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SPORTS

SIDELINE
Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale

The London Rams: First Reactions
January 24, 2012            By Richard L Gale

On Thursday January 19, NFLUK announced 'breaking news' for the following day (not breaking news exactly, but certainly cracked and ready to hatch) … 'exciting' news, no less. The following day, all was revealed: a three-year deal to bring the St. Louis Rams to London. Okay, not exciting news exactly – in the history of NFL-in-the-UK announcements, the first American Bowl, the World League, and the first regular season game probably generated more of a frisson of expectation – but the UK's NFL fans will certainly be enthused by the chance to see, er … the Patriots.

In fairness, then, not the most exciting announcement, but certainly enigmatic. Within a few minutes, I had 40 reactive scribbles in my notebook. I'll restrain myself and share just a few of them.

Why the Rams?

Willingness. E. Stanley Kroenke, owner of the Rams, also owns Arsenal of the EPL, and has no fear of London. Many NFL franchises might consider a trip to London to be a desperate distraction from play-off aspirations, and an unthinkable slap-in-the-face to their home fans. However, play-off aspirations aren't the here-and-now of a team that went 2-14 this past season. Kroenke is a businessman: 82,000 guaranteed 'bums-on-seats' in London looks attractive next to a maximum of 62,000 tickets at the Edward Jones Dome. If the NFL wanted to find a team willing to forego a home game three seasons in a row, it likely wasn't the Packers or Cowboys.

That wasn't the official line, on 'why the Rams', of course. Asked that very question during Sky's coverage of the AFC Championship game, NFL UK's Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood said 'We're trying to get certainty in terms of our planning. We've got a commitment from the Rams to play three home games [and] we've got exclusivity in terms of the stadium with Wembley. It allows us to plan with confidence. We can work in the offseason with the Rams in terms of their players, their cheerleaders, the owners, etc., and really start to build this up and take it to another level.' …which doesn't really address the question, unless you take that as code for 'willingness'.

Is the NFL throwing down the gauntlet to UK fans?

The NFL is sending arguably its worst team (2-14, equal to the Manning-less Colts, and without a winning record any of the past eight years), and it will be sending them year on year on year. The Rams are not massively supported in this country, St Louis has practically no historical connection with London, and they'll be trying to sell tickets for this to a city that is gearing up to host the Olympics. Even their higher-profile opponents, the New England Patriots, will have visited only three years previously. Is this some sort of test?

Maybe the NFL is making a reality check on the viability of London's commitment to a resident – or at least partially resident – team. If a team makes a commitment to London (albeit fleeting), what sort of spike in merchandising does that create? If London ever had a genuine NFL team of its own, would UK fans adopt it over their existing and sometimes arbitrarily-chosen NFL associations? The NFL can't be unaware that they're setting themselves a harder sell than usual.

When I adopted the NFL generally as my sport, I granted myself allegiance to two teams rather than one: the Steelers as my AFC team, and the (L.A.) Rams as my NFC team. So, to some extent, I'm a Rams fan – more than most UK NFL fans, anyway. And even I didn't whoop with joy. Believe me, the NFL is going to have to work at this.

How was the news received in St Louis?

Not well. Nobody likes their season ticket to be worth one less game, even Rams ticket-holders, but a multi-year dalliance was received about as warmly as a draft post-nuptial arrangement. Some asked why 'American' football even needed to be exported to the rest of the world. (I might even agree if, in exchange, the Super Bowl winner would just stop claiming to be 'World Champions', drawing perennial snorts from other nations).

St Louis' conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs were out in force after the announcement, convincing themselves that the Rams are flirting with a permanent move to London, observing that the Rams' lease with the Edward Jones Dome runs out in 2015, the final year of the contract. More sensible voices quickly prevailed, suggesting that if the announcement was the harbinger of anything, it was more likely a return to NFL-starved Los Angeles than logistically-prohibitive London.

The Rams organization is pretty upfront in its ambitions that any future deal to stay in the Edward Jones Dome is more finance-friendly. Stan Kroenke may call the Wembley deal 'a great platform to showcase the city of St Louis', but playing a game in London tends to showcase London.

Rams Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff was painfully honest when, during an NFL chat following the London announcement, he said: 'We do realize we are getting killed today, and that's OK. If we have to trade a week of bad press for more opportunity for a long-term agreement in St Louis, that's an easy trade for us to make.' Sounds a lot like blackmail to me. If it turns out that London is just the named third party in an eventual divorce, it doesn't mean the Rams are moving in with us.

By the way, I loved Jeff Fisher saying the Rams moving to another city 'was not a concern' going into negotiations about filling their coaching vacancy. That's been accepted by some as a sign that he doesn't think it's likely to happen. Yet, isn't this the same Jeff Fisher who successfully navigated the Houston Oilers during their transformation into the Tennessee Titans? When he says he's not concerned, maybe he just means a move is something he's dealt with before.

Reasons to be cheerful

And yet, I think this deal can be very interesting for NFL fans in the UK. What we are going to witness, I have no doubt, is a team going from dismal to competitive. There are patches of talent on the roster, Sam Bradford may yet prove to be a franchise passer, and they have the second pick in the upcoming draft. In Jeff Fisher they have, if not a great coach, at least a real solid coach who knows how to prepare a team to play week-in, week-out.

At first, the Rams may look as inept in London as the Buccaneers have, and their opponents will probably attract more of a 'home team' level of support. Don't be surprised if, by year three, they're favorites with the bookmakers and the Wembley crowd.

And then, sadly, they'll be gone. Whether the Rams sign up to a new lease in St Louis or head to the West Coast (to Los Angeles or, by then, perhaps San Diego), any new deal will surely include a new prenup that ensures no more dancing with a European mistress.


UPDATE: According to Associated Press, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission reckons the Rams' Wembley deal violates their stadium lease, which demands that the Rams play all home games at the Edward Jones Dome. I doubt this'll put a kink in the plan for three games in London, but I suspect some form of litigation may enter the conversation.

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