It all started in 1988. After 28 seasons in St. Louis, the Cardinals franchise headed west and re-located to Phoenix to become the team that is now known as the Arizona Cardinals. This move left the biggest market in the State of Missouri without a professional football team.
In the same year, about 1,000 miles northeast of St. Louis, Billy Sullivan, owner of the New England Patriots, sold his team to entrepreneur Victor Kiam. Sullivan was facing bankruptcy and sold the franchise for $84 million. However, the deal did not include the team's Foxboro Stadium, which was sold separately for $22 million to long-time Patriots season ticket holder Robert Kraft.
Kiam's tenure as an owner was not a very successful one. In his four seasons, the team went a combined 21-43 and missed the playoffs every single year. The low-point came in 1990, when the Patriots went 1-15 – the worst season in franchise history. While Kiam's team struggled on the field, the owner did the same off it. As a result, he sold the franchise for $110 million prior to the 1992 season.
The buyer: James Busch Orthwein, St. Louis native and member of the Anheuser-Busch family.
Under Orthwein's leadership, the franchise underwent drastic changes. After the new owner's first season, Bill Parcells was brought out of retirement to become head coach of the Patriots and lead the team back to relevance. Under Parcells, New England drafted Drew Bledsoe with the first overall pick in 1993 to be the franchise quarterback the Patriots were lacking for most of their existence.
The Patriots did not just change on the inside, they also changed on the outside: the primary color scheme was altered, from red and white to blue and silver. The logo – Pat Patriot – was modernized as well and transformed into the "Flying Elvis".
All those changes were not enough for Orthwein: he wanted the NFL to return to his hometown. With the Cardinals still not replaced and, surprisingly, no expansion franchise awarded to the City of St. Louis (Carolina and Jacksonville won the bid), Orthwein and the Patriots were the most likely candidate to bring professional football back to the Gateway to the West.
Orthwein had a concrete plan in mind: re-locate the Patriots after the 1993 season, start playing in the newly-built Trans World (later Edward Jones) Dome and re-name the team the St. Louis Stallions, which was also the proposed name of a St. Louis expansion franchise. Orthwein was convinced his plan would work; a logo was designed and caps were manufactured.
There was only one problem: Foxboro Stadium.
The Patriots' lease was running through the 2002 season and stadium owner Robert Kraft did not want to let the team out of it. Orthwein offered Kraft $75 million to buy out the remainder of the lease but Kraft refused to accept. After weeks of negotiations – which also involved a St. Louis based investment group led by current Rams majority owner Stan Kroenke – the two men reached a deal. It was not the one Orthwein had in mind in 1993.
On January 21, 1994, it was officially announced that Robert Kraft bought the New England Patriots franchise for a then-record $172 million. At that time, no sports team had ever been sold for a higher price. For Kraft, the purchase paid off – both on and off the field: the Patriots have reached seven Super Bowls with him as their owner, winning four, while the franchise's value increased to approximately $2.6 billion.
A fairy-tale ending to the story of the early 1990s' uncertainties.
And St. Louis? In 1995, the city finally got another professional football team when Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere decided to re-locate her franchise to Missouri. The new St. Louis Rams brought the city its first professional football championship four years later. The story, therefore, also ends well for St. Louis – at least if the team does not head back west again...