- Stan Kroenke rocked city’s economy and morale in relocating the Rams to LA in 2016
- St. Louis has since been awarded a host of major sporting events, plus MLS and XFL teams
- Blues look to show off newly-renovated Enterprise Center at NHL showpiece event
Four years after National Football League team owner Stan Kroenke relocated the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles amid bitter acrimony, the Missouri city has firmly regained its civic pride and status as a major league sports town in the United States.
When Kroenke submitted a controversial 29-page proposal to the NFL about moving the Rams to LA in January 2016, he issued a scathing review of St. Louis’s economic health, saying that he believed the Midwestern market was not able support three major professional sports teams. “Compared to all other US cities,” Missouri native Kroenke wrote, “St. Louis is struggling.”
The ill-will and rancor towards Kroenke continues to this day, with three ongoing lawsuits by the St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority against Kroenke, the Rams and the NFL seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages.
It is true that St. Louis still faces serious economic challenges. It is estimated that by the time of the 2020 Census that St. Louis will drop below 300,000-population mark for the first time since 1864, down from its peak of 856,796 in 1950. However, Kroenke’s dismissal of the market’s viability as a major sports town has since been proven firmly incorrect.
On January 24-26, the city will host the National Hockey League All-Star Weekend at the Enterprise Center, just seven months after the St. Louis Blues captured the hearts and minds of the nation by winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history in a dramatic seven-game series triumph over the Boston Bruins.
The showpiece NHL All-Star Game is just one of many major sports events to come to the city in recent years. It follows the 2017 NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium, the home of Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals; the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Golf Course; two US men’s and women’s national soccer team friendlies at Busch Stadium in 2019; the PGA Tour Champions Ascension Charity Classic, which will debut in September 2020 at Norwood Hills Country Club; and the 2020 US Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials at the Enterprise Center next June.
Far more significantly, St. Louis has been awarded a Major League Soccer expansion team, which will begin play in 2022 in a new $250m, 22,500-seater stadium in downtown St. Louis. The city has also gained an XFL team, the St. Louis BattleHawks, which will begin play at the Dome at America’s Center next spring.
And of course, there is the steady force of Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, long one of that league’s most successful franchises both on and off the field. That team has been to three World Series since 2006, winning twice, and has just one losing season this century. The Cardinals are also a consistently strong performer in both local TV ratings and attendance, ranking second in MLB this year in the latter metric behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the club is now expanding its Ballpark Village mixed-used development.
“Kroenke was wrong,” St. Louis Blues president Chris Zimmerman tells SportBusiness. “In his statement about [St. Louis not being big enough], he was obviously justifying an easy win for him, which was being able to take the Rams back to LA, a market that hadn’t had the NFL in 20 years. Overnight, the value of his franchise at least doubled.”
“St. Louis takes exceptional pride in being a really great sports town,” Zimmerman adds. “In 2000, Sporting News [magazine] had a cover where they described St. Louis as the best sports town in America. In many ways, that’s how we see ourselves and that is how we want to be so losing the Rams was a significant blow. But since then there has been a fairly dramatic surge in the strength of the Blues, both locally as well as nationally. That is best witnessed in the very successful Winter Classic and now three years later the league is bringing one of its other flagship events to St. Louis.”
Stanley Cup glory led to ‘dramatic’ commercial lift
As well as helping lift the city’s morale, the Blues’ victory in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the franchise’s inception in 1967 has had a significant effect on the team’s commercial fortunes, which has carried over into this season.
The victorious Game 7 at Boston Bruins’ TD Garden was the most-watched NHL game ever televised, gaining an average Total Audience Delivery of almost nine million people, and a peak of 10.4 million viewers. It was also the most-streamed NHL game ever, delivering an Average Minute Audience (AMA) of 191,500 viewers, while St. Louis delivered a 41.8 local rating, which was NBC Sports’ highest-rated Blues game ever in the market.
In regards to merchandise sales, the Blues set a new record for sales of championship apparel and memorabilia in the 12-hour period after winning a Stanley Cup title, beating the previous high set by Washington Capitals fans in 2018 by 10 percent. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, the Blues are second overall in team merchandise sales in the league, according to online retailer Fanatics.
“[Executive chairman] Michael Rubin from Fanatics told me that we had blown them away, they just didn’t expect the numbers out of St. Louis to be as strong as they were,” Zimmerman notes.
The Blues – who are owned by Tom Stillman, the chairman and chief executive of Summit Distributing, a St. Louis-based beer distributor, and a group of other local investors – have also sold an additional 4,000 season tickets and created the first-ever season-ticket waiting list since the Enterprise Center opened in 1994. According to the team, concessions sales during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals were the highest in any game in Blues history, while gameday revenues are up in a “meaningful way” this season.
Over the summer, the Stanley Cup trophy went on a two-month tour of the US and Canada, spending one day with every Blues player, coach, hockey operations executive, trainer and equipment manager, similar to championship winners in prior years. But the Blues’ effort garnered more than 75 million impressions on social media. Meanwhile, as of mid-November, local ratings for Blues’ prime-time telecasts on Fox Sports Midwest were up 11 per cent over the same point last season.
“Every metric is up dramatically. This is a tailwind that will drive our business forward for some time,” says Zimmerman.
But the positive effect that the Stanley Cup championship has had on the pride of local community is more meaningful than any commercial gains, Zimmerman adds. “We were a team who had success [in the regular season and consistently reaching the playoffs], but weren’t able to deliver that final championship reward to its fans and you carry the weight of that,” he says.
“But beyond that, St. Louis was ready for its moment to come together and show the hockey world and the sports world its intense love for its sports teams, particularly when they are successful. Our parade approached one million people, we had 200,000 people under the Gateway Arch, it was an exceptional moment for our city,” he says.
All Star Game ‘a reward’ for Enterprise Center renovations
Over the summer, the Enterprise Center competed the final part of a $150m multiyear renovation designed to modernize fan and team amenities.
The wide-ranging upgrades, the first major redesign since the building opened in 1994, included improvements to the lighting, sound system, WiFi, broadcast logistics, center-hung video board, digital signage, locker rooms and office spaces. There has also been additional food and beverage experiences, new gathering spaces, a redesigned retail area, new escalators, and a replacement of all the seats in the lower bowl.
The project was undertaken to not only enhance the Enterprise Center for Blues games, but to draw other major events to the facility. According to Zimmerman, the NHL All Star Game is essentially a reward from the league for these renovations.
“We have never had the All Star Game since the building opened 1994, the last time St. Louis hosted the All Star Game was 1988 [at the now demolished St. Louis Arena]. The application was two years ago, right after the Winter Classic. It was a little bit of a bold expectation for us to have just hosted the Winter Classic and to think that within a few years that we could get the All Star Game,” he says.
“But that was our ambition and both the league in terms of the way they saw St. Louis and our fanbase and how our team executes big events, coupled with an inspired presentation and a dramatically new feel of our building all came together to help us win it.”
The Blues are working with the St. Louis Sports Commission to help put on ancillary events for All-Star Weekend. “We want to make sure that we’re touching the entire community and it’s another opportunity for us to create more interest and more energy around our sport. It’s an exceptional opportunity,” Zimmerman says.
With the attention of the NHL community on St. Louis and the Enterprise Center, the event is expected to have an economic impact of $20-25m for the city.
Zimmerman hopes a successful All Star Weekend will lead to a number of high-profile events at the facility in the future, namely the US and World Figure Skating Championships. “Our goal is to keep bringing in events and then executing them at a high level,” he says.