Soccer as political football

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As weird as it is to write, in just a couple of years, Minneapolis-Saint Paul will be home to one of the greatest collections of sports facilities on earth. That’s not hyperbole. With the completion of the Downtown East Stadium, MSP will boast separate facilities for professional and college football, hockey, and basketball teams, as well as major and minor league baseball. After the Target Center renovation, the oldest professional sports facility in the state will be the Xcel Energy Center, which opened in 2000. Save for the latest Olympic cities, few other places can claim a similarly modern and lauded sports infrastructure.

That’s why it all seems a bit perverse to many people when talk emerges of yet another stadium, this time for a potential expansion Major League Soccer (MLS) team. This skepticism is well-earned. (Sample Strib comment: “Well, here it comes again. It won’t be long before we’re regaled with tales of businesses leaving town and we becoming a cold Omaha if we don’t build them a stadium.”) The bitter taste surrounding the Downtown East stadium deal is still palpable. The academic consensus that sports facilities provide little economic benefit is becoming more politically internalized.

This discussion is poised to metastasize extremely quickly over this winter. MLS has publicly stated its determination to expand to Minnesota, and the numbers support the interest. A decision on expansion will likely come in March or April of next year, though no official date has been established. Regardless of when the final word comes, a professional soccer team is a near inevitability for MSP. Even Sid Hartman says it.

The real question is: whose team? Two wealthy, well-connected groups from Minnesota met with MLS executives on November 20th. The difference maker will be their respective plans for a stadium, and that decision could have important implications for the city, the county, and the region.

The more well-known of the two bidders are the Minnesota Vikings and the Wilf family that owns the team. Their plan is to create a new expansion franchise that will play in the Downtown East stadium. On Tuesday, the 2nd of December, they unveiled a rendering that shows their plans for a soccer configuration. There is a long history of MLS teams playing in converted NFL stadiums. It’s not a glorious one. When the league started in 1996, much of the league played in American football stadiums and struggled to fill even a quarter of the seats. Soccer is a game that, more than any other, derives a lot from the fan-created atmosphere. MLS’ recovery from the brink of collapse to mainstream success has been strongly tied to a league-wide trend of moving out of shared facilities into smaller, team-owned “soccer specific stadiums” (SSS).

However, it’s not entirely certain that the problem was specifically the “NFL” part of the first generation stadiums. Three teams currently play in football stadiums and the differences between them are instructive. The New England Revolution—owned by the Kraft family, who also own the Patriots—have come under severe criticism for the poor atmosphere in Gillette Stadium stadium, but managed to draw large crowds at the close of the most recent season, in which they made it to the MLS Cup final. Nonetheless, they are actively looking to build a SSS in downtown Boston. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps share BC Place with the CFL’s BC Lions. That stadium employs a unique tarp system which blocks off the upper deck and makes the stadium experience feel more intimate for soccer, a strategy that the Vikings would also employ. The atmosphere in Vancouver is well regarded, and the club frequently sells out. Then there are the Seattle Sounders, who share their stadium, Century Link Field, with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seattle is the rebuttal to those who argue that NFL stadiums cannot work for soccer. The Sounders regularly pack the lower bowl of the stadium, boasting crowds in excess of 30,000. For special rivalry matches, especially those against the hated Portland Timbers, the entire stadium is opened up and is always sold out. There are few who would argue that the soccer experience in Seattle is not among the absolute best in the country.

The key difference between the three football stadiums may be their proximity to downtown. While Gillette Stadium is a long drive outside of central Boston in Foxboro, Massachusetts, BC Place is on the downtown Vancouver peninsula, and Century Link Field is on the southern end of downtown Seattle. There, fans march to the match through the streets of downtown, singing and beating drums past coffee shops, apartments, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops. As an urban experience goes, it’s hard to top a peaceful soccer riot.

There is a growing consensus among soccer fans that the sport’s future is downtown. This follows the logic that the game’s most loyal fans are also those pouring back into urban areas across the country. CityLab recently wrote: “It’s likely that more young, dedicated soccer fans will flood America’s urban centers in the years to come—and it’s imperative that the MLS follows them there.” It’s seems clear that MLS has come to the same conclusion. One of the other contenders for MLS expansion is a bid in Miami led by global superstar David Beckham. Announced almost a year ago, Beckham’s group has been consistently stymied by Miami politicians and entrenched interests who have rejected multiple soccer specific stadium proposals (even privately funded ones), while MLS has continued to insist on a downtown location or nothing. Meanwhile, the league has announced a 2017 expansion to Atlanta, where the team will be owned by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and play in the new downtown Falcons stadium.

Still, it’s believed that given the choice, MLS would prefer to get a stadium that is both “soccer specific” (among the reasons, soccer players do not take kindly to football turfanddowntown. That’s where Minnesota United FC comes in. The Loons currently play in the NASL, a division below MLS, and are owned by Dr. McGuire, the former CEO of United Health Group. He is believed to be joined in the bid by the Polhad family, of the Twins, Glen Taylor of the Timberwolves and Star Tribune, and several other investors.

Exact details on the United group’s proposal are sketchy, as the team has said very little publicly. Much of the reporting before has come from unnamed sources and speculation. Still, there have been enough fragments of information to piece together a picture. The United plan is believed to involve building a stadium near the Minneapolis Farmers Market, directly next to the future Royalston Station of the Green Line SW extension. This location first surfaced publicly with a statement from the 2020 partners, a collection of downtown Minneapolis business leaders whose vision for the area included the stadium. Subsequent news reports confirmed the interest, and further reporting has targeted the property at 501 Royalston Avenue as the likely location.

There are a number of reasons why this location would appeal to United, not the least of which is the next-door mass transit just a stop away and easy walking distance from the major hub at Target Field. The team is also believed to be planning a stadium design similar to Kansas City’s Sporting Park, which is drawing sellout crowds despite being far from downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Were it already constructed, it’s hard to see the Vikings option appealing much in comparison to the decision makers at MLS.

But those are the key words; “were it already constructed”. This X-factor is no small hurdle, and it accounts for nearly all the uncertainty and debate that surrounds the Minnesota-to-MLS question. The not-quite-proposed United stadium is the eponymous political football.

Less than a month ago, when both groups visited MLS headquarters to plead their case, the United group was accompanied by Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, a principal architect of the political process that got Target Field approved. In a recent KSTP feature, Opat said his support for the team was based on the McGuire group’s “long-standing commitment to soccer in Minnesota”, and took pains to downplay the idea that the county would play a heavy role in financing the stadium, as it did with the Twins, and as the city of Minneapolis and the state did with the Downtown East Stadium. That’s a paramount point, and it’s plausible. Soccer stadiums in the US have traditionally run between $90 million (Houston’s downtown BBVA Compass Stadium) and $400 million (Harrison, NJ’s Red Bull Arena). United’s rumored model, Sporting Park, cost $200 million. These numbers are a far cry from the cost of Target Field, nearly $600 million in 2014 dollars, or the Downtown East Stadium, which cost over a billion. Meanwhile, the McGuire group can boast a net worth that likely exceeds 5 billion dollars. Between the group, a $200 stadium could realistically be build without reaching into public coffers.

Minneapolis and state officials (as well as Star Tribune comment sections) have been adamant about not spending public funds on soccer. The Strib quoted Governor Dayton as saying, “If [a soccer stadium] requires a public subsidy, I think we should say no.” Some use even less qualifications in their opposition. In the same article, Mayor Hodges said, “The city does not need another stadium to host soccer. With the new [Vikings] stadium, Target Center and Target Field, Minneapolis already has all the venues it needs.”

One further concern from the city and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority has been the loss of revenue that would come from an MLS team playing elsewhere. While negotiating the stadium bill, the legislature included language giving the Vikings a five year right to operate an MLS team that would play in the Downtown East Stadium. This team would pay about $340,000 over the course of a season to rent the building. While the number seems small in relation to overall stadium costs, both the MSFA and local officials have voiced their opposition to a dedicated SSS on the grounds of lost revenue.

What might sway local stakeholders, who would certainly have to approve certain features of the United plan regardless of funding, is the potential economic benefit that the stadium would bring. But would it actually make a difference? Despite glowing projections, stadiums are almost never a good investment for a city. Even a privately funded stadium would not bring in tremendous development. The MLS season would likely contain 16-20 home games a year, plus friendly matches. That’s more than the paltry eight that make up the NFL season, but a far cry from the incredible 81 home games that are played by baseball teams. A better case surely lies along the lines of the City Lab article cited earlier. Polls have found that MLS’s popularity among young people rivals that of baseball. A soccer stadium would be a downtown amenity that would appeal directly to 18-30 year olds who are already moving back in. The decidedly unsexy part of town surrounding the farmers market, to the west of Target Field would surely get a lift from a marquee tenant like MLS. The benefits of putting a second team in the Downtown East Stadium, at least from a “revitalize this part of town” perspective are nearly non-existent, since the building is already happening.

Then there’s the bizarre but intriguing idea of building an “organic digester” under the proposed stadium. As stadium building gambits would go, that would be a first.

The ultimate decision will come from MLS, who is also weighing an expansion bid from Sacramento, who hope to use their stadium to revitalize an area of their downtown. Speculative efforts from Las Vegas and San Antonio are also brewing, while Miami remains in a holding pattern. But it may be that MLS will lean heavily on the prospects of local stadium discussions in making their bid. It’s a discussion many in the Twin Cities thought they wouldn’t be having, at least until the Wild start threatening to move to Texas. But it’s come anyway, and once more offers equal helpings of opportunity and acrimony.

[Full disclosure: the writer is a fan and former intern at Minnesota United FC, one of the bidders, and has written in their support. This article aims to be a fair-minded, informational review of what has taken place so far and the urban consequences, not an argument in support of one side or the other.]

This post was written by Alex Schieferdecker and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/10/2014 - 03:24 pm.

    Venues

    There are lots of stadiums around town that can converted fairly easily to soccer stadiums. And some of them would turn out to be a lot nicer than some Premier League stadiums. Let soccer prove itself before giving it a local edifice.

  2. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 12/10/2014 - 08:03 pm.

    What do the NFL & the largest health insurance provider have to

    I enjoyed the MN KICKS enormously, when younger, and would love to see pure soccer back in MN, totally standalone and completely disconnected from football or health insurance Big Bucks.

    The NFL has long denigrated soccer.

    And United has made billions in healthcare profits over the years, on the backs of average Americans and thru creative shifting of monies, etc.

    Now, after years of struggling to grow among school-aged kids, and finally enjoying some success nationwide, and after a recent and fantastically successful World Cup, the above ‘rich guys’ see soccer dollar$ up for grabs and suddenly want to incorporate soccer under their umbrella.

    Oh hell, no.

  3. Submitted by Paul tuite on 12/10/2014 - 09:09 pm.

    Soccer is the future. Or at least some people’s future

    Soccer has proven itself. it is a modestly successful entertainment for 10,000 or so fans; typically less but the numbers will grow with a downtown location and a good venue. The farmers market and the banana strip near 394 and the impound lot are all poised to be developed; and plans fell through about 10 yrs ago as the economy tanked. If private investment can make it happen; possibly with a minimal investment for a conjoined garbage incinerator then maybe it would be worth the money. Clearly the indoor experience at the Vikings stadium on turf is not optimal and keeping the team in Blaine just does not help in encouraging a growing population in Minneapolis that the Mayor seeks. Will see. Obviously early childhood education and roads are areas that are first on the list for the governor and state funding is just not going to happen in the traditional fashion.

  4. Submitted by brian hanf on 12/11/2014 - 06:00 am.

    football fields are much smaller

    HIRAM FOSTER soccer fields are about 40% bigger than NFL fields. 100 yards, by about 53yard compared to 110 (minimum) to 120 (preferred) long by 74 to 85 wide.

    So name the stadium that would easily convert?

    Soccer in Minnesota has proven itself, over 5,000 people per game attended Minnesota United FC league games in suburban Blaine. The friendlies in Blaine against English premier league team Swansea sold over 9,000 tickets (stated capacity is 8,500) as well as a similarly over capacity number for the Mexican national U21 team.

    Not forgetting the 30,000 + tickets for the game at TCF stadium for that champions cup, between English and Greek teams.

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