There are two cities on the planet rooting for the Patriots, the team everybody outside of New England loves to hate. The first, of course, is Boston. The second is St. Louis, which isn’t happy about rooting for New England but is doing so because it must. The reason stems from the hideous way the St. Louis Rams became the Los Angeles Rams in 2016.
Most folks in St. Louis will probably skip Sunday’s Super Bowl rather than watch two teams they hate. But if they must pick between the two, the answer is clear. “The Patriots were probably the city’s least favorite team,” a St. Louis lawyer told the Los Angeles Times. “The Rams are now the least favorite team.” There is a bar in St. Louis offering drink specials for every Patriots score—and, unbelievably, the opportunity to pee on pictures of Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who was responsible for moving the team.
I believe that there are sports owners who genuinely enjoy it when their team wins a championship. Why else would they insist on receiving the trophy before the players and coaches do, the ones who actually won the damn thing? I suspect once you become a billionaire, you get bored of paying people to like you and begin searching for more difficult ways to earn approval. What a rush it must be to stand on a stage in a stadium filled with adoring, cheering fans, while being handed a trophy—most of which are giant phalluses made from valuable metals—and hoisting it skyward.
However, most sports owners see their teams primarily as investments, and only come to care about winning when they realize that successful teams are more profitable. They view the lifelong emotional connection fans have with their teams not as a beautiful bond, but as a bargaining chip. You love this team—how much are you willing to spend on it? For Kroenke, St. Louis’s answer was “not enough.”
Some rich people collect cars; Kroenke collects sports teams. He became massively wealthy by marrying into the Walton family, owners of Walmart, back when the retail chain only had about 100 stores. His portfolio of sports franchises includes Arsenal, the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Rams. For the most part, Kroenke’s ownership of professional teams has been unsuccessful; he’s the rare sports owner with low approval ratings on multiple continents.
In 1995, Kroenke bought a 30 percent stake in the Rams in a bid to help majority owner Georgia Frontiere relocate the team from Los Angeles to her hometown of St. Louis. Kroenke became majority owner in 2010, and half-pretended he was interested in keeping the team in Missouri, all the while planning a move back to Los Angeles, where the team could be more profitable. In 2014, he bought land for a stadium in Los Angeles. St. Louis desperately pitched him on ways it could keep the Rams, but he didn’t listen.
One big problem with moving a sports franchise to a new city: There is no guarantee the people there will care. Especially when that city is Los Angeles, which is filled with transplants and has no shortage of professional teams and high-profile college programs. What if Kroenke built his massive stadium and nobody went to the games? To avoid this, he did something in L.A. he’d never bothered to do in St. Louis: Try to win.
From the time Kroenke became majority owner in 2010 to the time he relocated the team to Los Angeles in 2016, the Rams never had a winning season. Their head coach for their final four years in St. Louis was Jeff Fisher, the human manifestation of football mediocrity. The Rams fired Fisher late into their first season in Los Angeles, replacing him with Sean McVay, whose offensive genius has become the envy of the NFL. Aaron Donald, drafted by the Rams during their late–era St. Louis struggles, has become the best defensive player in football. And the Rams are in the damn Super Bowl.
It’s bad enough for a city to lose a sports team. But what St. Louis experienced during this Super Bowl run is even crueler—and surprisingly common. They had to watch the mediocre franchise that left them suddenly put in the effort to win games. What hurts the most must be seeing the Rams care.
The post-relocation bump is a real phenomenon across sports. As teams prepare to abandon their cities, they stop caring about year-to-year success. Why bother entertaining fans you’re about to ditch? Once they arrive in a new city, they begin to perk up.
The most prominent example is probably the Baltimore Ravens. The old manifestation of the Cleveland Browns weren’t as bad as we remember—they made three conference championship games in the 1980s! They went 11-5 in 1994! But they never won a Super Bowl—something that changed after owner Art Modell decided to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1996, changing the franchise’s name in the process. In the first draft in Ravens’ history, they took two Hall of Famers in the first round: offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis. By the 2000 season, the Ravens had just three ex-Browns on their roster, having replaced any mediocre holdovers from Cleveland with the building blocks of the greatest defense in league history. They allowed 165 points in the regular season and 23 total points in four playoff games, winning Super Bowl XXXV in dominant fashion. By this time, Cleveland had a new version of the Browns, but the new Browns have been the worst franchise in the league for most of their existence. We’ll forever remember that iconic 2000 Ravens defense and forever remember that they were born from a different city’s heartbreak.
The Seattle SuperSonics were the last NBA team to change cities. They were bought by a group of Oklahoma City businessmen in 2006 with little intention of keeping the team in Washington. The Sonics promptly tanked in their first season under OKC-minded ownership, finishing in 14th place in the Western Conference and earning the draft pick that turned into Kevin Durant. In their final season in Seattle, they finished dead last in the West and earned the draft pick that turned into Russell Westbrook, who was handed a Sonics hat and jersey on draft night even though the official announcement of the move to Oklahoma City was less than a week away. After making the playoffs just three times in their final 10 years in Seattle, the Thunder have missed the playoffs only twice in 10 years in Oklahoma City.
The Quebec Nordiques of the NHL were the only major pro sports team ever to play in Quebec City. They also sucked, winning just 36 games in the 1990 and 1991 seasons. Even though the team was always profitable, president Marcel Aubut decided he could make more money personally by selling the team rather than keeping it in Quebec. A conglomerate from Denver bought the team, and the renamed Colorado Avalanche became quite good after inheriting the windfall from the trade of Eric Lindros in 1992. The Avalanche won a Stanley Cup in their first season after moving from Quebec in 1995, and then again in 2001. (Kroenke bought the Avalanche in 2000—we shouldn’t give him credit for the team’s 2001 championship.)
The list goes on: The Minnesota North Stars never won a Stanley Cup in three decades in hockey-mad Minnesota. Just six years after moving to hockey-tolerant Dallas, the Stars won a Stanley Cup in 1999. (The Minnesota Wild, born in 2000, have made the conference finals just once and were swept.) The Carolina Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup in 2006 after two decades of cellar-dwelling as the Hartford Whalers. The franchise had the gall to wear Whalers throwbacks last year, like a hunter wearing the pelt of a beast he killed as a coat. The Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997, played for two years as the Tennessee Oilers, and won an AFC championship in 1999 behind Steve McNair in their very first season as the Tennessee Titans.
As St. Louis fans watch their ex-team build a world-beating, revolutionary offense, I’m reminded of another team that left its home and promptly built an iconic passing attack that changed the way teams play offense. This team finished no better than 6-10 in any of its final five years before moving halfway across the country. Then, in 1999, just four years after moving, that team built one of the greatest offenses in the NFL, finishing with a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl victory. In back-to-back-to-back years, a player from this team won MVP honors. In 2001, it made the Super Bowl again, losing to the Patriots on a last-second kick. That team was the Rams, and they left Los Angeles to play in St. Louis.
When I think about the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl, I am reminded of a scene from Parks and Rec. Ann, a competent and gainfully employed nurse, breaks up with her boyfriend, Andy, an unemployed screw-up, after she catches him lying about having a crippling leg injury because he enjoys having her bring him snacks while he sits on the couch watching TV. Later in the series, Andy cleans up his act and gets a job at city hall, where he meets his eventual wife, April. When Ann runs into Andy, happy, at a bar, she turns to the camera and drunkenly vents: “I loved Andy. He was a totally hopeless baby when we met. I dated him for three years, and now he’s an adult with a job. And some other girl is going to reap the rewards of my hard work? That’s bull!”
Most of us have seen our exes date other people. Maybe we get a little jealous, but we don’t expect a person we no longer date to stay single for the rest of their life. We can even be happy for our exes in their future love lives if we realize why our relationship with them was doomed. What ate away at Ann wasn’t that Andy had a new girlfriend. It was that she had loved and cared for Andy, and none of it made him any less crappy to her. The pain stemmed not from seeing him with a new person, but from seeing him fix all of his flaws for that new person.
It is a pain departing sports teams inflict on their fans time and time again. The economy of sports relocations is set up to cause maximum pain for those left behind. As a team prepares to leave Profitable City A for Slightly More Profitable City B, they punt on success in the first city and prepare to wow fans in their new home.
Next up in this cycle are the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, who have given up on their soon-to-be ex-fans in Oakland. The team announced in 2017 that it would be leaving Oakland and immediately scrapped any plans for success in its three remaining seasons in the Bay Area. They traded Khalil Mack, the second-best defensive player in the league behind Donald, for a slew of draft picks, including two first-rounders. They traded wide receiver Amari Cooper for another first-round pick. At this point, it’s not even clear where the Raiders will play in 2019 as they wait for their new stadium Las Vegas to be constructed. It doesn’t matter to Raiders ownership. If they could, they would skip this entire NFL season and let the team practice. Their future is in Nevada, where the Las Vegas Raiders will likely achieve success with the cornucopia of draft picks acquired by selling the Oakland Raiders for parts.
If the Rams win the Super Bowl on Sunday night, Kroenke will get to be the first one to hold the Lombardi Trophy. More important to him is that a Super Bowl will likely increase the interest in his team and convince fans in Los Angeles to give him more money in the future.
I want St. Louis fans to know this isn’t their fault. The Rams are not better in Los Angeles because of anything that people in St. Louis did wrong, or because St. Louis has bad fans. Ownership’s indifference to performing well in St. Louis, and the team’s near-instant turnaround in Los Angeles, were motivated by nothing more than the fact that L.A. has a larger pile of cash to offer, and some sports owners will take a larger pile of cash, even if it means breaking your heart, every day of the week.