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California scheming: NFL has been brilliant in using LA to get stadiums built

I was talking recently about the Minnesota Vikings’ desire for a new football stadium and the potential of the team moving to Los Angeles, when a friend made the comment, “I hate the constant threat of ‘LA,’ but even if the Vikes moved, I’m sure we’

I was talking recently about the Minnesota Vikings’ desire for a new football stadium and the potential of the team moving to Los Angeles, when a friend made the comment, “I hate the constant threat of ‘LA,’ but even if the Vikes moved, I’m sure we’d have another team in a few years.”  As his statement sunk in, I realized two things:  1) the NFL has used Los Angeles brilliantly to force taxpayers nationwide to subsidize their league, and 2) we might as well pay for a stadium now, as the inevitable cost to get a new team would be double.

For the record, I like the Vikings and more Sundays than not, I’m watching their games. Their stadium, the recently open-aired Metrodome, is antiquated, compared to recently built NFL coliseums. The 64,000 capacity is one of the smallest in the league and the facilities within need immediate upgrading, but the real problem with the Dome, from the NFL’s point of view, is the lack of enough luxury suites. These sealed rooms circling the stadium feature nicer chairs, better food, televisions, private bathrooms and a price tag equaling instant profit. The Metrodome wasn’t designed for luxury-suite expansion, hence the call for a brand new facility.

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has expressed his willingness to pay one-third of a new stadium’s cost, but with a catch. Wilf insists he only wants an open-air stadium with no roof, and he knows numerous state interests will only consider building a roofed facility. The cost difference is substantial — with a roof adding $200  million onto an already hefty $600 million cost — and Wilf insisting that his portion maxes out at a little more than $200 million forces the citizens in a state with a $6 billion deficit to pick up at least 3/4 of the building cost, not including additional upgrades needed, such as parking and infrastructure.

Los Angeles lost its two NFL teams, the Rams and the Raiders, the same year, 1995. Since then, not including teams that would never move (the New York teams, Dallas, Pittsburgh) and the five expansions teams, 10 NFL teams have gotten new stadiums, and most of them had the threat of “you’d better build a top notch stadium, or else LA!” hanging over the host city. Recently, the threats from the NFL have become more ominous as developers insist they want to bring two teams to LA. Coincidently, four NFL team owners are looking for new stadiums: San Diego, Buffalo, Jacksonville and our own Vikings. My guess is the NFL felt the potential of one team moving wasn’t enough to scare all four cities into action.

Let’s say Minnesota says no …
Hypothetically, let’s say Minnesota says no. With Los Angeles getting tired of being the dangled carrot, the Vikings would likely ship out, leaving an empty feeling, a lot of anger, and more open Sundays for a lot of Minnesotans, but my friend’s assertion we’d have a new team in a few years, I feel, is a bit off. As we saw firsthand with the NHL’s North Stars, letting a team leave your city isn’t hard, until the realization they’re gone settles in. I think before the first season is out, the lack of a local team and the national attention the Twin Cities gets for having an NFL team, and being relegated to follow the Green Bay Packers, a team most Minnesotans under the age of 55 have grown up hating, would create an immediate outcry to get a team at all costs, potentially manifesting itself in a billion and a half dollar, top-line stadium’s keys being handed over to a billionaire team owner. If we waited for the league to expand, it would cost us a billion dollars just to get the right to have an expansion team, and that’s before the stadium costs.

If we do decide to build, I wish state politicians would call Wilf’s bluff and only authorize an outdoor stadium, and update the Metrodome as much as possible to have an indoor facility on hand. My guess is Wilf would eventually call that plan inadequate and move the team regardless. Then Minnesota would become the bridesmaid, the city every owner uses to threaten their community with, much as we saw with numerous NHL teams after our hockey team fled to Dallas.

The scary reality for many communities is that the emotional cost of losing a sports team is far greater than the actual cost of keeping them, regardless of the size of the check, and as long as the owners of these teams know this, the threats to move will never stop.

Matthew McNeil is the 6 p.m. weeknight host on AM 950, KTNF.