When I began reading the Newsweek magazine article about moving the St. Louis Rams to Billings, I thought it was a joke.
But I read on and then read it again and—what the hell? It might still be a joke, but John Walters, who wrote the column for Newsweek’s online edition Friday, did his homework and made a case for Billings that almost sounded convincing.
Walters’ piece played off the news that the owner of the Rams is moving the franchise back to Los Angeles, which it left 21 years ago.
The first part of the column reads like a straight-on spoof, saying the move back to L.A. is conservative and uninspired, while the bold move to Billings would be anything but. He also says it would be “tremendous” to rename the team the Billings Bighorns, that fans could tailgate along the Yellowstone River, that young fans could be called Little Bighorns, and that elderly fans could be called, collectively, Old Faithful.
But Walters also talked to John Brewer, president of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, and apparently Brewer’s earnest salesmanship had an effect on the man. Brewer rightly pointed out that “Montana is a fanatical sports state and Billings is a sporting community.”
Brewer even went on to add, according to Walters, that Billings has seven breweries, and he recommended Angry Hank’s Street Fight Imperial Red Ale. Good choice and good point. Appealing to the beer-drinking sensibilities of any journalist, particularly a male sportswriter, is never a bad idea.
Walters goes on to make a very interesting point of his own: “If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were searching a map for the epicenter of the Lower 48 that has yet to be colonized by an NFL franchise, he would place a thumbtack in Billings.”
He’s right, of course. Who doesn’t know some Montanans who are rabid fans of the Vikings, the Seahawks or the Broncos, people who think nothing of driving across the frozen tundra for half a day or all day to watch a “home” game?
Walsh also makes the point that “the smaller the market, the more promising the fan base.” Green Bay, Wis., population 105,000, had the third-highest average attendance in the NFL last year. And while Walsh rightly says that Green Bay draws fans from Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin, he argues that the Billings Bighorns would bring in fans from all over Montana as well as the Dakotas, Wyoming and Idaho, other states bereft of an NFL team.
It would be galling indeed for residents of Missoula and Bozeman to even consider driving to Billings for a football game, since they’ve had the corner on that market forever, but how could they resist? College football’s a blast and the Cat-Griz game will always be popular, but come on, the NFL?
They wouldn’t admit that they liked anything else about Billings, bloody snobs that they are, but after a few games, followed by a few meals out, a few visits to those breweries, maybe even a few nights in our swank downtown hotels, maybe they’d finally change their tune.
Walters says our very remoteness might be a draw for people from around the country, people who would love to come out to watch a pro football game in our exotically isolated burg.
And this was where Brewer got a bit carried away and said, “From Billings, the Little Bighorn battlefield, site of Custer’s Last Stand, is about an hour’s drive. And the entrance to Yellowstone National Park is just 90 minutes away. We’re a tourism mecca.”
Well, no. Mecca is a destination. Maybe we’re a caravanserai on the way to Mecca, but we ain’t no Mecca.
Walters, for his part, made just one small error in his carefully researched column, when he wrote: “What if the team now fleeing St. Louis, the origin point of the Lewis and Clark expedition, had relocated to the town where Captain William Clark once etched his name (on a slab at Pompeys Pillar)?”
Pompeys Pillar, of course, is almost 30 miles from Billings, and it took Clark and his men nearly a day and a half of canoeing to get from here to there. Still, I suppose it’s close enough.
Anyway, that reference prompted me to look up Clark’s comments in the expedition’s journals, where he mentions seeing “emence herds of Buffalow, Elk and wolves” from the top of what he called Pompy’s Tower (until some damned editor got his hands on the copy).
It is not as widely known that Clark went on to write that “the topmost part of this Tower was covered in tolerably decent Grass, & the men were soon involv’d in a spirrited game of football, for which purpose they had stuffed a Coyote’s bladder with moss from the River.”
So we’ve got history behind the notion, too. Billings, we can do this.