Rams’ owners agree to sell 60 percent stake to Illinois businessman

ST. LOUIS — Rumors that the St. Louis Rams were being sold have been rampant the past couple of years, raising concerns that the franchise would end its recent sad-sack run with a move out of town.

The Rams announced Thursday that its majority owners have indeed agreed to sell their stake, but to a potential buyer within driving distance — and one who doesn’t want to relocate the once-proud franchise.

If approved by a 75 percent vote of NFL owners, Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez, the children of the late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, will sell their 60 percent stake to Shahid Khan, the 55-year-old president of an auto parts manufacturer, Flex-N-Gate, in Urbana, Ill.

“Today is a tremendously exciting day, I think, for the organization,” said Kevin Demoff, Rams executive vice president of football operations and chief operating officer. “Whether or not the sale to a prospective buyer goes through I think it reaffirms to everybody the commitment this club has to St. Louis and our belief in this marketplace.”

Demoff said he wasn’t aware whether an agreement had been submitted to the NFL. He said the sale could be completed as early as May.

Kitty Ratcliffe, the head of the St. Louis Convention &Visitors Commission, applauded the Khan announcement.

“I thought that was very good news,” she said. “It’s someone from the general area, is a fan of the team, has been in the dome and obviously has ties to the area.”

Forbes magazine recently estimated the Rams franchise has a value of $913 million, 25th out of 32 teams, though some experts have said a more realistic sale price will be closer to $750 million. The sale was first reported by the Web site for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Stan Kroenke, a billionaire from Columbia, Mo., owns the remaining 40 percent of the franchise as well as the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids plus a large stake in the Arsenal soccer club.

Kroenke has 60 days to decide what to do with his stake in the franchise. He could choose to sell or make a bid to become the sole owner, although such a bid would be complicated by the NFL’s restriction of cross-ownership. A spokesman for Kroenke did not respond to an e-mail from The Associated Press.

“I believe at the end of the 60 days you’ll know who is buying what percentage of the club, if they’re actually moving forward on the sale,” Demoff said.

During the process, Demoff said the Rams were under no financial constraints.

“We’re excited to go into free agency and to the draft, and find ways to improve this team,” Demoff said.

The sale of the Rams has been expected since Frontiere’s death in January 2008. Her children are both involved in other interests and neither has ties to St. Louis.

A group headed by St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts was also interested in buying the Rams. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was initially part of the Checketts group but was dropped in October after adverse publicity about his involvement.

The sale has raised concerns in St. Louis, which lost the Cardinals franchise after the 1987 season when Bill Bidwill moved the franchise to Arizona. Several games last season were not sold out, though that was partly due to the on-field performance — at 1-15, the Rams had the worst record in the league.

Khan did not return calls to his home or company by The Associated Press.

According to federal court records in Illinois, the Internal Revenue Service has accused Khan and his wife, Ann, of improperly sheltering $250 million in income between 1999 and 2003, reducing their taxes by $85 million. In an interview with The (Champaign) News-Gazette in early 2009, Shahid Khan said the couple paid the IRS $68 million to settle the dispute, but insisted he’d done nothing wrong.

“There isn’t a hint of a criminal issue here,” Khan told the newspaper, saying he planned to try to get the money back through litigation. It wasn’t clear whether he’s taken legal steps since then to recover the money and an IRS spokesman declined comment Thursday.

Forbes last year ranked Flex-N-Gate as the 229th largest private company in the U.S., with an estimated $2.14 billion in annual revenue. The company says on its Web site that it has more than 9,500 employees at plants and other facilities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Spain.

St. Louis was without an NFL team from 1988-94.

The NFL passed over St. Louis for the smaller Jacksonville, Fla., market when it awarded an expansion team in 1993. Two years later, civic leaders convinced Frontiere, a St. Louis native, to move the team from Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest market, back to her hometown.

The Rams within a few years put together a powerhouse team that won a Super Bowl a decade ago behind Kurt Warner and the rest of the “Greatest Show on Turf.” But lately, the Rams have been one of the NFL’s worst teams, going 6-42 from 2007-09.

A loophole in the Rams’ lease allows them to move after the 2014 season if the Edward Jones Dome is not deemed among the top quarter of all NFL stadiums by various measurements. The dome is fast becoming one of the league’s older venues, and getting it into the top quarter seems unlikely.

The convention commission spent $30 million upgrading the facility before last season, installing new scoreboards and video boards and upgrading club seating. Next season they’re due for a new grass field that can be stored and used in subsequent seasons, a major upgrade.

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