Sunday at approximately 6 p.m. EST, those St. Louis Rams fans not quite lucky enough to score tickets and hotel reservations for Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta will sit down in their living rooms to watch the world's biggest television event. They'll root on their local gridiron warriors by waving team pennants and wearing caps and T-shirts all bearing printer's ink so fresh they still possess the sports-merchandising equivalent of new-car smell.
About 300 miles to the east in Nashville, passionate followers of the Tennessee Titans will be acting out a similar ritual, expressing their civic pride by painting their faces in team colors that just 13 months ago had yet to be decided upon by the NFL's marketing consultants.
Those 130 million or so of us who tune in to the game and don't hail from either of these cities -- die-hard football nuts, frustrated viewers of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with nothing else to do for the evening, advertising junkies hungry for the latest dazzling commercials and those just curious to see who'll win the Bud Bowl -- will have to quickly resolve the dilemma of which squad to cheer for. Will it be the team that abandoned its city in 1995? Or the team that abandoned its city in 1997?
This Sunday is more than just the most important day on the TV advertising calendar -- slots for 30-second commercial spots, as you've no doubt heard countless times this week, cost their companies between $2.2 million and $3 million a pop to air. Sunday's contest marks a landmark moment in pro football history.
The game that the NFL is trumpeting as "Super Bowl 2000," the first Super Bowl of the new millennium, is indeed the coronation of a new era: All hail the first champion from the Age of Franchise Free Agency! With both teams involved having shuffled from city to city, much like many of the players themselves, the winner is guaranteed to have made a loser out of its abandoned fan base just a few short years before. One could even call the game the Carpetbagger Bowl.
Two years ago, the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl clothed in brand new uniforms. This year Tennessee boasts not only new apparel, but a new team name as well. The rich tradition of Tennessee Titans football dates all the way back to Dec. 22, 1998, when the Tennessee Oilers -- themselves only two years removed from being the Houston Oilers -- rechristened themselves and unveiled a helmet logo featuring a ball of fire surrounding a dagger-shaped "T." What better insignia to portray how owner Bud Adams stabbed the city of Houston in the back and forced 37 years of football memories to go up in flames? On the opposing sideline, the Rams were brought to town from Los Angeles by Georgia Frontiere to replace the Cardinals. Those birds had departed for Arizona in 1988, under owner Bill Bidwill's guidance, without ever having provided the fans of the Gateway City with a home playoff game in all the years since they arrived in St.
Louis in 1960. If ever two teams deserved each other, it's these clubs.
When people discuss free agency, they tend to think of greedy players. But while the credo of "me first" often seems to prevail among the athletes on the field, it's up in the owner's box that avarice truly reigns supreme. In recent years, wealthy team owners have made a predictable routine of holding the loyalty of their communities hostage, playing the politics of stadium hardball by extorting tax abatements and rent-free leases to build their privately owned stadiums with public funds, almost always at the expense of local schools and other government services.
In virtually every case where an owner sought a new ballfield, the grim specter of his team being "forced" to seek greener pastures elsewhere has inevitably been raised, ultimately calling into question exactly what constitutes the "home team" that we root, root, root for. Who does a team really belong to, the people in the stands or the person who collects the money from the people in the stands? If citizens have to bail out their local sports teams by shouldering the load in tax hikes, then why don't those payments count as shares of ownership?
As sports has become big business, sports franchises have embraced the ethos of corporate culture, right down to the bigger-is-better philosophy that lurks behind the current merger mania. It's not just players' salaries that are being belted out of the park. Whether it's the TV deals that the leagues cut with networks or the price tags that new owners pay to acquire franchises, the financial numbers run less MVP than GNP. Management in some cities proclaims poverty because of "small market" status, while coffers are lined via concession stand profits, luxury skyboxes, personal seat licenses and soaring ticket prices.
Sportswriters like to paint their romantic attachments to their favorite teams in terms of a tradition-steeped legacy passed down from fathers to sons (and daughters too) over generations. But the sad truth is that "our gang" can be wrested away from us at any time. Not only will our heroes hold out for more money, demand to be traded and finally bolt town without regard for the feelings of the local folks, their bosses will too. It's a dysfunctional and downright abusive relationship. If you truly love us, say the owners, then you'll shell out what we demand. Otherwise, you'll never see your loved ones again. Repeating this betrayal time and time again, the owners never seem to "play" by "the rules."
Franchise relocation used to be just a staple of a fledging league, part of the birthing struggles of a new business venture in the throes of maintaining financial solvency. This was true of turn-of-the-century baseball, 1930s football and hockey and 1950s basketball. Major demographic shifts in population, such as the westward boom in the years after World War II, also contributed to trends toward franchise movement and its less painful cousin, expansion. (That's not to say that expansion doesn't come without its own set of perils: dilution of the level of talent and the quality of competition, a paucity of viable team nicknames and the proliferation of increasingly foolish-looking fuzzy mascots.)
In the current high-stakes era of sports, however, all bets are off. The only guiding principle is money, money, money, money: money. The teams we spend our time and disposable income screaming our lungs out at, develop schoolboy crushes on and have our hearts ultimately broken by are in the end nothing more than a millionaire's (or, in some cases, a corporation's) private plaything.
Perhaps the departure of the Rams from California and their sudden ascendance in Missouri is some sort of karmic revenge on Los Angeles. The City of Angels not only purloined the Dodgers from Brooklyn in 1958 and the Lakers from Minneapolis in 1960, but nabbed these very same Rams from Cleveland in 1946. (Then again, maybe the real comeuppance to L.A.'s acquisitive ways has come from the NBA Clippers, who arrived in town in 1984 and will likely never find someone foolish enough to take them off L.A.'s hands.)
Perhaps it's equally fitting that the Rams' destination of choice was St. Louis, which holds, at least in sheer numbers, the dubious title of the most abandoned professional sports city in America. Not only did the town lose its football Cardinals, it also lost its baseball Browns (to Baltimore in 1954 to become the Orioles), its NBA Hawks (to Atlanta in 1968), its original NHL franchise, the Eagles (which folded in 1935), and its American Basketball Association Spirit (which went belly up along with rest of the ABA in 1976). Then again, St. Louis had acquired all of those same clubs from elsewhere: the football Cardinals from Chicago in 1960, the Browns from Milwaukee in 1902, the Hawks from Milwaukee in 1955, the Eagles from Ottawa in 1934 and the Spirit from Carolina in 1974. What goes around comes around.
It could be said that the relocations of the Rams and Oilers don't quite rival the most infamous of recent NFL resettlements -- the armada of Indianapolis-bound Mayflower moving trucks that the Irsay family sprung on fans of the Baltimore Colts in 1984 under cover of darkness and its resulting chain reaction -- the sweetheart stadium deal that Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell cut that transformed one of the NFL's legendary franchises into the bruise-colored bunch known today as the Baltimore Ravens. They do, however, certainly embody the brand of corporate welfare that has become today's standard operating procedure. The Titans' spanking new Adelphia Stadium cost $292 million, all on the public tab. The Rams' Trans World Dome was a comparatively cheap $280 million, but that's only because it was built a few years earlier, as a way to seduce a new team to set up shop on the banks of the Mississippi. It's a sort of late-capitalist twist on the old Babylonian eye-for-an-eye: They stole our team, so we'll steal yours.
Thanks to the wonders of expansion, there's no need to overly grieve for the spurned people of Houston and L.A. After businessman Bob McNair ponied up $700 million to the NFL last October, Texas's largest city will now get its own new franchise in 2002. And thanks to the way the NFL has jerry-built its arcane system of payroll exceptions (referred to less than affectionately as "the salary cap") to benefit start-up outfits, the Houston team should be competing to make its own championship game appearance sooner than, say, New Orleans, Cincinnati or Detroit. Meanwhile, it's only a matter of time before one or another of the Tinseltown players competing for the right to bring the NFL back to the nation's second-largest TV market (this year's bidding war included a potential ownership group helmed by Hollywood honcho Mike Ovitz) scores enough ratings points to sway league officials to expand again. Failing that, of course, there's always more big game out there to poach.
So if you can't cry for Houston or Los Angeles, shed a tear instead for those municipalities that aren't blessed with superagents and supermillionaires to restore their wounded civic pride. Consider, if you will, the shattered psyche of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which lost its beloved Jets in 1996 to the hockey mecca of Phoenix. Like the Vietnamese women in Nike factories who stitch together shoes they won't ever be able to afford, this snowy prairie town will continue producing big league players that it will never again have the chance to see play in the big leagues. Canada is a nation defeated by the quality of its own greatest export, deforesting its own natural resources so that its conqueror can grow strong and prosper.
So ingrained is hockey in the Canadian culture that this dire situation has led those in power to consider drastic measures. Last week, in that charming way the Canadian government has of getting itself involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities it doesn't know much about -- health care, broadcasting, film production -- the federal Cabinet proposed a plan to contribute payouts of $2 million in annual subsidies to each of the nation' s six NHL teams to keep them from fleeing south of the border. The resulting hue and cry from the populace (one taxpayer group urged outraged citizens to mail hockey pucks to Prime Minister Jean Chretien until he was sufficiently vulcanized) led the politicians in Ottawa to quickly scrap the plan. With farmers in western Canada suffering from a financial crisis, there was little sympathy for bailing out millionaires, be they of the check-delivering or check-signing variety.
Such a public furor clearly surprised the politicians, since similar bailout schemes almost always seem to work over here on our side of the 48th Parallel. All joking aside, without such types of intervention, it's feared that the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames (who plied their trade in Atlanta prior to 1980) and even the capital's own Ottawa Senators could soon flee the Great White North in search of the strong American dollar. The insatiable hunger to see strapping Canadian youths mixing it up on the rinks of Las Vegas, Portland and, sigh, even Houston apparently cannot be appeased for much longer.
Cities who have lost their sports franchises are never quite whole again, in either image or self-esteem. Having tasted of the forbidden fruit offered by a stretch in the Show, it's a bitter comedown to have to reconcile themselves to permanent status as a minor league town.
For over 40 years now, Brooklyn has been the capital of Nowhere, ever since Walter O'Malley packed up Dem Bums for the shiny klieg lights of Hollywood. Ebbets Field is now a housing project, Jackie Robinson a highway. But the borough that only the dead know is far from alone in its grief. Witness the unspeakable horror visited upon Decatur, Ill., and Akron and Portsmouth, Ohio, after they lost their NFL teams -- yes, they all once had NFL teams. And of course, there's always the fate of Sheboygan, Wis., which once boasted its very own NBA franchise. Can it now boast of anything at all?
With the potential for so much long-term emotional damage, franchise free agency is a cause practically begging for attention from the likes of, say, Jesse Jackson. But this Sunday he'll instead be focusing his sports-lobbying energies on protesting the Georgia state flag (which includes a representation of the Confederate battle flag) -- an action that comes just three weeks after Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition wrote the management of the Green Bay Packers to question the reasons behind African-American coach Ray Rhodes' dismissal just a year into a four-year contract.
The absence of head-coaching and general-managing opportunities afforded African-American candidates is certainly an issue worthy of time and attention. But surely there ought to be some consideration for the discrimination faced by the people of Syracuse, N.Y., at the hands of their fellow former brothers in the NBA? (Regardless of his success or lack of it in Sunday's demonstrations, the possible ramifications of Jackson's entry into the world of sports are rich indeed. Might he use his diplomatic abilities to intercede and negotiate Bill Parcells' return to coach the New York Jets? Lead the struggle to restore the competitive equality of the Chicago Cubs? Finally gain reparations for Brooklyn Dodgers fans?)
Someone clearly needs to step in and do something, because this ruthless rootlessness shows no sign of decreasing. Just last week, Bill and Nancy Laurie, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, called off their $200 million bid to purchase the Vancouver Grizzlies (NBA expansion class of '95) and move them to, um, St. Louis.
None of this discussion is meant to diminish what Sunday's combatants have managed to accomplish. Certainly this year's Rams have written a remarkable script. The team racked up more losses throughout the '90s than any other squad, then suddenly reversed field to play for the league title.
Then there's the resurrection of '70s-era coach Dick Vermeil, and the unprecedented out-of-nowhere success of Kurt Warner, the backup quarterback- cum-supermarket checkout bagger-cum-Arena Football and NFL Europe scrub. Warner came off the bench in the wake of starter Trent Green's devastating knee injury to have an MVP season and throw more touchdowns in a single year than any other passer in NFL history except Dan Marino.
Likewise, the Titans have their share of
stunning subplots, including rookie defensive lineman Jevon Kearse's Lawrence Taylor-like pass-rushing dominance, to say nothing of the Titans' wild-card road trip through the playoffs and the miraculous last-second victory over Buffalo (to be known forever along theshores of Lake Erie as the Blasphemous Reception).
But the saga of both teams' nomadic odysseys across the athletic landscape may be the most instructive parable of all, reminding us of the reality of modern professional sports: Behind every Cinderella story is a Great Pumpkin, purring quietly like a Mayflower moving truck in neutral as it waits for the bells of midnight to chime.