Rams ready to revisit dome deal

Sunday, October 3, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- At the end of this season St. Louis Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce will have played on the lightning-fast artificial turf at the Edward Jones Dome for since 1995, and he has the unsightly turf burns to prove it.

"They're not permanent," Bruce said, displaying various spots of discoloration on his arms. "They'll go away."

So will the carpet-over-concrete field that most players hate, and soon, if the Rams have their way.

The initial lease the Rams signed with the city, St. Louis County and the state of Missouri as part of their move from the West Coast in 1995 contained a provision that called for the deal to be revisited every 10 years. Each decade, the dome must be judged to be in the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums in several components, topped perhaps by the number and condition of suites and club seats, or else the lease reverts to a year-to-year proposition.

Now is that time.

The Convention and Visitors Commission, the landlord of the building, and the stadium authority are in the process of completing $4-5 million in improvements to the dome's 120 suites, according to Bruce Sommer, director of the America's Center. That's not enough for the Rams, who want perhaps 60 more suites in addition to a new playing surface.

There's virtually no danger of the Rams leveraging the terms of the lease for another move. Both sides report no animosity in discussions. The Rams say simply that they want the best facility possible.

"I don't think anybody has that interest," Sommer said of a possible departure. "I don't believe they have an interest in leaving and we sure don't have an interest in them leaving."

The Rams have become entrenched in what has long been described as a baseball town. Since they arrived, every regular-season game has been sold out.

"This is not an escape clause," said Bob Wallace, the Rams' executive vice president and general counsel.

What it is, Wallace said, is smart business.

"It's not that you dictate terms," Wallace said. "One of the things everybody was trying to do, and it was clearly the intention of the Rams and I think of the negotiating parties of St. Louis, was they didn't want to build a beautiful building and then have it fall into disrepair."

Wallace said Busch Stadium, the Cardinals' 38-year-old well-maintained stadium just across downtown, is an example of forward-thinking stadium management. Busch was among a number of so-called cookie-cutter facilities opened in the 1960s, and it's the last one still standing -- although next season will be its last -- because the team's new ownership has been diligent on upkeep along with cosmetic upgrades such as a hand-operated scoreboard.

The biggest problem for the dome landlords is that 17 new stadiums, counting the renovation of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, have opened since te inaugural game in the $300 million dome on Nov. 12, 1995, when the Rams beat the Carolina Panthers 28-17 before 65,598 late in their first season in St. Louis.

In other words, the standards just keep going up.

"They have a preservation fund, they knew they were going to have to keep the stadium in repair," Wallace said. "But I don't know if anybody contemplated that much of a change that quickly."

Topping the Rams' wish list is a desire for perhaps 60 more luxury suites that could be installed in the now little-utilized north end zone. Presently, that area is used as an auxiliary press box but it was mentioned in the original lease as a location for potential improvements.

The Rams also have issues with the seating capacity of the dome -- about 5,000 shy of NFL standards even back in 1995. And Wallace said the size of the dome itself and its concourses is not "top tier," although there's little that can be done with that now.

"In this period of time," Wallace said, "we're not even going to raise that issue."

Under terms of the lease, the improvements must be completed by March 31, although the Rams have given approval to an extension to July 31. The Convention and Visitors Commission would like the deadline to be delayed further to 2007, and Wallace said the Rams are willing to wait until then.

Replacing the turf would be the biggest thing players would notice. The Rams have a forgiving practice field at Rams Park, constructed of rubber shavings, and they'd like one installed at the dome. St. Louis and Indianapolis are presently the only NFL teams still using the old, unforgiving, artificial turf.

"You pay a price for playing on it," Bruce said. "If they get rid of it I'd like to have a piece of it to take home with me. But I like the new stuff.

"You don't have the same feeling after you play on artificial turf."

The sticking point is an item in the lease that stipulates the grass does not have to be changed because it would hinder the dome's ability to hold conventions and trade shows. While the Rams are on the road the next two weeks, Ace Hardware is holding its national convention at the dome.

The problem is protecting the field when the Rams aren't in town. Artificial turf can be rolled up and so-called field turf cannot under present technology.

Thus far, Sommer said the Rams haven't asked for a new field.

"They've mentioned it, but we haven't dealt with the issue," Sommer said. "I'm sure there are other things we're going to do, but all we know for sure is what we have now."

It's likely the field demand will be issued soon.

"The playing field is a big issue," Wallace said. "We want to replace it and we think it's a big issue for a competitive reason as well. That's a hard surface, I think it's terrible, and that's something we would like addressed for next season."

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