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The Vikings as a casualty of the recession? It’s hard to see a happy ending

Last week’s dust-up between the Vikings on one side and everyone else on the other sets up the perfect storyline for both sides as the legislative session bumps along toward a gloomy end.

Last week’s dust-up between the Vikings on one side and everyone else on the other sets up the perfect storyline for both sides as the legislative session bumps along toward a gloomy end.

Let’s call it the “Vikings-as-a-casualty-of-the-recession narrative.” Here’s how it goes.

State politicians could say: Look, we have an extraordinary budget problem. There’s misery all around us. There’s no way we could have taken up the Vikings stadium issue in an atmosphere like this. Voters would have crucified us, and rightly so. As for the Vikings’ likely departure, that’s a business decision. We no longer have Dayton’s or Honeywell or Northwest Airlines or some of the other brands that once defined us. And, as with those others, losing the Vikings could not be avoided. It’s too bad, but in these very difficult times, an NFL franchise is, perhaps, just one of the many sacrifices that Minnesotans have to make. We wish the team well if it settles on a new corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. Sunday afternoons won’t be quite the same around here, but we’ll adjust.

And the Vikings could say: Thanks for your understanding. As you know, this is a difficult time for all businesses, and the bottom line is that we could no longer compete at the Metrodome. We would have preferred to stay here, but the economics wouldn’t allow it. The NFL’s slew of new stadiums left us in an untenable position. We had no choice but to consider seriously the L.A. opportunity. We will remember Minnesota fondly, and if you’re ever on the coast, please drop by.

Not exactly a win-win
It’s a narrative that gives each side something it wants. Politicians get political cover. The team gets a new stadium, not here, but in a market that offers — and let’s be frank about this — far more money, far greater visibility and much nicer weather. It’s not exactly a win-win, especially for Minnesota’s long-term wellbeing. But it’s a taste of economic reality that seems to fit the times.

Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley set off the uproar with remarks in a Star Tribune story last week. His assertion that Gov. Tim Pawlenty hadn’t “lifted a finger” to help keep the team in Minnesota drew more than 700 responses on the Strib’s website, most of them angry. Minnesota’s legendary prairie populism is running hotter than ever, and no wonder. Wall Street guys in fancy suits have made the homes, jobs and saving accounts of millions of Americans disappear. The well-deserved thrashing of corporate greed doesn’t exactly help the Vikings’ case for public support on the stadium question. Bagley acknowledged the choppy waters when we spoke on Monday. “But we’ve made some progress,” he said, noting a meeting last week between Vikings officials and the governor, and noting that the furor at least got people’s attention. “At least we got our point across,” he said.

Bagley’s timing wasn’t the best, but his points were mostly valid. Indeed, the team has given the state plenty of notice that it doesn’t intend to play in the obsolete Metrodome once its lease expires after the 2011 season. The Vikings’ stated desire for a new venue dates to 1997. Three ownerships have been involved.

“We’ve addressed this in times of surplus, in times of deficit, in election years and non-election years and they’ve chosen to put it off,” Bagley had said last week. “Now they’ve put it off to the point where the risk is significant to the state.”

Metrodome brought much to Minnesota
He was right also to point out that the Metrodome, in its day, was a good investment for the state. For an initial down payment of zero the state has made $234 million in sales-tax revenues from the Dome since it opened in 1982, according to a report by RSM McGladrey. More than 80 million people have passed through its doors. Hundreds of millions of eyeballs around the world have seen the Twin Cities on television, thanks to the Dome. It’s hard to calculate the value of that kind of exposure.

Bagley’s rip on Pawlenty was mostly on target. In six years, the governor “hasn’t lifted a finger to engage in a problem-solving discussion to help us on our issue,” Bagley had said, adding that there has been “no meaningful engagement by the executive branch.”

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung had pointed to the governor’s March 2004 “solution,” in which he pledged that neither the Twins nor the Vikings would leave Minnesota on his watch. Citing a financing plan adopted by Pennsylvania, Pawlenty said the state would cover one-third the cost of new homes for each team. But Pawlenty eventually reneged on the Twins portion, leaving Hennepin County to pay the entire public bill. The Vikings were left empty-handed. Under Pawlenty the state has never put its own scratch into the pro stadium game.

Unlike a Twin Cities venue, the Los Angeles stadium would be 80 percent privately financed. A 75,000-seat outdoor bowl would be the centerpiece of a 600-acre redevelopment in the San Gabriel Valley 15 miles east of downtown. The stadium, built into the side of a hill, would cost $800 million. Voters in the small warehousing City of Industry have already approved a $150 million bond to cover infrastructure improvements, and the city council is expected to pass the development plan on Feb. 26.

The driving force in L.A.
Billionaire Ed Roski, part owner of the Lakers and Kings, is the stadium’s driving force. Roski is chairman and CEO of Majestic Realty Co., one of the nation’s largest privately held real-estate firms. Roski played a key role in building Staples Center, the hockey-basketball landmark in downtown Los Angeles.

His goal is to shift an existing NFL franchise to Los Angeles. The nation’s second largest market has been without a team since the Rams and Raiders left 15 years ago.
Whether Roski can forge an agreement with Vikings owner (and fellow developer) Zygi Wilf, or whether Roski can swing a $650 million financing deal in a challenged bond market, those are the overriding questions. The Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars are said also to be interested in an L.A. address. But the San Diego Chargers and the Vikings, with the NFL’s lowest stadium-generated revenues, are considered the most likely candidates.

As Bagley pointed out, the danger for Minnesota isn’t that the Vikings “decide” to move; it’s that other NFL owners figure out that propping up the Vikings isn’t as profitable as shifting a team to L.A.

30 more games in the Dome
The Vikings say they want to stay. But if they’re interested in Roski’s deal — and why not? — they’d be stupid to say so publicly. They have 30 games left to play in the Dome before their lease expires. They want to fill those seats for as long as possible.

What’s next? The topic will finally get a legislative hearing next Monday before the House Local Government Committee.

Asked about the situation, Roy Terwilliger, chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, said Monday that he didn’t like the timing of Bagley’s remarks, but wouldn’t quarrel with the content. “It wasn’t helpful because it just made people angry,” Terwilliger said, “but I guess they made their point.”

As the team’s Metrodome landlord, the commission’s job is to keep pro sports in Minnesota. The Dallas-based architectural firm HKS Inc., designer of new NFL stadiums in Indianapolis and Dallas, is preparing a design for reconstructing the Metrodome. A review of the design is scheduled for the commission’s March meeting.

A design doesn’t mean much without a financial commitment to build, however. In Los Angeles, Roski will begin shopping for a team if the City Council approves the stadium plan on Feb. 26. Construction could begin once an NFL team agrees to relocate, with the first game as early as 2011.

The pace of these events may force the Twin Cities to contemplate the loss of an NFL franchise, perhaps as early as this spring. When somebody wants to hijack your team, it seems crazy to pay the ransom. But as St. Louis, Cleveland, Houston and Baltimore found out, it’s also crazy to let a franchise go — because the cost of replacement is far greater. The NFL has 32 teams. It won’t be expanding any time soon.