On Selling the NFL to St. Louis (again)

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