Jake’s Take: The Rebuilding of St. Louis’ Sports Culture


Before beginning this article, I feel that it is important to note that this is my 100th published piece at Francis Howell North. From the North Star newspaper to FHNtodayTV to FHNtoday.com to FHNtodayLive, I have loved every second writing, announcing and learning inside of the FHN student publications staff, and I am so grateful that I have been able to spend the past three years inside of Room 026 with all of the great people that have become a second family for me. Thank you for reading, and I hope that you enjoy.

 

Busch Stadium on April 19, 2014 (photo from shutterstock.com)

Busch Stadium on April 19, 2014 (photo from shutterstock.com)

Since the decisive day of October 13, 2015, the city of St. Louis has been in an athletic tumult. It was on that fateful day that the St. Louis Cardinals fell to the Chicago Cubs in the 2015 National League Division Series. It was following that fateful day that St. Louis fans had to face the reality that the Rams were on their way out of the door. It was following that fateful day that St. Louis fans had to put all of their eggs into the basket of the continuously-disappointing St. Louis Blues, whose season had just begun. More than five months have passed since that mid-October day, but the effects remain. St. Louis is in trouble, and it’s going to take a concerted city-wide effort–with a little bit of luck–to return the River City to its rightful place as one of the great sports cities in this great nation.

The Problem

It is impossible to pinpoint the singular cause of the perceived crumbling of St. Louis as a sports town because there were so many stepping stone events that have led up to this feeling of despair. It would also not be difficult to say that St. Louis’ demise began when the Blues lost in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or when the Blues lost in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, or when the Blues lost… you get the point. But the real catalyst was the hiring of Jeff Fisher by the Rams in January of 2012.

Sure, Fisher led the Tennessee Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV (a game in which his Titans fell to the Rams), but that was with a very capable QB duo of Steve McNair and Neil O’Donnell and Eddie George rushing for 1,304 yards, not to mention an above-average defense that excelled in forcing turnovers and playing with a lead. That is the extent of Fisher’s success. He had a good team in 1999, but his teams have only finished the regular season with more wins than losses five times in the 15 seasons he has coached since then (Fisher did not coach in the 2011 season), and the Rams have not reached a .500 record in any of Fisher’s four seasons in St. Louis.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Now, Jeff Fisher might not be the best coach, but there’s no way that one man could cause an entire city’s sports infrastructure to crumble, could there be?” And you’d be right to ask that question. Fisher’s hiring in and of itself had very little effect on St. Louis’ sports culture on the whole. It did provide an excellent vehicle in which a middling Rams team could stay middling, giving Stan Kroenke ample reason to leave St. Louis, leading fans to count on the likes of the Blues for success.

But woe are the Blues- by far the most aptly named franchise in the National Hockey League. Since the of the 2012-13 postseason, the Blues hold a paltry 6-12 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the team has not advanced past the first round since the 2011-12 season. That’s nothing against the team; they are simply reduced to an ineffective band of ice skaters once the regular season ends.

Through all of the last century, there has been but one point of consistency in St. Louis: the Cardinals. Until now, that is. As I mentioned in the introduction, the Cardinals lost to the Chicago Cubs in the 2015 NLDS. The perpetually rebuilding Cubs have not won a World Series since the year 1908, 108 years ago. Yes, the Theo Epstein’s organization has been masterful in the draft. And yes, the Cubs are a young team that has developed into a scarily powerful offensive force, but it is undoubtedly a huge blow to the pride of the Cardinals to lose to their biggest rival and a team that they have dominated in every era since the 1940’s.

All told, it’s easy to feel like the St. Louis sports world is crashing and burning right before our eyes, but that’s not the whole story, and the remaining St. Louis teams still have a few chapters to write.

The Professional Solution

If you live in or around the St. Louis area, I’m sure you’ve noticed the massive increase of apparel that display the classic Cardinals’ bird on the bat inside of the Blues’ instantly recognizable flying blue note. This is an appealing logo mashup and a great way for the two franchises to make money, but it represents so much more than that. The Cardinals and Blues have banded together as the remaining powerhouse professional sports franchises in St. Louis, and they are proud of their city. The remarks made by Stan Kroenke in his proposal to leave St. Louis for Los Angeles were personal, derogatory and, above all, uncalled for.

The St. Louis region is losing population and lags in economic drivers to such a degree that it cannot support three professional sports teams

 

-stltoday.com, “Kroenke blasts St. Louis in NFL relocation proposal” by David Hunn

Kroenke put a mediocre product on display for St. Louis fans, and he expected them to spend their hard-earned money to support a team that consistently loses and disappoints its fans. Now, I’m not very close to any of the major sports franchises in St. Louis, so I reached a little closer to the professional sports scene in the Lou to Ben Frederickson, an online sports columnist for stltoday.com, the website affiliated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He and I spoke this past Tuesday about nearly all things sporting in St. Louis, and he had the following to say of the combined effort by the Cardinals and Blues to return the pride to their deflated city:

“It’s a reaction to the way the Rams left, and it’s a cool reaction. They’re proud of their city. The owners are upset just like the fans with the way St. Louis way portrayed. They’re thinking, ‘We’re St. Louis, and we’re still here. If you don’t want us, we’ll support ourselves.”

He continued, “The hard part about what Kroenke said was that some of it was true. Some of the socioeconomic factors make it harder for the NFL in St. Louis. There’s the lack of big-money investors, the small inner city area, etc. It shed light on those things, and it’s brought St. Louis together. Hopefully, it will pull people together more that it tears them apart.”

It’s not just the fans who are feeling the pain of Kroenke’s negative comments; people like Bill DeWitt Jr. and Tom Stillman are proud St. Louisans too, and they are making it very clear that they love the River City just as much as every one of their fans. The two franchises have teamed up to make more than just some neat sweatshirts as well. The 2017 NHL Winter Classic will be held in Busch Stadium with the Blues hosting the rival Chicago Blackhawks. It is this kind of combined effort that St. Louis needs from its premier franchises to bring the city together.
I write this as I proudly wear my Cardinals slippers with the Blues gamecast on my phone and my Jim Edmonds and Scottie Upshall bobbleheads looking down on me. It’s clear that the established powers are doing their parts to unify St. Louis, but there are other sporting teams and opportunities for fans throughout the city that now have a great opportunity to earn themselves a slice of the fanatic pie.

The Fan Reaction

The Cardinals and Blues aren’t the only sports teams in St. Louis. As of the spring of 2015, St. Louis is home to St. Louis Football Club of the Division III United Soccer League. STL FC’s inaugural season went as well as most first seasons of expansion teams go. The club finished 8-11-9, a mediocre start, but a promising one that can be built on. The 2016 season began March 26 with a 1-0 loss to the Real Monarchs on a stoppage time goal by a substitute. An unlikely beginning to an unlikely process.

With the Rams out of St. Louis, there are millions more dollars to be spent at other sporting venues throughout the city. And given the brand-new expansion team and the rich soccer history in St. Louis, it is very possible for St. Louis FC to make a big impact quickly. In their first year of existence, STL FC earned an average home attendance greater than 4,500 in a stadium that holds 5,500.

If a Division III squad can accomplish that in its first year, imagine what could happen St. Louis gets an MLS expansion team, which could happen in the near future, according to mlssoccer.com. Take a second to click on the link preceding this sentence and scroll down. You’ll see a list of the members of the potential ownership group for a St. Louis MLS franchise. The list includes names from the Cardinals, the Blues, even the St. Louis Football Club. This is just another showing of the city’s sports leaders’ commitment to unifying St. Louis in its athletic endeavors.

This is not to forget that St. Louis is a college town, though. St. Louis University has an impressive history in both soccer and basketball, and SLU has an unprecedented opportunity as a college to pick up some of the fans that the Rams may have left behind. Beginning in soccer, the Billikens have brought home a combined 15 championships between their men’s and women’s programs, marking their men’s soccer team as the most decorated in NCAA history with 10 titles. This kind of continuous success is what St. Louis expects, deserves and has grown accustomed to.

SLU’s basketball history is not quite as impressive on paper. The men’s team has reached nine NCAA tournaments, and they’ve appeared in the NIT 18 times, winning the NIT championship once and coming as the runner up three times. The women’s team has not been nearly as successful, but both programs are in a unique position to swipe some of the winter spotlight away from the now-gone fumbling Rams, earning their school its rightful recognition as an athletic hub that can compete with the pros.

The Verdict

It is up to the fans to choose where they would like spend their money, and it is up to the fans to support their teams in order to keep them in their city. The teams have a responsibility to the fans as well. They should be fully committed to their respective fan bases, and they should always be aiming for national contention.

The Los Angeles Rams did not live up to their end of the bargain. The St. Louis Cardinals are simply hitting a rough patch. The St. Louis Blues are trying to drive out of their rough patch. And teams like St. Louis FC and SLU Athletics are trying to build themselves up in order to compete on the national stage. This is the reality in the St. Louis sporting world, and there are different ways to handle the situation.

You could be just getting over your bad breakup with Stan Kroenke like my friend Sean Rhomberg, saying, “At first, like many others, I was sad to know the football team I had grown up with was gone. Now, I’ve grown to be okay with it, and it’s increased my love for our sports teams.”

You could be cautiously optimistic like Ben Frederickson: “People who write off the Cardinals should know better. They’ll take the motivation; that’s what good organizations do… But it’s been tough. You have to call it like it is. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good things going on as well. There are positive stories in St. Louis, but it the Cardinals don’t provide their usual pick me up, it’s going to be even worse.”

Or you could feel any way that you want to feel. That won’t change the outcome. It’s very easy to see the situation as all bad with no chance of productivity to come from St. Louis’ teams ever again, especially with the increased talent around them, but you needn’t look to far to find the silver lining.

So, whether you’re a football nut or a fútbol nut, a fan of the ice or a fan of the diamond, a lover of “pure” college athletics or a fanatic over towering men and women playing professionally, you can never keep down a great city with great fans.

2 Comments

  1. Marsha Lintner

    March 30, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Congrats on your 100th piece! I love reading your articles. It’s almost as good as an in-person visit. Keep up the good work. Gram

  2. Michael "The Jackhammer" Fine

    June 28, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    Supes dope bro

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