GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK

a return to reality after the decadence and delirium of Atlanta

So Georgia and Bud got to the Big Show and Georgia walked off with the trophy named for the legendary Vince Lombardi. And the hearts of fans, taxpayers and public officials in other NFL cities may be beating a little faster -- and it has nothing to do with Mike Jones' last-second tackle of Kevin Dyson on the 1-yard line. They know they might be next.

One big trade conference

All sorts of variables have to be survived for a team to make it down to the championship game, so it's a mistake to read too much into the Carpetbagger Bowl. Let's face it -- Big Red owner Bill Bidwill is still doomed to life outside the winner's circle. Incompetence does have its limits. Yet it's more than mere coincidence that the two owners who most recently moved their teams ended up the last two teams playing; it speaks to the advantages Adams and Frontiere gained by escaping to greener pastures.

Charlton Heston
D.J. Wilson
Charlton Heston
Kurt Warner
D.J. Wilson
Kurt Warner

Once the Rams and Titans made it to the Super-de-dooper Bowl, the little people who put them there by watching them on television, or buying PSLs so they could then have the privilege of buying tickets, were largely left behind. Randy Karraker of KMOX (1120 AM), the hardest-working man in the local sports-radio business, was in Atlanta covering his eighth Super Bowl.

"This really isn't a fan event," said Karraker on Sunday afternoon after winding up his last call-in session of the week. "This is a corporate event. Tickets are 325 bucks. You have $500-a-plate dinners and parties and stuff. It's not for the $250 PSL-holders. People have to spend a hell of a lot of money to come down here to the Super Bowl."

Any random sampling of Rams fans wandering the streets in downtown Atlanta revealed as much. Some had finagled free tickets through corporate connections, but most had paid much more than face value -- in one case $800, in another $1,000 -- just to get into the Georgia Dome to see their "home" team. That type of spending was small potatoes compared with the $24 million a year the state, St. Louis County and St. Louis city pay on the Trans World Dome's mortgage.

Yes, it was the "St. Louis" Rams in the game against the "Tennessee" Titans, but anyone who's not an amnesiac knows these two teams are bands of mercenary vagabonds who happen to be playing where they are playing simply because the owners were not being paid enough to stay where they previously played. Sports is yet another example of the nomadic nature of commerce, another reminder of impermanence and transient reality that's fueled by business mergers, moves and buyouts. Even Super Bowl week was tarnished for Atlanta's civic boosters when Coca-Cola announced on Wednesday that about half of the city's 6,000 Coke workers eventually would be fired. The real thing was turning out not to be pretty.

This year, the most overcovered event in sports, the championship game of the National Football League, was Exhibit A of this continued harsh venality. Sports has always been a business, but in the past it had maintained an image that it was also, or more so, a game, an illusion, theater. Sure, tickets were sold and players were paid, but for decades that seemed to be in the background. No more. Now, not only were teams for sale to the highest-bidding city, but this Super Bowl might be proof that teams that went to the highest bidders also ended up doing well, both at the bank and on the playing field. It was a troubling message that NFL commissioner Tagliabue tried to downplay all week.

The game and this event have grown exponentially from the first matchup, in 1967, when historic, grizzled Green Bay, led by high-school chemistry teacher-turned-coach Vince Lombardi, dominated the Kansas City Chiefs from the rival American Football League. On Friday of this Super Bowl week, as Dick Schaap walked through the lobby of the downtown Hyatt Regency, the veteran sportswriter and analyst waxed nostalgic about the past and spoke with a little distance about the present:

"What is interesting to me is that you have two teams in the Super Bowl who have no real fans. They have no fans who have been passed down, generation to generation. There is nobody who is a Titans fan, or a Rams fan in St. Louis, who said, "My father cheered for them, and 20 years from now my child will cheer for them.' You can't say that, because 20 years from now you don't know what city they're going to be in. So what you've got is people who have been fans of these teams for 12 months, at the most."

Yeah, sure -- the Rams have been in town for all of five years, but no one can say with a straight face that the community paid any real attention to them until they went from 4-12 last year to 15-3 this year. Winning breeds hangers-on; losing is lonely. The gray-haired Schaap, wearing a button-down denim shirt and drinking a free bottle of Miller Genuine Draft he got downstairs in the media lounge, wasn't whining about how sports had been ruined; he was just making the observation that the stakes of the poker game had gone up and, as they had, the dynamics had changed. That much was obvious as he stood amid the swirling crowd in the media headquarters hotel for the 3,500 journalists in town to cover the obvious. Whether it was Disney-owned ESPN or the Georgia Frontiere-owned Rams or the Bud Adams-owned Titans, as Randy Newman sang years ago, it's money that matters.

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