Ya Gotta Be a Player

Names change, but the games of the elite go on

Jan 30, 2002 at 4:00 am
For anybody flying over downtown during the NFC championship game on Sunday, there was this startling symbol of corporate anachronism: the giant "TWA" logo still emblazoned across the roof of the domed stadium. Even though the bankrupt locally based airline no longer exists -- its assets swallowed up by Fort Worth-based American Airlines -- its letters live on, a reminder of another St. Louis icon biting the dust.

Although a splashy announcement was made about local brokerage firm Edward Jones' takeover of the dome's naming rights, no one had scurried up on the roof before game time with cans of spray paint to scrawl the new corporate logo for all the blimps to see. During the Rams game, the Fox Sports crew did show John Bachmann, head honcho of the firm, and announcer Pat Summerall commented that maybe next year Bachmann would have better seats.

After the game, as Short Cuts accosted Bachmann in the Edward Jones suite, the low-profile "managing partner" insisted that he doesn't even sit there during the game, leaving that for his "associates" (i.e., employees) while he watches from his club-level seats, "up with the fans."

"That's where I belong," he says.

If any more proof is needed that the city's once-powerful home-based corporate hierarchy has been decimated -- or that Bachmann isn't Carl Icahn or Gussie Busch or Bill Laurie, consider his response to questioning about the recent string of bad-luck naming-rights deals. What about TWA's going belly-up, again, after getting its name on the convention-center dome? How about the Houston Astros' being stuck with Enron Field? And shortly after the Kiel Center became the Savvis Center, Savvis Communications' stock value plunged. None of this bothers Bachmann, who sees the trend as an opportunity, not a jinx.

"We're bottom-fishers -- we buy when others are selling," he says. "That's easy. We've done that for years."

Edward Jones will pay $2.65 million a year for the next 12 years in exchange for the signage and additional promotion. On the basis of the number of brokers, the firm is the nation's seventh-largest securities firm -- a size that still makes network advertising too expensive but naming rights to an NFL stadium a perfect fit.

Evident in the deal is that the few local big players who remain, such as Anheuser-Busch and Emerson Electric, weren't interested in the name game. A few years ago, Edward Jones would have been considered a second- or third-tier player, ranking behind Ralston Purina and other big names. But what a difference a few bankruptcies and mergers make.

With the "Football Jones Dome" naming rights resolved, the masters of mercantile and the political powermeisters at Sunday's game could turn their focus away from the glory of the Rams and affix it on the yearnings of the Cardinals for a new redbrick-retro stadium on the other side of downtown. The Rams' publicly financed dome, which will cost Missouri taxpayers $720 million over 30 years, must have Cardinal president Mark Lamping talking to himself within the crumbling infrastructure that is Busch Stadium: Somehow the carpetbagging Rams have robbed the bank while the Cardinals, 100-year residents of St. Louis, are having problems sticking up the corner liquor store.

But Rams owner Georgia Frontiere isn't the only one looking to get well through sports socialism. In an old river city with this much faded glory, local politicos view sports as a surmountable summit, one with high visibility, much buzz and a hard-to-prove downside. Sure, the Ford plant is closing, McDonnell Douglas and Ralston Purina have been bought out and TWA has gone bankrupt one last time, but how 'bout them Rams? With the Rams selling out every game and going to the Super Bowl twice in three years, no politician registering any vital signs will even hint that the deal that brought them here was a swindle.

Even though it was.

Surely no discouraging words were being heard on that topic in the Husch & Eppenberger suite, where Mayor Francis Slay and H&E lawyer Greg Smith were watching the Rams rally from a rare halftime deficit. The suite, like most of the 112 other luxury boxes made available to the well-heeled, features a couch, toilet, refrigerator, closed-circuit TV, catered food and several rows of seats facing the field. Through the third quarter, Smith and Slay stood, alternately watching the game live and on TV. Smith is the city's point man in the push for a new Cardinal ballpark. That Slay and Smith are shoulder to shoulder during sports and about sports is no surprise. As they double-teamed Short Cuts, they did everything but finish each other's sentences.

Smith should know the stadium drill by now. He was instrumental in the dome deal and joked Sunday that it was clear early in that process that his law firm had better shell out the bucks for a suite. As for the baseball stadium planned for the other side of downtown, Smith took a familiar beggars-can't-be-choosers approach.

"There's not a lot of people looking to put $300-plus million into downtown," Smith says.

True enough, but the last time Short Cuts looked, the Cardinal owners were kicking in $120 million and looking for public subsidies for the rest of the $370 million stadium.

Then there's Ballpark Village, the residential and commercial development proposed for just north of the stadium. The dome appears to have had no contagious economic effect on its neighborhood. If anything, the impending switch of part of Columbus Square on Cole Street to subsidized Section 8 housing suggests negative fallout. Smith says that, unlike the Cardinals deal, no "ancillary development" was planned for the dome.

Slay, drinking water as usual, stressed that the penalties are severe if the Cardinal owners don't build the adjoining Ballpark Village.

But the most startling revelation made by the mayor was not his dogmatic support of a new stadium for the Cardinals -- what did anyone expect? -- it was his admission that he has a "small allergy to beer." When he does have the occasional brew, he says, "it's an Anheuser-Busch product." Whew, at least he added that, but the mayor of St. Louis' saying he's allergic to beer is comparable to hearing the mayor of New Orleans assert that he's never sinned or the mayor of New York announce that he's never been rude. Unsettling.

Beer drinker or no, Slay knows politics, and he knows how to get the necessary stadium legislation through Jefferson City: "It can't just be about the Cardinals and St. Louis. Kansas City people are going to say, 'What's Kansas City got in this?'"

The Rams engaged in that type of horse-trading in the mid-'90s, including a side deal with Jerry Clinton, the head of Grey Eagle Distributors Inc., the Anheuser-Busch handler for St. Louis County, which represents about one-fifth of the state's population. Clinton was one of those trying to land a NFL expansion team for St. Louis, an effort that failed when the league picked Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., over St. Louis.

Clinton had a lease agreement for the then-empty dome but gave it up to the Rams in exchange for $8 million and a free suite. In the Clinton suite during Sunday's game was a mix of characters you wouldn't expect to see in the same room -- maybe even in the same ZIP code. Suitemates included Clinton, former Cardinal outfielder Ray Lankford, St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle and Nelly. Yes, Nelly, described once by St. Louis American columnist Delores Shante as looking "creamy and thugged out," was in the house. In a brief exchange with Short Cuts, Nelly said that he would be in New Orleans. Whew again.

After the game, Bachmann talked about the positive aspects of a local company's putting its name on the local dome. But he skirted a discussion of the economic justification of public subsidies for sports stadiums, pointing to the sizzle, not the steak.

"This is an incredible part of our community," he said. "When you have a great sports team, it lifts people's spirits; it gives them extra confidence and pride in their community. If you're going to be a big-league community, you have to have the team to represent it."

And if a city's "big league" classification begins to fade, sports teams and their high-dollar showcases are a good way to keep up appearances.