St. Louis Blues: Fans Threaten Suit As NFL Blocks Rams's Exit From L.A.

Stadium is there. T-shirts are printed. Now all the city needs is a team.

IN the multimillion-dollar game of National Football League ownership, failing to share a pot of gold does not go uncontested.

Football-hungry fans in St. Louis handed over $74 million to show their devotion to the sport and lock in a deal relocating the Rams here from Los Angeles.

But last week the NFL owners voted against the move, which would have given the Rams the most profitable franchise in the league. The vote was 21 to 3, with six owners abstaining. Now the issue appears to be headed for court.

It's all about money

The dispute centers around how much revenue Rams' owner Georgia Frontiere is willing to share with the league, which demanded 34 percent of the $70 million raised in St. Louis and additional funds for a new stadium in the Los Angeles area.

The NFL also wanted Ms. Frontiere to cover any rebate the Fox television network demands in compensation for losing Rams coverage in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest TV market, for St. Louis, the 18th-largest market.

Many of the owners were envious of the profitable deal Frontiere was sitting on. ''The Rams in St. Louis, with the deal they have, would be making $25 million while I'd be in New England losing $10 million,'' says Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. ''In 1999 there is no salary cap, and what kind of chance would I have trying to compete against that?'' Owners of less profitable teams fear that their top players may be lured away with big salaries from deep-pocket teams like the Rams.

But in St. Louis, the euphoria unleashed in January with the signing of the relocation agreement has turned to anger at being snubbed for the third time by the NFL. After losing the football Cardinals to Phoenix in 1988 and failing to win an expansion team in 1993, the victory was sweet for St. Louisans.

More than 74,000 supportive fans applied for 46,000 personal-seat licenses, paying from $250 to $4,500 for the right to purchase season tickets for the same seat every year.

The owners' vote in Phoenix last week was supposed to be a mere technicality. Construction workers completing the $260 million stadium near the St. Louis Arch have already painted ''Home of the Rams'' across the new building's girders. And Rams T-shirts were selling fast at local sports stores. The nixing of the deal has embarassed some St. Louisans who worry about the city's national image after three NFL rebuffs. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is threatening to sue the NFL for violating federal antitrust laws.

''The Rams are resolute to go ahead on the legal front, as are we,'' said Thomas Eagleton, head of FANS Inc., the group that negotiated the deal. But others say the city can only blame itself. ''If anything made us look silly it was the delirium with which we agreed to a deal that was legalized extortion,'' said Bob Costas, a sports commentator and St. Louis resident.

Antitrust allegations

''The NFL teams are separate, independent businesses that compete with one another on and off the field,'' Mr. Nixon says. ''If the other NFL teams and the Rams' competitors act as a cartel to stop them from doing business in the city of their choice, it would be a classic restraint of trade. We're not going to stand by on the sidelines and let the smoke-filled-room cartel of the NFL take away what we've earned.''

The league has a losing record in antitrust lawsuits. In the early 1980s, Raiders' owner Al Davis sued the NFL and won the right to move his team from Oakland to Los Angeles and was awarded $48 million in damages.

In a game of high-stakes chicken, despite threats, the lawsuits may never materialize. ''This is all a negotiating ploy to get more money out of Georgia [Frontiere],'' says Joseph Alioto, a San Francisco lawyer who won the Raiders' case.

But Frontiere is vowing to fight back. ''The last chapter has yet to be written, and I look forward to a happy ending,'' she says. ''You know, the last play of the game is when the quarterback kneels to run out the clock. I am not going to be the quarterback kneeling. The clock is still ticking.''

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