We don’t know tons about Craig Leipold, the new Minnesota Wild owner, not yet — he’s now had the franchise for a few hours — but we do know the M.O. of new team owners nationwide and the track record of new owners locally.
We also know about the Wild’s lease situation at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and the arena battles with Minneapolis’ Target Center. Those battles are intensifying as we speak.
We know the hockey-lover from Racine, Wis., paid $80 million for the Nashville NHL team in 1997 and sold it last year for a reported $193 million. Clearly, he’s using some of that profit to buy the Wild.
We know, too, a Wisconsin stadium anecdote about Leipold from a dozen years ago that is informative, but not conclusive.
(I’ll keep you hanging on that final note until the bitter end.)
Naegle’s hands-off approach worked well
As Bob Naegele backs off to be a smaller investor, the franchise loses a quirky, religious guy who was pretty hands-off, which allowed him to hire some top executives, such as finance guru Pam Wheelock — the former finance chief for the state of Minnesota — and marketing whiz Matt Majka. Of course, team President Doug Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire have done well. It has been, since it started, the best-run franchise in town.
To his credit, Naegele and his partners poured some of their own dough — about $45 million — into the arena when it was built.
But, of course, they also got a totally paid for $130 million arena, with state and city money, and received a virtual turnkey deal to operate the facility. That’s different from the woeful Timberwolves and owner Glen Taylor. That is, the Wild control every dollar that flows into the Xcel Energy and RiverCentre, the convention center. The Wolves share their dough with an arena manager and a concessionaire.
But, the Wild have a large debt each year to cover city taxes. It’s nearly $7 million a year, a lot for an NHL franchise. It would be nice for it to be less . . . for a new owner.
Will new owner seek concessions?
When I asked Leipold today if he had plans to renegotiate his lease, he said, “No plans at this point.”
Mayor Chris Coleman, in attendance at the sale news conference, said he knew of no plans on the new owner’s part to seek debt relief. Coleman would only say he’s “committed to keep the Wild a success.”
And Wheelock, who was on the city side when the arena deal was struck and then switched to the team side soon after, said any adjustments would have to be negotiated.
But when teams change hands, owners seek lease concessions. It happens all the time. Carl Pohlad did when he bought the Twins. Red McCombs sure did when he took over the Vikings. Zygi Wilf’s lease arrangement at the Metrodome has little wiggle room, but on the day he bought the team he said he wanted a new stadium. Taylor rejiggered his Target Center deal completely; the city of Minneapolis bought the darn thing before he took over the NBA franchise.
(Note: We know this about Leipold, according to a quick perusal of clips: He married into the super-wealthy S.C. Johnson family, the wax people. His wife, Helen Johnson-Leipold brought a lot of dough to the marriage. We know, according to published reports, that he hired replacement workers once at one of his factories during a contentious strike.)
Bottom line: New owners get honeymoons. They also ask for stuff.
Oh, that Wisconsin stadium anecdote.
In 1995, a Wisconsin state senator named George Petak flip-flopped on his stadium politics. A Republican, he supported a new Milwaukee Brewers stadium. Then he changed his mind because a stadium tax was going to be extended to his county, Racine County. Ultimately, Petak voted for the new Brewers ballpark — the decisive vote.
For that vote, Petak was recalled by Racine’s citizens. His departure from the Legislature meant that control of the Senate went over to the Democrats. That one vote altered the face of Wisconsin politics.
A young fellow named Craig Leipold was a stadium backer then. He contributed $950 to Petak’s campaign to help the senator retain his seat.
The new Wild owner is a player.