On Selling the NFL to St. Louis (again)

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There are several issues surrounding the proposal for a new NFL stadium in downtown St. Louis. City pride, the emasculation of St. Louis, payroll taxes, state incentives, urban planning, architecture… It is the last two which have gained more attention recently.

The St. Louis NFL Stadium Task Force and stadium architect HOK released updated renderings of the riverfront stadium earlier this week. Then HOK finagled an exclusive with the Post-Dispatch in which the stadium designer ran roughshod with platitudes and architecture-speak.

What did we learn? Proposed is “a wall of public art”, “a 30-foot-wide observation deck”, “we put the general die-hard St. Louis fan front-and-center, embedded in the experience”, “more bridges and bike trails than roadways”, “grass lawns that can support vehicles”, “21 acres of green space and more than 38 acres of public space”. All of this led the journalist to conclude, “The proposed stadium, viewed by some as elitist and wasteful, has become an arena for the people.”

NFL stadium proposal - St. Louis, MO 04/23/2015

In June, a video fly-through of the proposed stadium complete with Joe Buck narration told us, “revitalizing downtown is essential to the city of St. Louis”, and highlighted “1.5 Miles of New Trails Linking to the Heart of the City”, and “Unmatched Access from Home to Game”. Buck later Tweeted, “take the NFL out of Stl and our downtown has no impetus for change.”

Big civic projects are aspirational. In an era when everything from schools to post offices, to bridges seem to be dumbed down, value-engineered, and lacking the attention and investment that once made clear a community’s values, sports stadiums now occupy the central stage. And so it’s natural that we’re going to talk about them as being all things to all people, delivering on a wide range of promises.

In St. Louis, it’s conventional wisdom that the Edward Jones dome provides a terrible gameday experience and is simply an ugly building that wasn’t designed well. We need an iconic stadium! This wasn’t always the case. (Of course some do recall the days of the Greatest Show on Turf and blame losing on the field more than the building.)

We thought the latest round of happy promotional jargon presented a good opportunity to look back at when the Edward Jones Dome was new. What was sold, what was St. Louis told about the project and its impact on the city? If the design details for a project like this are important enough to be reported, they’re important enough to be examined.

For some perspective we turned to BALLPARKS.com. That site has posted the HOK press release about the then new dome in St. Louis. Here’s part of what it said:

The Dome serves to revitalize its surrounding neighborhood on the northeast side of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, through its cohesive definition of a new urban district. … We wanted the design to encourage urban life and activity in the Dome’s surrounding district.”

The stadium also has an enviably intimate seating configuration, providing every seat in the house with an “on top of the action” feel.”

Architectural elements such as rotundas, turrets, ramps, pillars, portals and plazas extend along the entire convention complex in a manner described as “episodic” or “like pearls on a string.” The details relate to the nearby Mississippi River and riverfront, the Eads Bridge and other historic structures, helping to ensure the future viability of nearby rehabilitated areas.

Glass and openness, as well as signs, canopies and plazas, have been used to create welcoming areas for gathering and to add life to the street. … On the street, there is no sense of the dome element at all. … Views to the city are ever changing from the ramp levels which provide close-up, seemingly touchable perspectives of the surrounding historic structures.

The BALLPARKS site lauded an early visit to the stadium, claiming it to be “glitzy, modern, bright, airy”, and with “more the feel of a hockey arena than a football stadium.” Of course time passes and expectations change. By any measure the dome is no longer glitzy or modern compared to other NFL stadiums, and fans, once enamored with the dome experience, want to be outside.

The point isn’t that any of the design claims or booster talk is true or false (though clearly the rhetoric habitually over promises), but rather that design intent isn’t a good reason to build a billion dollar stadium. Promoting public plazas and beautiful views may excite some, but it’s basically fluff to reassure skeptics that the development is really thoughtful, and maybe, just maybe transformative (it’s not). Without a public vote on the horizon, the bet here is to make the project slightly easier to support politically.

{looking south from the dome in 2011}

{view of the dome from the north looking south}

The reality of the NFL stadium issue in St. Louis is primarily one of ownership. Stan Kroenke can make more money in Los Angeles than St. Louis. Actually, anyone could, but Stan has a lease that lets him walk, and a team that called L.A. home for nearly 50 years. There appears to be little to prevent Kroenke from moving the Rams.

The local rhetoric shifted some time ago to St. Louis remaining an NFL city, and not exclusively to keeping the Rams in town. And despite some local commentator’s joy in declaring St. Louis a backwater, the region easily has the numbers to back being home to an NFL team.

Local sportscaster Frank Cusumano Tweeted this week that St. Louis ranks 15th among NFL cities in corporate base, 13th in the number of Fortune 500 companies and top 10 in household income. Very clearly St. Louis is a bigger corporate and financial center than places like Green Bay, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and others. St. Louis without an NFL team would become a clear outlier.

So the renderings and design plans for the stadium have been getting attention, but it only becomes a reality if there’s a successful financial plan to build a new stadium. This is where the task force, mayor and governor have smartly focused.

If the numbers add up, the stadium will be built. If it’s built, the NFL will put a team in St. Louis. Through various challenges, a lawsuit, political maneuvering and other methods, the financial plan here seems to be coming together. This isn’t to say that the financial plan makes good economic development sense, but it is moving forward.

The how and who of paying for the stadium continues to present a possible roadblock. The short of it is that St. Louis plans for an owner to contribute $450M to the project, $250M from the owner and $200M from an NFL loan program. Another $250M would come from extending bonds (that are set to expire in 2025) used to pay for the existing stadium. This amount is $12M for the state and $6M for the city annually ($201M bond total). The state would add $187M in tax credits and plans estimate $160M in personal seat license sales. PSL’s allow the purchaser the opportunity to buy season tickets, and have been used widely to help finance new stadiums.

The big question for St. Louis and Missouri is whether or not the numbers above make sense. Dave Peacock of the stadium task force often states that there’s a clear economic case to be made for the stadium. The only serious studies regarding professional sports stadiums show no net economic benefit. Mayor Slay and his former chief-of-staff Jeff Rainford, now a stadium lobbyist, have both explicitly stated the stadium is justified by pride and fans having fun. That’s certainly the most honest, and perhaps best, argument that can be made.

So as it stands, is the deal in St. Louis a good one? Since the dome in St. Louis was built in 1995, 24 NFL stadiums have been built, or seen multi-hundred million dollar remakes. The average total cost was $587M and average private/public funding split 47/53%. Of course the details have varied wildly.

NFL stadiums - private/public split 1995-2015

The St. Louis dome, Tampa’s stadium, and Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati were funded with virtually all public money. Construction of the Meadowlands Stadium, home to both the Jets and Giants was 100% privately funded, as is the planned $400M renovation of Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Other recent examples for St. Louis to consider: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis received $620M in public money (86%), Arrowhead’s $388M renovation was supported by $263 in public funds, in Minnesota the numbers are $508M (47%), and in Atlanta, $554M (40%). The numbers in St. Louis are currently at $388M (39%).

Total Cost of NFL Stadiums 1995-2015

For St. Louis, the city pays (the city is 11% of the metro area population), and the state pays. The state contribution is sort of other people’s money, but the St. Louis region produces ~40% of the state’s economic activity. The city money is an extension of taxes raised to pay for the existing dome. And there may be a bit of an off-set in current expenses. A dome without an NFL team would be much more profitable as it would be able to book more and larger conferences, perhaps covering debt on the dome, and therefore allowing the continuation of taxes that are set to expire in 2025 to go toward a new stadium.

So the deal on the table for St. Louis isn’t historically bad (hi there Cincinnati), and the vast majority of the region wouldn’t directly pay for it (unlike Indianapolis and its 8 metro area counties which raised taxes for their stadium). The $388M and 39% are slightly lower as a percentage than other recent NFL stadium projects, and much greater than is being requested of the public for stadium proposals for L.A. Perhaps the public money is simply the going rate to keep an NFL team in St. Louis. And with those numbers, considering other city’s experience, St. Louis might be doing well to keep a team.

It’s worth noting at this point that the price, and demand for public money, to build an NFL stadium today is driven by the monopoly that is the NFL. The league has played the threat of a team relocating to vacant L.A. for decades, leveraging new stadiums, and billions in public money, in cities across the country. The NFL has maintained its supply of franchises just below demand, and it’s worked like a charm.

This is where St. Louis finds itself, a clearly viable NFL market with an owner who wants to take his team elsewhere, a supportive mayor, absent metro area leadership, and support from the governor. The end result is anyone’s guess, but the smart money isn’t on the NFL preventing Kroenke from moving. If St. Louis is going to remain an NFL city, it needs a new team, and an owner that’s happy merely making millions in a mid-tier market.

*this post initially listed the private contribution as $548M, or 55% for the proposed STL stadium by attributing PSLs to public funding instead of private funding

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  • Aaron

    I like the question marks raised at the end of the article. So who is this private party in the near future willing to put down $450 million for a new St. Louis team? Do they exist? Why would the league support the deal given it’s apparently not as lucrative for the league/new owner as some other recent deals? How did the Missouri/St. Louis City group arrive at the private/public funding split without negotiating with an actual prospective owner? Or is that supposed to be like our best offer to all the single billionaires out there who might need a date to the NFL dance?

    I personally hope it doesn’t work out and then voters political challengers can say, hey remember all that money you wanted to spend on football? Let’s use that money you said we could afford to spend on more important infrastructure projects X, Y, and Z!

  • Guest

    A few thoughts (stream of consciousness style).
    – Why doesn’t anyone cover the union aspect of this project? Are Slay/Nixon this supportive if Missouri is a right-to-work state, and have a smaller union constituency? I’ve heard costs in Missouri are 35% higher than they otherwise would be because of the strength of unions.
    – If soccer is to be a serious part of this project it cannot be played on field turf (and grass on top of turf is an abomination). Should be something St. Louisans and their high soccer IQ should know. Maybe use that 35% cost savings to have a retractable field that allows for football on turf and soccer on grass (See Tottenham Hotspurs new stadium plan).
    – If St. Louis is to grow it needs to be a NFL city (rams or new team….doesn’t matter), but that is just one of a number of items it needs to be able to fix/check-off that are all competition related: Right-to-work, airport (lack of direct flights), city/county divide, lack of serious corporate recruitment and retention, but the absolute biggest is parochialism….St. Louis will never collapse but as others grow and St. Louis stays flat it becomes less and less relevant each year which is a shame.

  • Grandpa David B.

    I have posted this several times before so feel free to bi-pass me if this is repetitious for you:

    Frankly, St. Louis needs pro-sports. We don’t have beaches or mountains and we’re not Hollywood or Las Vegas, and we’re not the home of major-conference University, and we’re not a major tech center. Professional sports teams are what puts St. Louis on the international map and we need to stay in the NFL, one of the most popular and visible sports entities in the world.

    Even if you don’t care about football or soccer please consider that we need new jobs for construction workers, electricians, engineers, technicians, plumbers, painters, and so many other skilled and non-skilled workers, not even to mention the jobs already in place in association with the Rams, that otherwise will be lost forever. Plus, more than
    $12MM + per year from tax revenue from players and other NFL related factors.

    We should be in favor of a new stadium, rejuvenation of the north riverfront, too, and all the charity and community work this region benefits from having the Rams.

    And all we’re talking about here are extension of bonds, hotel sales taxes, and private investment; no new taxes. Recent studies show that personal seat license revenue will be adequate to cover much of the cost.

    By the way, the notion that by not pursuing the stadium funding would somehow mean more money for schools, neighborhoods, roads, police, and other services, etc … well, that’s utterly erroneous and naive. It simply doesn’t work that way. And why
    does it have to be either/or anyway?

    • John R

      There are good arguments both for and against a new stadium, and you raise some good ones, grandpa, but you are incorrect that hotel sales taxes. etc. cover the city’s bond obligations…. that comes from the general fund instead and there are other things that the City could decide to support/fund with that appropriation. In the end. whatever the Peacock team will come up with will have to be heavily scrutinized as well as any eventual lease with a team.

    • jhoff1257

      PSLs at most would cover roughly $200 million according to that NFL study. Hardly “much” of the cost of a billion dollar stadium.

      I disagree with the pro sports puts us on the international map bit too. The Arch does more for our reputation around the world then sports do. I would argue our universities (Washington University alone draws from over 110 countries), hospitals, parks and museums even do our reputation a better service. Especially considering that baseball and football and are only played in North America and the few countries (like Japan) that do play some American sports don’t have near the following for those sports. Hockey is pretty international but even it doesn’t compare to the international love of soccer which we don’t even have on a pro level.

      I am on your side though. I want the Rams to stay and the more this stadium plan gets refined the more I like it. But I am sick and tired of people in St. Louis thinking the city is done if the NFL leaves. It’s not, wasn’t the first time we lost a team and won’t be this time. A city with a nearly $140 billion dollar economy isn’t going to collapse because we lost 10 football games a year. We seem to get by just fine the other 355 days of the year.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks for the comment and being part of the conversation. The opinion that St. Louis needs professional sports for our self-esteem, economic development, as a stand-in for mountains, or whatever is simply not supported by any evidence at all.

      Also, if the north riverfront stadium “rejuvenates” that area like the current 20-year-old stadium has it’s surroundings, I don’t know that we should be very excited. And the continuation of a tax that by law has an expiration date is a new tax. And PSLs may cover $160M – per the latest publicly available financing plan. PSLs are great, and if they would cover “much of the cost” a big argument against the stadium (public money) would almost disappear.

      Otherwise, you’re correct, a stadium would mean quite a few jobs. And there’s a reasonable economic argument to make – that the private money going into a stadium is a plus for St. Louis. And you’re right that $998M, or even the public part, would suddenly be available for police or other uses is sort of naive. However, there’s a finite amount of money in the STL region. Local money not spent on a stadium would be spent elsewhere.

  • Mike Cohen

    Good read. Thanks for the graphic comparisons, too.

  • Paul Cullmann

    There are 2 main takeaways from this ordeal. 1st is the complete and utter BS of the NFL and their “monopoly”. They pit a finite number of private teams against pubic cities to fleece the best deal out of tax payers.
    2nd is the extraordinary effort by the City of St. Louis and the task force. In a very short amount of time they organized a clear idea and implemented it against all odds, very underrated with respect to St. Louis. I think this is the biggest point. It shows when you put talented people in charge of an effort.

    • Richard Taylor

      LA Guy here. Much admiration for the “Spirit of St Louis” exemplified by the effort to build the new stadium. The little city just won’t lay down. Go on, take a dive, ‘Lou, but the city won’t. If LA is the city that doesn’t need the NFL (it’s the reverse), then St Louis is the city that can take a hit and stay on its feet. No matter what happens to the Rams situation the ‘Lou is going to be just fine.

      • John R.

        That’s a great post, Richard. I’d like to keep an NFL team, but folks like Joe Buck really do the region a disservice when they say we’ll be crippled without the NFL and be a frightening place. We’ll be just fine if the NFL jilts us… we’ll like hockey a little bit more and maybe watch more movies and hike and stuff, but we’ll still be a great city with the same challenges as before.

      • jhoff1257

        Seriously, thank you so much for saying this! I don’t want the Rams to leave but I am sick and tired of listening to all my friends and family that still live in St. Louis talk about the city like it’s on it’s last leg and if the Rams leave that’s the final nail in the casket. It’s bullshit. This wouldn’t be the first time the NFL has left this city and we got by just fine then.

        And compared to the hits this region and it’s image have taken over the last several years, if not decades, the Rams leaving is pretty damn minor.

  • STLady

    Well written and fair – a refreshing change for this hot button topic

  • Daniel S. Leritz

    Great article and summation of this very complicated issue. Regarding the new stadium’s ability to generate positive return on investment, we should also remember that the North Riverfront Stadium is being consciously designed for a Major League Soccer team to play there as well as the Rams and NFL Football. MLS has already stated that the Edward Jones Dome is not able to house MLS games because of its design restrictions (enclosed, field size, etc.). Should the new stadium be built, there is a strong potential for a MLS franchise to play there, increasing total revenues, and likely having the numbers make more sense. That said, no one has committed to a STL franchise, and I doubt anyone will emerge as a viable STL MSL franchisee until only after a deal is set for the North Riverfront Stadium’s development.

    • MRNHS

      Not to mention we would likely get more international games come through here. I went to the Real Madrid game here (at the dome) and there were people from all over the country that came to see them…people that packed the bars and hotels all over downtown. Busch Stadium has games and the dome was “okay” as a venue, but neither really work for soccer at its highest level. I would imagine the USMNT would play here in the new stadium (yes, I know they are playing at Busch, but it’s still not the best stadium for soccer). And it’s not too farfetched for World Cup games to be hosted there as well if/when it comes to the US.

      Also throw in the fact that we would presumably get more conventions here at the dome (since it would now be freed up), and you can quickly see how a new stadium is more than just “10 games a year” like some critics are quick to point out.

      • baopuANDu

        Unfortunately, the next two rounds of MLS expansion are spoken for. Off the top of my head I want to say the cities were Miami, San Antonio, and two others.

  • john

    I think it’s more than a bit deceptive to include the $160m in PSL money as “public funds”. It skews the numbers. It should read $610M Private $390m public.

    Otherwise, this is a fair write-up overall.

    • Alex Ihnen

      That’s a pretty good point, thanks. PSL’s certainly isn’t tax money to be sure. Perhaps I’ll edit to make that clear. In fact, it looks like PSLs were included on the private funds side of the ledger in other cases (49ers). I’ll see if I can make a quick change.

  • Michael B

    Excellent breakdown. Thank you for making it. I especially enjoyed seeing the old renderings for the Dome (TWA seems like a distant memory), and hearing the old pitch. We’ve certainly come a long way when it comes to renderings and marketing these days.

    Open question for anyone that might have an educated guess: If the Rams leave, who fills the stadium? Which teams might actually be uprooted and moved to STL, or would there be an expansion team?

  • RiverMoundGateway

    Good, fair writeup on the situation. Thanks, Alex.

    And this is coming from someone who absolutely wants this stadium built.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Appreciate that, thanks.