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Original Issue


Nobody much cares if the Cards shuffle off to Phoenix

It seems that winning or losing an NFL franchise isn't such a big deal anymore. Oh sure, there are a few fans in St. Louis mourning the presumed passing of the football Cardinals, and there's some rejoicing in Phoenix over the Cardinals' expected arrival. Those cautionary modifiers are appropriate because the transfer of this misbegotten team is not yet official, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill having taken the unusual course of going through channels before clearing out of one town and moving to another. But since his fellow owners are so grateful to Bidwill for letting them vote on the matter, a privilege denied them by two previous defectors, we can now consider the move a fait accompli. And yet there's no black crepe in St. Louis or dancing in the streets of Phoenix.

One possible reason for this relatively tepid response was the absence of suspense in the months before Bidwill's announcement of his decision to move. He had been making noises about moving for years. When, on Jan. 15, he finally made it official (or semiofficial), there was almost a sense of relief at having the boring ordeal come to an end. In fact, it has been said that fans in St. Louis were much more agitated by the departure of the baseball Cardinals' Jack Clark for New York than by the football team's leaving for Arizona.

St. Louis is preeminently a baseball town. The football Cardinals averaged only 27,821 for their seven home games this year as compared with an average of 39,386 for baseball's 81 home dates. Quarterback Neil Lomax told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he and his teammates were always made to feel like "second-class citizens." Leaving a place where they felt unloved for one prepared to embrace them will be like "a great honeymoon," Lomax said. "We won't have to apologize anymore because we don't play baseball."

The football players may blame baseball for fan indifference if they want, but they might also factor in their mostly uninspired play in recent years and the unsteady and often quirky management of their team by its owner. Wasn't it Bidwill, as recently as 1981, who was quoted in his Cardinals press guide as saying of St. Louis, "I like this town better than any place I know"? Obviously not that much better.

The people in Phoenix were pretty certain they were in line for an expansion franchise. Phoenix did have competition, notably from Baltimore and Oakland, both already abandoned by the NFL, and Jacksonville and Memphis. But Phoenix, with its metropolitan population of 1.9 million, the immediate availability of the 70,000-plus-seat stadium at Arizona State in neighboring Tempe and its mild winters figured to be a front-runner. So now the Cardinals? O.K., that's nice.

But there's another reason for the two cities' calm reaction to the Cardinals' change of venue: cynicism. The NFL has a credibility problem that makes those of certain presidential candidates seem almost trivial. It wasn't all that long ago that the league functioned as a sort of principality within the sports world, ruled by a commissioner whose rights seemed divinely granted. But all this has crumbled in the 1980s. There have been two players' strikes that have cost the owners dearly in both money—an estimated $104 million in potential revenue in 1987—and prestige. The NFL Players Association has also filed an antitrust action against the league that strikes at its heart—the college draft and control of player movement. And the NFL showcase extravaganza, the Super Bowl, has become a predictable turkey.

And then there have been those untidy franchise moves. The NFL went from 1960, when Bidwill's Cardinals left Chicago for St. Louis, until '82 without having a team change cities. Then Al Davis, whose Raiders had enjoyed a dozen straight years of capacity crowds in Oakland, packed up and left for a bigger stadium in Los Angeles. Davis took off in conscious violation of the previously sanctified league constitution, which requires approval from three-fourths of the owners for any franchise shift. The NFL and its commissioner lost face and dough on that one, because when they were challenged in court, the jury not only sided with Davis but also upheld the award of $213 million in damages to the Raiders and the L.A. Coliseum. Then, in '84, Bob Irsay moved his Colts out of Baltimore to Indianapolis in the middle of the night as the league, chastened by the Davis experience, stood helplessly by. And Davis isn't through. Now he says he's taking his team to Irwindale, Calif. So where will it all end?

Right now, the once rock-solid NFL looks about as stable as the once almighty dollar. And that's probably the way it should be, because, brayings about "America's game" aside, the dollar is what it's all about. So why get excited one way or the other?