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NFL abandonment of St. Louis ups the ante in Buffalo

Anyone under the delusion that greed doesn’t rule the NFL needs to check the communal psyche in St. Louis.

Residents and public officials there are juggling the anger of the abandoned with the embarrassment of the jilted. Rams owner Stan Kroenke this month unapologetically fled a solid Midwestern home in favor of the bright, shiny lure of Los Angeles.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay complained of being “led on” by the NFL, which had “not been truthful” in talks to secure the team.

His words were drowned out by the din of the NFL’s celebration.

Kroenke plans to finish by 2019 a $1.9 billion mega-complex on land he owns in L.A. The bells-and-whistles playpen blew away a $1.1 billion new-stadium offer in St. Louis, where the Rams played the past 21 years. The planned 70,000-seat shops/offices/hotel/theater complex in L.A. features a clear dome with open sides, 16,300 luxury seats and 274 suites (the Bills’ stadium, comparatively, has 56 suites).

The new digs will jack up Kroenke’s profits far beyond what he could squeeze out of middling-market St. Louis, and – equally significant – enhance the size of the money pot that’s shared among team owners. No wonder they voted 30-2 to allow him to shaft St. Louis, leaving residents to cry in their Budweiser as they pay off millions in debt on their Rams-less stadium, built just 21 years ago.

So much for the blather from NFL frontman Roger Goodell about valuing traditional markets, distaste for relocation and respect for faithful fans. When L.A. beckoned, the NFL couldn’t leave St. Louis fast enough. This league is about billionaires figuring out new ways to print money – usually at the expense of local communities, where taxpayers still foot most of the bill for new or face-lifted stadiums.

There are ownership/stadium takeaways for Buffalo in the NFL’s jilting of St. Louis. Chief among them: If not for Terry Pegula, it could’ve been us.

If we hadn’t – by a stroke of fracking fate – sprouted a local billionaire willing to annually make millions of dollars less here than in a bigger market, there’s little doubt the NFL would have eagerly abandoned Buffalo. Indeed, the seventh-year, easy-exit clause in the team’s current 10-year lease (signed in 2013, when late owner Ralph Wilson was 95) gave the next owner the option to leave sooner rather than later. It was no small relief when the Buffalo-loyal Pegula bought the team 16 months ago.

But there’s little doubt that Pegula’s colleagues in the elite “Club of 32” owners expect him to maximize his profits – and enhance their share of the “take” from Buffalo – with a new stadium when the lease expires in 2023. What happened in L.A. raises the stadium bar, and there’s chatter of new buildings in Oakland and San Diego (if the Chargers don’t share L.A. digs with the Rams). We will soon be in the new-stadium crosshairs.

Buffalo is comparatively an NFL backwater, a smaller, slow-growth market without a home-based Fortune 500 company. We don’t have many more corporate or private dollars to shell out for pricier new-stadium suites, luxury seats or tickets. But I don’t doubt the NFL intends to squeeze Buffalo for every cent it can get.

It may not be as done a deal as Goodell may think. The Pegulas’ stated commitment to Buffalo removes the “build-or-we-move” threat from the equation. And Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, has never swallowed the NFL’s “must build” propaganda.

“I’m not thinking a new stadium here is a given,” Poloncarz told me Friday. “Just because Goodell says it’s needed doesn’t make it so. This stadium has another 25 years of infrastructure left, and could be further updated.

“The biggest threat to the team leaving is off the table,” Poloncarz added, “with the Pegulas’ commitment to stay.”

It’s nice that Poloncarz is willing to stand up to the NFL monolith, and push for whatever option takes the smallest bite out of taxpayers’ wallets. But the goalposts keep moving, and our circa-1970s stadium is an anachronism in the 21st-century NFL.

Buffalo will thankfully be spared St. Louis’ fate. But in the game of stadium checkers, the pressure is on to keep up with the Kroenkes.