Welcome To Cutthroat Island??

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: April 21, 2010

ST. LOUIS – I know big business is supposed to be a rough-and-tumble contact sport, but wow, does it have to be like this? Every day as the Rams’ sale process moves along — and as the mysterious billionaire Stan Kroenke continues to drop people’s jaws and raise their blood pressure with one strategic move after another — my mind races to guess what sort of end game might lie ahead. If Kroenke continues to prove to be this unpredictable (did someone say “diabolical?”) as a potential buyer, how nervous should that make us if he actually ends up assuming full control of St. Louis’ NFL franchise? As far as I can tell, what we have learned about Kroenke is that every move he makes is straight out of a Machiavellian playbook. From his cunning 11th hour maneuver to gain complete financial control of the franchise, to this latest reported strategy to seek an eight-figure “compensation” from would-be buyer Shahid Khan to step out of the buying process, his actions reek of cold-blooded duplicity. According to the Sports Business Journal, it turns out Kroenke may not want to buy the Rams. He just wants to maximize the value of his existing 40 percent share of the team by gumming up Khan’s attempt to buy the team. On Wall Street, there’s a not-so-polite term for such tactics: “greenmail.” But in St. Louis, the word “blackmail” would work just as well, because what else would you call it when someone basically tells you to just pay him to stop being a nuisance? Every maneuver the minority owner makes feels more duplicitous than the next.

I know he’s not doing anything his original purchase agreement doesn’t allow. But the more you see how cutthroat Kroenke’s business strategies are, the more urgent it seems to me that Khan ultimately finds the economic wherewithal and additional investors to make Kroenke go away. I have no idea what sort of owner Khan might become. But I do know that he has St. Louis’ best interests at heart. He wants to keep the Rams in St. Louis and would not turn the tenuous lease situation into a devilish ploy at the negotiating table. No matter how contentious those negotiations end up as the city tries to find a creative way to satisfy the Rams’ lease — and drastically improve the amenities at the Edward Jones Dome — Khan’s goal is to keep the team in St. Louis. No one can assume what Kroenke’s ultimate goal is except that it will end up benefiting Kroenke. He has shown in the short span of a few weeks that he will use any ruthless strategy to maximize his bottom line. If you don’t think that means using our city’s economic weakness as a way of doing a double-turn back to Los Angeles, you’re sadly underestimating Kroenke’s ability in the art of the (double) deal. Kroenke has already clearly and dramatically demonstrated that he cares about two things — himself and his money. Everything else is negotiable. I’ll give Kroenke credit for this: In a severely depressed economy, he is finding a way to “maximize” the value of his share of an NFL franchise. He has played this thing out with ruthless skill. He has leveraged everything at his disposal, and now he’s just sitting back and waiting to see if, or when, Khan will blink. Everything about Kroenke’s past indicates he isn’t afraid to do the unpopular thing if it makes him more money. Is this the guy St. Louis wants owning controlling interest in its NFL franchise? I have now seen more than enough to know that I don’t trust him as far as I can fling a penny off the thumb of a boxing glove. So now what it all comes down to is this: Are there any other local businessmen and local politicians, who care as much as Shahid Khan does about keeping St. Louis an NFL city indefinitely? If Khan is shopping for additional investors, this should not be that difficult a process. I would suspect that investors would line up for the privilege. It might be distasteful to buckle under to Kroenke’s demands, but consider the alternatives. And just as soon as Khan and his new investors do get their stuff together, the people who wind up in control of the negotiations that could reshape the sorry stadium lease need to get their act together. For a change, wouldn’t it be nice if these folks stopped doing what too often our local pols have been famous for — reacting to a crisis way too late rather than being proactive to prevent another major asset of the community from bolting far, far away?