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St. Louis stands to win in NFL suit

The city of St. Louis may be a winner even if it loses its suit against the NFL.

Just by walking into the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton on Oct. 6, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission pocketed more than $13 million.The regional commission, an agency of St. Louis and St. Louis County, is asking for $130 million in its lawsuit. The award could be tripled if the jury finds the NFL violated antitrust statutes.

If those are big numbers, so were most of the price tags on the seven-year effort to replace the football Cardinals after they moved to Phoenix in 1988. The city, county and state sank $300 million into a new domed stadium downtown. Twice in 1993, the area failed to win expansion teams.

Then, to lure the Los Angeles Rams here in 1995, football fans forked over another $80 million in "personal seat licenses." And that was just to get the right to buy season tickets.

The no-lose $13 million is a result of an agreement in June 1996. In that deal, the Rams agreed to forgo money the convention commission owed them if the commission would press its antitrust case against the NFL.

If the commission gets nothing from the suit, it still wipes out its debt to the Rams. If the commission wins, it shares the winnings 50-50 with the club.

The debt was the result of a penalty for failing to complete the Trans World Dome in time for the originally scheduled dome opener on Oct. 22, 1995, and for coming up short on scheduled payments for the Rams' new practice facility in Earth City. The city had agreed to finance the facility.

Alan Popkin, the commission's lead attorney in the trial, said the shortfalls violated the relocation agreement between the city and the Rams. This gave the Rams an out, he said, whereby they could have canceled the agreement and operated on a one-year lease instead of a long-term contract.

But the deal between the Rams and St. Louis could also become the city's Achilles' heel in the suit against the NFL. League attorney Frank Rothman is expected to cross-examine at length Rams president John Shaw when Shaw testifies this week or next.

League owners were irate at Shaw and St. Louis when the commission filed suit in the fall of 1995. In the agreement with the league in April 1995 to move to St. Louis, Shaw promised the NFL that the Rams wouldn't sue. Rams' lawyers drafted an agreement to that effect a month later.

Several owners, such as Michael Brown of Cincinnati and Jeffrey Lurie of Philadelphia, testified last week that the deciding factor in their approval of the Rams' move was the promise that the Rams wouldn't sue the NFL. One month earlier, the same owners had voted against letting the Rams leave their Southern California home in Anaheim.

Shaw upheld his end of the bargain. The Rams didn't sue. But the city did - and the Rams will take a cut of any jury awards.