thrilled to be here, and I'd like to meet each one of you individually."

She then spent an hour in a receiving line with Shaw and Kroenke, meeting many of the people who were most influential in bringing the Rams to St. Louis, including former U.S. Senator and lead negotiator Thomas Eagleton, Gephardt, St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., County Executive George (Buzz) Westfall and corporate heads from many of St. Louis' largest businesses.

But even as the revelry shifted into high gear and many hailed the Rams' eastward migration, there seemed to be an undercurrent of apprehension about the extremes the city went to get the team, the caliber of the franchise that's coming and the ethics of the entire deal.

"I understand the enthusiasm, but I also have a broad overview of it," said NBC commentator Bob Costas, who has lived in St. Louis for 20 years. "We lost a team; now we've hijacked someone else's. I would have preferred an expansion team--it's cleaner, there's less heartache for someone else, local people own and operate it, and there's no guilt involved.

"Plus, I don't like that it's so corporate, so high-finance. I know it's the way of sports in the 1990s, but to have to pay a premium to sit in a seat to meet the demands of a franchise that left a community so I can watch guys run around on a rug? That doesn't have much to do with the NFL I remember as a kid."

The local airwaves were bombarded Sunday night and Monday with sports talk-show callers complaining about the city's personal seat licensing (PSL) program, in which fans will be asked to pay a one-time fee of $250 to $4,500 for the right to purchase season tickets.

The Ram deal will be contingent on St. Louis selling 40,000 PSLs by the March 12-17 league meetings, when NFL owners are expected to vote on the proposed move, and a total of 50,000 by the time the 1995 season opens. A billboard probably will be erected next week near the new stadium to keep daily tabs on PSL sales.

A similar program was used in Charlotte, N.C., to raise $142 million, but those funds went toward construction of a new stadium for the NFL expansion Carolina Panthers.

Taxpayers in the city and county of St. Louis and the state of Missouri already have paid the bill for the $258-million, 70,000-seat domed stadium the Rams expect to call home in late October. They'll open the season in 52,000-seat Busch Stadium.

Now fans are being asked to raise $60 million in PSLs to pay for, among other things, $30 million the Rams owe on bonds for the renovation of Anaheim Stadium and about $6 million the team lost during the 1994 season.

This is on top of a lease that gives the Rams virtually all revenue from the stadium and a business-backed guarantee that 85% of luxury boxes and club seats will be sold for the next 15 years, accounting for more than $10 million annually for the team.

With revenue from 20 additional luxury boxes, which are being built on the north end zone side of the stadium at the Rams' request to bring the total number of suites to 113, the team stands to make more than $20 million in annual pretax profits.

And the fans still have to pick up $60 million in relocation costs?

"I just don't think it's a fair deal for the average sports fan," said Rich Russell, a 42-year-old from St. Louis and a former Cardinal season-ticket holder. "The people bringing the team here have the money. Why should fans have to put even more in?"

Because that's what it took to attract the Rams in a professional sports market that has evolved into something of a financial fantasyland, according to Westfall, the county executive.

"We're not twisting anyone's arm, and we're not doing this with taxpayer's money," said Westfall, a driving force behind the stadium project. "There will be about 1,700 purchasers for 50,000 PSLs, and millions of people will benefit.

"Did we pay too much for the Rams? How do you define too much? The Rams are getting what they want, a great state-of-the-art facility, and we're getting what we want, an NFL football team. Who's complaining?"

Westfall said he was "relieved and thrilled" that more than six months of negotiations with the Rams and a five-year effort to bring NFL football to St. Louis finally will result in the city getting a team, pending approval from at least 23 of 30 NFL owners in March.

"It has been a tedious mission, and you never knew if it was going to blow up in your face," Westfall said. "We didn't get an expansion team in 1993. No one gave us a chance when we started negotiating with the Rams, but here we are, six months later, with a team."

But what kind of team is St. Louis getting? The city endured 28 mostly futile years with the Cardinals, who had only 10 winning seasons and never played host to a playoff game but probably were most noted for their despised owner, Bill Bidwill.

Bidwill and his front-office executives were never comfortable dealing with the public and made few attempts to market the Cardinals. Some of the team's best players, including Jim Hart, Dan Dierdorf and Jackie Smith, were treated as outcasts after their careers. Management seemed unwilling to spend the money it took to field a competitive team.

Fans in St. Louis can't help but notice the parallels with the penny-pinching Rams and Frontiere, an absentee owner whose front office has done little in the way of marketing and little to improve a team that has lost 57 games in the '90s, more than any NFL team.

"People are worried that we're getting what we had before, someone with a tight pocketbook and no commitment to satisfy fans with a winning team," Russell said.

Added Fred Kreutz, an 83-year-old St. Louis resident who said he never missed a Cardinal home game in 28 years: "I hope to hell the Rams don't run their team like Bidwill did."

Westfall is confident they won't. With a deal that could make the Rams one of pro sports' most profitable franchises, there should be plenty of money to invest in players and coaches. And Westfall believes Kroenke, 47, who plays in recreational basketball leagues, will provide a much-needed infusion of cash ($60 million) and competitiveness.

"From what I know and hear about Stan, you can tell he's a quietly intense fellow," Westfall said. "He's incredibly competitive, and he's going to want to produce a winner. I think within five years we'll have a team that will make the playoffs on an annual basis."

But at what price victory? No city has made such a massive financial commitment to a pro sports franchise, and where is much of the money going? Into Frontiere's pocket and the coffers of one of the league's worst-run franchises of the decade.

"Fans will grouse understandably about .240 hitters and sub-.500 pitchers making million-dollar salaries, but that's small potatoes compared to how sports owners can profit despite their own ineptitude," Costas said.

"It's not as if the Rams are experiencing this financial windfall through excellence. The next time you criticize those players, you ought to consider the way owners play the game . . . oh well, there goes my luxury suite.

"I'm not saying I'm not happy the Rams are coming. I just don't embrace this wholeheartedly. I don't see how fans here can have the same kind of affection and connection to this like it's a team they grew up with."

Times staff writer T.J. Simers contributed to this story.

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