When professional sports teams leave cities for what they hope are greener pastures, which often include a cutting-edge stadium, spurned fans take it as a personal affront. They burn jerseys, curse the name of their once-favorite player and, in one extreme case, urinate on the grave of the team’s deceased owner. It gets that ugly.
Along with heart-broken fans and the people left behind who count on the franchise for employment – from full-time to seasonal – there’s the less discussed cost of a team leaving town: The impact it has on local organizations and charities.
The Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis is one of those organizations preparing to feel the weight this season of the Rams’ move to Los Angeles. According President Flint Fowler, the organization provides a wide array of services to an underserved, often low-income community in the city.
“We have programs and services from youth, ages 6-18,” Fowler said. “So that’s after school and during the summer; programs that focus on healthy lifestyles, good character, citizenship and academic success.”
The club offers classes in cooking, technology, healthy eating habits – with a garden component – as well as homework help, community services, game room activities, free dental service and participation in sports.
“Pretty much anything that a young kid would be interested in happens at the club,” he said.
It also offers public health programs and education for the kids relating to drug and alcohol abuse, and how to reduce teenage pregnancy rates.
In total, the club serves 6,500 kids, all of whom will no longer be on the receiving end of the charitable arm of the Rams. In the past, the team provided tickets for kids to attend games, Fowler said, and organized outings to training camp or practice to meet the players.
“Generally, because of the price of tickets, the population that we tend to work with, attending a football game was not a regular part of their agenda,” he said. “So it’s getting kids out to the stadium or giving them a chance to interact with players, or observe a football game, or just have that kind of enjoyment.”
One player – Fowler could not recall his name, but noted he was eventually traded to the Washington Redskins – donated eight season tickets to the club for a period of time.
Players also often visited the Boys and Girls Club, Fowler said. It has worked with a number of players, including Orlando Pace, the recently inducted Hall of Fame offensive lineman, and Marshall Faulk, one of the franchise’s all-time great players.
Particularly, they came to the club for fitness days through a program called Triple Play.
“So they’d do different activity stations and the players would be available to help the kids get through those experiences,” Fowler said.
Sometimes, the interaction stretched beyond the confines of the stadium or the club, into the kids’ lives.
Last September, Rams players Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Marcus Roberson accompanied nearly 20 kids to Dave and Busters for a night of food, games and most importantly a fun escape from the day-to-day life of a kid growing up in a low-income community.
The Boys and Girls Club also has its own youth football program, in addition to track, basketball and others sports, and those kids are going to be impacted in an entirely different way.
“Part of the excitement about playing youth football is the thought that, ‘one day I could play professional football or at the college level,'” Fowler said. “Or at least have that player that you emulate.”
Case in point, the month of October, when the NFL goes pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“It’s not uncommon for our teens to wear pink socks and wristbands and have a pink towel on their waist like the professional players,” Fowler said. “I do know that they model what they see, and the closer that target is, or that subject is, the stronger the connection is going to be.
“With the team being in town, there’s more of a connection that way. But with the team out of town now, that’s going to be less the case.”
With the club serving a low-income population, football equipment can be hard for parents to afford. But through a special partnership with the team, parents worked at stadium concession stands, taking in a percentage of sales to be used by the club to buy new equipment.
If a player needed shoes, or if a club team was going to play a game out of town – which they often did over Thanksgiving – that money was raised to make it possible.
“Without those eight (Rams) games in town over the year, that money is no longer available to those teams,” Fowler said. “That was thousands and thousands of dollars over the years those games were able to raise or generate. Those families didn’t have sufficient resources to cover their personal needs, then turn around give that kind of money to their kid playing football.”
The Rams and another organization called PHL Inc. also provided the funding for a new field for the club – as well as a new turf field for Sumner High School, the oldest African-American High School west of the Mississippi.
“I know that their impact in the city of St. Louis has been significant,” Fowler said.
But it’s larger than that, extending beyond the boundaries of St. Louis. An organization called Catch-A-Dream Foundation, which serves kids in 45 states, also was a beneficiary of the team’s presence, specifically that of head coach Jeff Fisher. Starting in 2014, Fisher held an annual charity softball game in St. Louis that he previously ran in Nashville when he coached the Tennessee Titans. The game featured professional athletes and celebrities.
“Each year, our players really look forward to this fun and unique evening for charity,” said Fisher in a statement on the Rams official website. “It’s a great family-friendly event that allows our fans to get an up-close look at our players and their personalities away from the football field.”
It’s not clear where the next charity softball game will be held, or which charities will be the beneficiaries. Most recently, Backstoppers, Inc., Mercy Ministries’, The Jack and J.T. Snow Scientific Research Foundation (The Snow Foundation), Wounded Warrior Project and Catch-A-Dream Foundation received proceeds.
Catch-A-Dream is a unique charity that, according to its chief executive officer, Dr. Martin Brunson, is a wish-granting foundation for children with life threatening illnesses. What sets them apart from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he said, is they focus on hunting and fishing adventures across North America.
Brunson said the organization has had a relationship with Fisher for a long time, dating back to the Nashville days.
“When he moved to St. Louis, we sort of moved with him,” he said.
In that first year, Brunson recalled the game raised $4,000 for their charity. In the time that Fisher has coached the Rams in St. Louis, they’ve received more than $16,000. But since the move, there’s been no word on the relationship going forward, and Brunson is anxiously awaiting to hear what’s next.
“We would hope that we would remain in coach Fisher’s list of favorites,” he said. “Certainly, if I know Jeff as I think I know him, he will do something of a charitable nature in the Los Angeles area.
“I would be optimistic that if he does establish some charitable event in the Los Angeles area that we might be included in that list of beneficiaries. We’ll keep our fingers crossed. We’ve not had communication since they made that move.”
Brunson added he understands it’s the first year in a new city, and that the charitable community activity will take a back burner. It was about a year after the move from Nashville to St. Louis before Fisher started the softball game in St. Louis.
Brunson estimates losses of anywhere between $5,000-$12,000 annually if Catch-A-Dream no longer is a beneficiary. “It’s not going to close our doors. but it’s large enough that it’s going to be noticeable, and we’d have to make up that deficit somewhere else,” he said.
But there’s another issue. Catch-A-Dream is based in Starkville, Miss., so even if they are invited to participate in an event in Los Angeles, it creates a much larger overhead cost, minimizing the return on charitable proceeds.
It’s clear the Rams had a huge presence in the community. Countless other nonprofit agencies declined to speak on the record about what the team moving will ultimately mean for their members.
Since moving to Los Angeles, the team’s impact has already been felt on the West Coast. Its website touts the team funded and built a new playground for Woodward Elementary School in Inglewood. In that regard, Los Angeles’ gain is St. Louis’ loss.
So while former fans continue to burn jerseys, or refuse to draft players to their fantasy football teams , kids of the St. Louis-area will put on the cleats, shoulder pads and helmets and envision themselves one day playing for a professional football team. That team just won’t be in their home town.