A Lesson From Houston: How A Rams Move To Los Angeles May Happen…
As we speculate about what is the next move in store for the Rams franchise, there is a roadmap that could lead the team from St. Louis back to its longtime home in Southern California. The clues to what Stan Kroenke and the Rams may do in the next few weeks and months just might be found when one considers the last NFL club to make such a move, the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.
Like the Rams in Los Angeles, the Oilers in Houston were one of professional football’s most important franchises. Houston won the first two championships of the fledgling American Football League, and their success helped give the AFL much-needed legitimacy early on. Fortunes came and went following the merger, with Earl Campbell, Bum Phillips and the “Luv Ya, Blue” era in the 1970s and the high-flying Run’n’Shoot of Warren Moon in the early 1990s among the highlights.
Through it all, owner Bud Adams was both the source of consistency and turmoil for the franchise. After nearly 20 years of seeing his team playing in the 50,000-seat Astrodome (the first pro football team to play in a domed stadium), Adams openly flirted with moving the Oilers to Jacksonville in 1987. That situation was temporarily resolved when Harris County made $67 million in improvements that increased seating by nearly 12,000 seats and added 65 luxury boxes by 1990. However, Adams was never truly was satisfied and continued battling local government for greater demands. This certainly contributed to the ill feeling that ultimately contributed to the Oilers’ departure.
That process began in 1995, when the Oilers played a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Adams was impressed by the strong turnout and began secret talks to then-Nashville mayor (and later Tennessee governor) Phil Bredesen. By November of 1995, a deal was reached and Adams announced that the Oilers would indeed move to Nashville in 1998 upon completion of the team’s lease of the Astrodome. This caused attendance to fall in the last few home games in 1995, and after Davidson County voters approved by a nearly 60 percent majority the use of $144 million in public funds toward the construction of what is now known as LP Field, fan support in Houston completely cratered during the 1996 season, averaging less than 32,000 in paid attendance. Actual attendance was significantly lower, and only 15,131 fans were on hand for what would be the Oilers’ final game in Houston, on December 15, 1996 against Cincinnati.
With only two wins playing in the cavernous Astrodome, Adams knew that trying to stay another year invited even greater disaster. He and the City of Houston ultimately negotiated a buyout of the team’s Astrodome lease, and the Oilers were the NFL’s vagabonds the next two years, playing in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1997 and then Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville in 1998 to spartan crowds. Fan support and attendance increased significantly once the renamed Tennessee Titans moved into Adelphia Coliseum (now LP Field) in 1999 and with it came the Titans’ improbable run in the playoffs which ended just a yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Ironically, in the next few years after the Oilers left town, Houston ended up paying $352 million to build the 78,000 seat Reliant Stadium (opened 2002) and $250 million for the 43,000 seat Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) (opened in 2000)
So how does this history lesson affect the Rams in their current state? Let us count the ways:
1. Like the Oilers, the Rams are faced with an unfavorable stadium situation now. The Edward Jones Dome is nowhere near being the “Top Tier” facility that it must be by the 2015 season.
2. Like Houston then (which was recovering from the collapse of the oil industry), in St. Louis there is neither the public funds available for the improvements that would be needed, nor is there an appetite for local taxpayers to vote for tax increases for stadium improvements. This is especially true with the Edward Jones Dome, which the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the Missouri State Government will still be paying for until 2023.
3. While Adams’ relationship with Houston deteriorated over years, “Silent Stan” Kroenke’s silence has spoken volumes so far in terms of his lack of reassurance to the St. Louis market. Combined with the CVC’s declaration that the Rams cannot forfeit a home game each of the next few years to play in London, it is not hard to see what has never been a cozy relationship is on the path to further deterioration.
4. Having seen what the Oilers endured in 1996, the NFL will never allow another ‘lameduck’ situation to exist. If a move is made, it will be announced and implemented within the course of one offseason, with the full involvement and support of the Commissioner’s office and other NFL owners. There will be no long, drawn-out goodbye; any transition will proceed swiftly and decisively. If that process requires a buyout of the current lease on the EJD, it will happen (as it did when the Oilers made an exit from Houston and the Astrodome following the disastrous 1996 season).
5. The Rams’ recent selection of a new head coach is likely to prove beneficial in more ways than just on the playing field. Having guided the Oilers through their transition from Houston to Memphis and to Nashville, then-head coach Jeff Fisher kept his players on an even keel and amidst all the turmoil had the Oilers playing competitive football, going 8-8 in each of the 1996, 1997 and 1998 seasons.
While Coach Fisher’s consistency and success with the Oilers/Titans is more than enough to qualify him for turning around the Rams, another part of his resume could (and should) come in handy. Press reports at the time of the negotiations between Fisher and the Rams talked about a potential franchise move being a matter of concern to Fisher. It may very well have been, but not in the negative sense that St. Louis news media purported it to be.
If Stan Kroenke is considering a franchise move, would it not behoove him to discuss the possibilities with someone who has been through that process. Fisher would certainly attest to the process that the Oilers went through, and what potential pitfalls could be avoided if he were to guide another team in the midst of a cross-country move.
Plus, it is not at all trivial to point out that Fisher was born in Culver City, went to William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills, then played collegiately at USC before going on to the NFL (including a stint as Defensive Coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams in 1991.)
How the process of negotiations between the Rams franchise and the CVC in regards to the lease on the Edward Jones Dome remains to be seen. But looking at both current factors and historical clues, it’s not hard to see Southern California positioned favorably for a Rams return.
Dennis Bateman – 2/20/2012