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St. Louis `Sweetheart Deal': What Price for Football?

The city is giddy, but some critics ponder the cost of luring the Rams

IN the end, St. Louis had to give away all but its famous Arch. But for local football fans, a deal to move the Los Angeles Rams to the Gateway City is as sweet as winning the Super Bowl.

Now they must prove that this is truly a football town.

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St. Louis lost its football Cardinals to Phoenix in 1987 and suffered two failed bids for teams during the 1993 expansion race. After months of roller-coaster negotiations, the Rams deal averts the possibility that the city's $260 million domed stadium, now under construction downtown, will sit empty once it is completed this fall.

Yet the agreement required concessions that could give the Rams franchise an annual profit of $20 million, making it the most profitable franchise in the NFL.

In what critics label a ``sweetheart deal,'' the Rams will get the new stadium for a mere $250,000 annual lease. The team has also been promised a $15-million practice facility, $15 million more in moving expenses, and payment of $30 million in stadium-improvement debts owed to Anaheim, Calif., the team's current home.

Some St. Louisans are appalled at the city's generosity. ``The Rams are getting all the revenue, and taxpayers are picking up all of the cost,'' complains Tom Sullivan, head of the Campaign for Better Government in St. Louis.

But many city supporters are willing to pay the price for a pro team. ``We all think St. Louis is better off with football for all of the intangibles: emotional, prestige, pride,'' says Frank Viverito of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. ``All of those are going to make this a winner.''

Despite the giddiness that has taken over St. Louis this week, there are several more yards to run for the ultimate touchdown in this high-stakes game.

At least 23 of 30 National Football League owners must approve the move at a meeting called for mid-February. A local ``Save the Rams'' group in Orange County, Calif., is petitioning the NFL to turn down the deal. But it is still likely to get the owners' approval.

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Meanwhile, St. Louisans must prove that their enthusiasm for football extends into their pocketbooks. ``We are obliged to show that we are a football town,'' says former Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who played a major role in negotiating the Rams deal. ``It's put up or shut up time.''

Fans must purchase at least 40,000 permanent-seat licenses in less than two months or the Rams have the option of staying in California.

Permanent-seat licenses are a one-time fee, ranging from $250 to $4,500, for the right to shell out another $200 to $350 for season tickets.

``The game is in the hands of tens of thousands of football fans in the St. Louis area,'' Mr. Eagleton says.

Nevermind that the Rams haven't had a winning season since 1989. In 1994, the Rams were 4-12, and they recently fired their coach, Chuck Knox. But Rams owner Georgia Frontiere is promising a new start. ``I don't think I've been this happy since the last game we won,'' she confesses. ``They always say money is a means to an end. This time, money is a means to a beginning.''

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