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Ben Frederickson: Questions NFL owners should ask before helping Kroenke with his relocation settlement tab

Ben Frederickson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Football

Back before they were herded together to approve the Rams’ relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles in January 2016, some NFL owners hesitated.

Concerns were voiced during a league meeting held in December 2015 in Texas, according to notes included in evidence from the relocation lawsuit the Post-Dispatch acquired last week.

Mike Brown of the Bengals did not think any of the three teams — Rams, Chargers, Raiders — should move. Joel Glazer of the Buccaneers complained about teams seeking greener pastures before exhausting all options in their home markets Michael Bidwill of the Cardinals asked if the league could afford to abandon St. Louis, warning of creating the perception the league cares only about money. This was when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones launched in on Bidwill, cutting him down by accusing the Bidwill family of prioritizing money when the family moved the Cardinals from St. Louis to Arizona.

The scene foreshadowed what ultimately happened in the end. Stan Kroenke, with Jones serving as lead blocker, got what he wanted and others got out of the way. What is ironic, looking back now, is that owners outside of the league’s inner circle did not seem to realize then just how much they were along for the ride, and how far down the road they were. St. Louis was not the only party thinking St. Louis had a shot to keep its team. Some owners thought the same thing. And boy, were they wrong. The exhibits and depositions reported on during the relocation lawsuit, now available in full, paint a fuller picture.

Kroenke in 2006 told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to remove Kroenke from the league’s Los Angeles committee, predicting a conflict of interest. One of Kroenke’s first decisions as the team’s majority owner in 2010 was to register the company that directly owns the team, St. Louis Rams, LLC, with the state of California. Giants owner John Mara said in a deposition that Kroenke had expressed his desire to move the team as far back as 2013. By the summer of 2014, according to Rams executive Kevin Demoff’s deposition, as many as 200 people were working on Rams stadium plans for Inglewood.

By then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash were not only aware of Kroenke’s plan, but had been silent partners in it for more than two years. We now know Goodell, thanks to diligent notes kept by Pash, was on an October 2013 teleconference with Kroenke, Texans owner Bob McNair and Steelers owner Art Rooney II in which Kroenke shared with the commissioner and the two influential owners his plans for quietly acquiring the Hollywood Park racetrack site in Inglewood where SoFi Stadium now resides. Kroenke had an in. His greatest business move ever, and it’s not close, was marrying into the Walmart empire. Walmart just so happened to own 60 of those desired Inglewood acres. The NFL had eyed the site as a potential stadium location as well.

 

“Walmart is ready to sell,” Kroenke said during that October 2013 call. “It’s a public company so we have to respect that but we’re certainly in a good position. I didn’t want to lose the window and don’t want to compete with the NFL. But it’s better if we buy it because we have 40 years of relationships. You don’t have to endorse me, just don’t compete with me.”

“You understand where this comes from,” Goodell told Kroenke near the end of the call. “We want, and I don’t mean to offend, but we expect you to keep us posted on your activity.”

“The NFL wants to create activity in LA,” Kroenke answered. “It is better to have guys we know doing this stuff in LA. Together we are really powerful. You have to weigh a level playing field against really getting something done. I trust Roger, and you, Art and Bob. I’m not quite there with some other guys.”

When Kroenke’s land purchase became known, Pash helped shape the messaging that distanced the Rams from the purchase. Goodell, who would later champion the merits of the league’s relocation guidelines, lied boldly on Kroenke’s behalf before the Super Bowl in 2014. “There are no plans to my knowledge of a stadium development,” he said when asked about the land sale.

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