ST. LOUIS (AP) — A loud and often rowdy crowd greeted NFL executives Tuesday as St. Louis Rams fans at a public hearing made their case for keeping the team in Missouri amid talk of a relocation.
About 1,500 people, many wearing Rams jerseys, stood and chanted "St. Louis Rams!" as NFL executives walked onto the Peabody Opera House stage. The crowd cheered when Dave Peacock, co-leader of the effort to build a new riverfront stadium in St. Louis, was briefly introduced. Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff received scattered boos.
The league is hosting three meetings as part of the process to decide which team or teams get to relocate to the Los Angeles area, the nation's second-largest market, which has been without a franchise since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995.
With the Rams at the bottom of the league in home attendance and without a winning record since 2003, owner Stan Kroenke wants to move to a new $1.8 billion stadium in suburban L.A. The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders also want to move to Los Angeles. Similar hearings are Wednesday in San Diego and Thursday in Oakland.
Kroenke took the bulk of the wrath at the St. Louis hearing.
Randy Karraker, a sports radio talk show host in St. Louis, said Kroenke hasn't spoken publicly as Rams owner since hiring coach Jeff Fisher more than four years ago, and has turned his back on the fans.
"All we can ask for as fans is an opportunity from you, the league, because clearly we aren't getting that from our owner," Karraker said.
Al Simpson, a season ticket holder since the Rams arrived from L.A. 20 years ago, questioned Kroenke's claim that the St. Louis market isn't viable.
"If this market was that bad, why did Kroenke exercise an option to buy the Rams in 2010?" Simpson asked. "Don't feed me the line that he can't make it here."
Other fans said the proposed $1 billion stadium along the Mississippi River would re-ignite the passion for a team that seems to be turning the corner on the field. The Rams are 3-3 this season.
Some fans questioned whether the NFL will stick to its own relocation guidelines, which they believe would favor keeping a team in St. Louis. NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman said the guidelines are "not a checklist that gives you an answer at the end."
Three-fourths of team owners, at least 24 of the 32, must approve relocation, and Grubman would not speculate about how they'll vote.
"I don't know how this ends," he said.
Things haven't always been so bumpy in St. Louis. The Rams have had their glory days, including a Super Bowl win in 2000 and a return to the Super Bowl two years later. Those "Greatest Show on Turf" teams played before sold-out crowds so loud that opposing teams complained their players couldn't hear the quarterback's signals.
In fact, the Edward Jones Dome was sold out for every game from the team's arrival until December 2006.
Since then, the combination of poor play, an increasingly outdated venue, and the perceived indifference of the owner have eaten away support. The Rams have the league's worst home attendance record, drawing on average fewer than 52,000 fans to the 66,000-seat dome.
Plans for the new $1 billion stadium, which would sit just north of the Gateway Arch, call for it to be built with a combination of funds from the NFL, the owner and public money that has yet to be approved. The dome was built entirely with taxpayer funds, and some oppose spending more public money on another stadium project.
At one point during the hearing, a small group of stadium opponents began to chant. The majority of the crowd drowned them out with another round of "Let's go Rams!" Those involved in the small protest were escorted out.
Dan Palin of Springfield, Missouri, said the fact that taxpayers are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the second time in 25 years is evidence of the deep support for the NFL in St. Louis.
"Mr. Grubman, this city needs things that unite us — a football team that makes us proud," Palin said.
Though noncommittal about the Rams' future in St. Louis, Grubman said the hearing made one thing clear.
"The St. Louis market loves its Rams," Grubman said.