Whom to root for at the Super Bowl is usually an easy decision. It is [insert your favorite team here] or whoever is playing against the New England Patriots. Whether it’s our jealousy, their smugness, or the malodorous worst-of-Massachusetts vibe their fan base exudes, there are few pleasures more delicious in sports than seeing them lose a heartbreaker, like last year’s defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. There is also no pain more acute than when they can pull one of these damn games out like the proverbial rabbit out of a hat. That has happened several times over their last two decades of dominance, most acutely when they somehow—and I’m still not sure how—came back from a 28-3 deficit in 2017 to beat the Atlanta Falcons.
Yet this year it is tougher than most to find a team to cheer for, because the Patriots are playing the Los Angeles Rams, owned by multibillionaire Stan Kroenke. Also the owner of the Arsenal football club, much to their fans’ chagrin, Kroenke made his money the old fashioned way: by marrying it. His wife is Ann Walton Kroenke, the niece of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
But it’s not the Walmart fortune that makes the Walton-Kroenkes so impossible to cheer. The Rams, as recently as three years ago, were located in Kroenke’s home state of Missouri. But there was no sentimentality on Kroenke’s part to keep the team in St. Louis. Instead, he is in that select group of pro-sports owners—the worst of the worst—who moved their team because they weren’t getting enough corporate welfare from their cash-strapped cities. (Five hundred million in city money was not enough for the multibillionaire. Kroenke said in response to that offer that he “couldn’t sit there and be a victim.”)
The Rams, originally founded in Cleveland, were based in Los Angeles from 1946–94, but from 1995–2015, they found a loving home in St. Louis, going to two Super Bowls and winning one. The divorce from St. Louis and move to glitzier, flashier LA was anything but pretty. Kroenke stuck St. Louis with a $129 million tax bill for what was still owed on the old stadium, and will need to be paid out of the public coffers until 2021. Then the city of St. Louis sued the National Football League and all 32 owners over the relocation. They argued that Kroenke always planned to move the team to Los Angeles and did not engage in good-faith dealings with the city. As they wrote in the lawsuit, “In the years leading up to the Rams’ relocation request, Rams officials decided to move the team and confidentially determined that they would be interested in exploiting any opportunity to do so.”
And as the local St. Louis press reminds us, that is only one of four lawsuits filed against Kroenke and the NFL. At the start of the 2018 season, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlined the other three legal cases:
• One lawsuit involves future ownership of the Rams’ former practice facility in Earth City, known for years as Rams Park.
• A second involves fans who bought tickets and team merchandise in the final years of the Rams’ time in St. Louis.
• A third is a class-action suit on behalf of thousands of PSL (personal seat license) holders from the team’s 21-season stay in St. Louis.
Now they are located in LA, and in 2020, will be opening the doors on a dream project as big as Los Angeles: a $4.3 billion stadium/mega-complex intended to be a kind of Shangri-La for the NFL fan. The deal was originally set to involve no public money whatsoever. Yet as the Los Angeles Times reported, the truth is “not that simple.” When it comes to stadium deals, it rarely is. In looking at the fine print of the deal, it was determined that tax breaks could reach $100 million.
This $100 million giveback is happening at the same time as teachers in Los Angeles have gone on strike to win the very basics for funding public education.
“We’ve been fighting for more support staff—more counselors, more social workers—and 100 million dollars for us would mean an additional support staff person for every school in the city,” said Gillian Russom, high-school teacher and member of the UTLA board of directors. “Corporate-tax breaks are the reason why so many schools are underfunded here, so it’s also a slap in the face to have such a big tax exemption right now when we are trying to reduce the number of corporate givebacks in order to help our schools.”
Kroenke is so loathsome that it raises a difficult question about whom to root for in this year’s big game. It’s like the Dick Cheney–John Edwards vice-presidential debates of 2004: one crusty foe up against an opponent new and shiny, yet both repellent beneath the surface. This might be the year to root for some entertaining commercials, or, heaven forfend, doing something else. I’ll end up watching the game, because if nothing else, whoever loses, the schadenfreude will be delicious.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ann Walton Kroenke was the daughter of Sam Walton. She is the daughter of Bud Walton, the brother of Walmart founder Sam Walton. It also stated that the Rams were founded in Los Angeles and that Kroenke was from St. Louis. The Rams were founded in Cleveland and Kroenke was born in Columbia. Missouri. The errors have been corrected.