Connecting the purple dots of stadium politics and the Viking suspensions

Kevin Williams
vikings.com
Kevin Williams

There are some purple dots that need to be connected as the Kevin Williams and Pat Williams diuretic drama flows on.

These are the dots of public funding for stadiums and the behavior of subsidized athletes and teams.

While the local sports pages seem to bemoan the suspensions because the NFL is harming the Vikings’ playoff chances, the issue is far more serious than wins or losses. It goes to one of the reasons — just one — why some taxpayers become outraged at the prospect of state or local tax dollars helping to fund a new Vikings stadium.

Why should we help pay for a facility that increases the value of a team to its owners and the salaries of its players … including players who can’t seem to follow the rules of the league, let alone the rules of society?

Of course, the jury seems to be out on the Williamses’ case. Lawsuits are on the horizon, and there is a claim of some sort of innocence.

(As someone who has covered Olympic sports for 20 years, I experience a strong feeling of schadenfreude as I watch football fans lash out at the unfair treatment of athletes who were “just trying to lose weight.” In 2006, a U.S. Winter Olympic athlete was banned from competing for a year because he tested positive for a drug to stop baldness. That same substance can mask steroid use. The World Anti-Doping Agency had zero tolerance, even for bald guys. I support that … but, then, I have hair.)

Players’ off-field scandals a blot on community
These off-field escapades — from the sordid “Love Boat” scandal to athletes in other cities carrying guns into nightclubs and shooting themselves — throw a pall over the value of pro sports to a community.

At its core, the argument for a new Vikings stadium — for any publicly financed facility — is that pro sports increase the civic imagery and national profile of a community. Pro sports provide a certain amount of community building in an era of urban sprawl and diffused demographics.

The best argument for pro sports subsidies can only be the intangibles because the economic arguments simply aren’t borne out.

But athletes — who drive and support the brand of a team — repeatedly beat down that brand. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are now in the midst of an ugly controversy in which star wide receiver Plaxico Burress carried an unregistered gun into a nightclub and shot himself. In New York City, carrying an unregistered firearm is a crime punishable by a mandatory jail sentence of three-and-a-half years.

Teammates, fans and some sports journalists are calling the Burress case “a distraction” for the champs. A distraction?

The Williamses get busted by the league for using a banned substance, and the main question from fans and local scribes and talking heads is: “How will this affect the Vikings playoff chances?”

Wait, it should affect their chances!

Pat Williams
vikings.com
Pat Williams

Teams regularly reach out to the community for good-vibe creation. Players serve turkey on Thanksgiving at homeless shelters. Players visit children’s hospitals. It’s part spin, part genuine, part ticket-selling, part brand-maintenance, part politics, part mythology.

The mythology: Athletes are role models.

Yep, it’s the “role model” thing that some folks haven’t gotten over yet.

Pat Williams, Kevin Williams — no matter what the outcome of this case — just lost their role-model points. They are known now — from Wikipedia to the New York Times — as being suspended for performance-enhancing drug use. Just Google it … forever.

Owner Zygi Wilf and his stadium-building crew just suffered another political setback … putting aside, if anyone can, the state’s impending zillion-dollar deficit and the scramble for priorities during a deep recession.

For years I have argued that if the public coffers fund and/or finance the construction or purchase of sports facilities, there must be an exchange from the team. There must be a real exchange of goods, but, mostly, community values.

Sure, we get the enjoyment of, say, 10 NFL games a year and the privilege of having a team of our own. On Sundays, in the Vikings’ case, we have this special statewide campfire that brings many of us together with a common, albeit frivolous, cause.

There is some value to that. It’s a good thing. It’s fun. We cheer as a state at once.

But teams must give more than games. Teams must provide more than $100 to a charity every time there’s a sack … by a player who might be violating the league’s drug policy.

How about team financial penalties for players’ illegal behavior?
As the Vikings stadium effort resumes at the 2009 Legislature, we know certain socially responsible language will be suggested and should be included in any legislation.

A stadium must be accessible via public transportation. A stadium must be built by union workers, with attention to minority and women contractors. There should be a certain amount of tickets set aside that are “affordable.” There should be limits on blackout games on TV. The public should get a piece of the action if the team is sold by the Wilfs at a windfall soon after the stadium opens. A public body must have oversight on naming rights.

(These are included in Twins legislation or lease agreements, by the way.)

But, now, in this 21st century, as athletes’ entitlement spins out of control, we need athlete (and owner) behavior clauses in stadium legislation.

We need to punish owners and leagues when their “role model” athletes break the law or violate drug policy. If teams and leagues want our tax dollars, we must demand that teams, leagues and players be model citizens.

How about something like this: “If any owner or player of the Minnesota-based NFL franchise is arrested, tried and convicted of a felony; if any player of the local franchise tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs under his league’s drug policy, the team will immediately release that player; … or, in the alternative, pay the state or local government unit the equivalent of one year’s debt service on the new stadium.”

How’s $60 million sound as a good fine for reprehensible off-field behavior? (Burress, by the way, could lose $20 million or more for his gun-toting escapade.)

We shouldn’t knee-jerk refuse to fund or finance a Vikings stadium. There should be, at the right time, a robust statewide debate on this important asset. The team is, generally, a good corporate citizen. The players are, generally, law-abiding people.

But as athletes’ salaries rise, as tickets cost more and TV games are pushed to paid cable channels, the owners and athletes must pay a steep price for the subsidies we provide when off-the-field  behavior spins out of control.

In the impending debate over Vikings’ stadium funding, the public might finally have some leverage. Some.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/03/2008 - 02:39 pm.

    “If teams and leagues want our tax dollars, we must demand that teams, leagues and players be model citizens.”

    Or we could just say ‘no’. No subsidies, and no government oversight on how they do business. It is a business, after all.

  2. Submitted by Anthony Salerno on 12/03/2008 - 02:54 pm.

    WOW! Couldn’t agree and disagree more. There needs to be tougher rules to get felons out of pro sports (the best way to control behavior is to threaten what is most important, right?).

    However, you’ve lost your mind with some of your suggestions as to penalties for bad behavior being directly benefiting the source of stadium funds. Over the long haul, the economic impact of construction and use of the facility, not to mention ancillary dollars generated by others investing near the stadium, gambling revenue (bookies eat too, right?), and alternative uses of the asset more than make up for the cost of the stadium. Ask the city of Arlington TX. They paid off the Ball Park in Arlington in 10 years because of the increase in tax revenue the stadium generated. Dallas and Dallas county dared Jerry Jones to go elsewhere and the deal in arlington was done in a couple of weeks. It’s all about dollars, not morals. Is pathetic and sad… but it is also true. Perhaps you should spend some time outside in the real world.

  3. Submitted by Mabs Turner on 12/03/2008 - 08:36 pm.

    It’s simple — the public shouldn’t be paying for sports stadiums. A far smarter and more fair example is in Massachusetts, where multimillionaire Bob Kraft (still not as rich as the Vike’s owner) tried to scare the state into paying for a new stadium, threatening to move to R.I. or Conn. The Mass. legislature called his bluff, said good luck, and he stayed, paid for a brand new state of the art stadium himself (in the mid 90s — and this was WAY before the current fiscal explosion when many state and municipalities said how high when sports owners said jump) and has made money hand over fist ever since (while the Patriots went on to win 3 super bowls). Kraft made out, and the citizens of Mass. still get to enjoy the Pats. It’s an outrage when the public subsidizes sports teams the way the people of NY just did when they stupidly bought a new stadium for the obscenely wealthy Yankees…it’s disgusting. And the people of Minn. should follow the lead of the smart folks in Mass. and say thanks but no thanks to funding millionaires. There is much better use for public monies. Mass. may be full of raging liberals but they’re not idiots.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/04/2008 - 06:16 am.

    I think the best argument for a new Vikings stadium is that having local pro sports teams is fun. I have a television set, not because it enhances my community standing or civic pride, but because I on occasion enjoy watching tv. The same goes for the Vikings or indeed any sports franchise. So for me, the question of whether the taxpayers should pay for a new stadium comes down to the highly subjective question of whether this is a cost effective use of my, and of course, your entertainment dollar.

    I spend maybe 60 dollars a month for cable tv which I use to watch the Vikings and other NFL football games, far more than my share of a stadium would cost me. So relatively speaking, does the Vikings stadium give me good value?

  5. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/04/2008 - 11:26 am.

    The missing stadium funding sources are not team owners or the general public. The missing stadium funding sources are businesses and season ticket holders.

    Private sources of stadium funding from the NFL, stadium naming-rights, seat licenses, development rights, a logical tribal contribution, etc… must be maximized before discussing team owner and general public contributions.

    My pet peeve is most general public contributions are not assigned their true value.

    What’s the value of not having to pay sales taxes on stadium construction materials?

    What’s the value of no property tax obligation with public stadium ownership?

    What’s the value of public land & infrastructure contributions?

    Meaningful stadium debates (I call them fierce conversations) won’t take place until all the cards are laid on the table and a logical method of stadium funding based on benefit is adopted.

    I happen to think 2009 will be a great time to have such debates for two reasons.

    First, the budget deficit will force us to maximize stadium funding from private sources and minimizes funding from public sources.

    Second, the general public still has a little leverage for bringing Zygi & Co. to the table… the Vikings still have 2009, 2010, and 2011 left on their Metrodome lease. If Zygi isn’t reasonable and walks away from a stadium deal that’s good for the Vikings and good for MN and insists on a “sweetheart” deal, I think he’d have trouble selling tickets for three “lame duck” Vikings seasons.

    And concerning the fear of the Vikings moving to LA… the league will charge at least a $300 million relocation fee if an existing team moves to the LA market. The Toronto Vikings or the Norfolk Vikings might be a greater threats.

  6. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/04/2008 - 12:44 pm.

    “The missing stadium funding sources are businesses and season ticket holders.”

    They finance the stadium by buying the tickets.

    “How about team financial penalties for players’ illegal behavior?”

    Actually, I think it’s the franchise that suffers most when players misbehave. Over the years, the Vikings have had their share of off the field problems. Those things have never affected the Vikings popularity with the fans, IMO, but it has made the stadium easier to oppose. More significantly, I think, it’s hurt the Vikings brand. The Wilfs, for example, would love to make a new Vikings stadium the centerpiece of a business development. But what business wants to associate itself in a permanent way with the Vikings? Knowing that there can be a scandal at any moment?

  7. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/04/2008 - 04:01 pm.

    Jon…

    According to Forbes Magazine, the Vikings had gate receipts of $42 million in during the 2007 season.

    Total team revenues were $195 million and player expenses were $122 million.

    Wanna amend your “They finance the stadium by buying the tickets.” statement?

  8. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/04/2008 - 04:46 pm.

    Sure people who pay for the tickets finance the stadium. They just aren’t the only source of revenue. And as I understand it, the whole point of building a new stadium is to increase ticket revenue.

    I look at this from my own personal perspective. I am a Vikings fan, but I haven’t actually attended a game in decades. When I watch the game on TV, I even flip through the commercials. In other words where the Vikings are concerned, I am a total freeloader. I am fine with that, but I am not going to knock the folks who do pay for those tickets, who in part, make the Vikings possible. Should they pay more? Should ticket prices be higher? That’s between the Vikings and their paying fans. I certainly am not going to say that they don’t pay enough, when I don’t pay anything at all.

  9. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/04/2008 - 06:27 pm.

    Jon, if you live or do any business in Hennepin County you’re helping to pay for the Twins stadium via a higher sales tax…

    Is it fair to force senior citizens on fixed incomes, who aren’t sports fan, to pay for new stadium?

    I happen to think we can fund a new Vikings stadium with no “new” taxes and only the use of current taxes which would go away if the Vikings leave or inceases taxes generated by the new stadium. These are called “but for” taxes…

    Of course new stadium are about generating new income streams… Are you aware the new Vikings stadium will most likely have 8,000 “Club” seats which will cost an average $400.00/game?

    Excessive public funding of stadiums is like publicly funding Country Clubs…

    Business and frequent fans must pay their fair share or you can kiss your beloved Vikings goodbye in 2012 or shortly afterwards.

  10. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/04/2008 - 11:05 pm.

    “Is it fair to force senior citizens on fixed incomes, who aren’t sports fan, to pay for new stadium?”

    It’s not unfair. Not all of personally benefit from every service government provides.

    I don’t think the taxes that would go away if the Vikings left would come close to paying for the stadium. The Vikings just aren’t that profitable to the community tax-wise.

    Since I don’t attend Vikings games, I don’t care what they charge for tickets. If they can charge exorbitant prices, more power to them. What’s important to me is what I get out of the deal. If a deal is good for me, and I am not saying any particular Vikings deal is or isn’t, I don’t care if it’s good for anyone else.

  11. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/04/2008 - 11:09 pm.

    “Business and frequent fans must pay their fair share or you can kiss your beloved Vikings goodbye in 2012 or shortly afterwards.”

    Fair or not, business and frequent fans are paying a whole lot more than their share for the Vikings than I am. In fairness, I really can’t say that the 60,000 fans who go to the games and should be paying more for their tickets, when the fact is, I am paying nothing at all.

  12. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/05/2008 - 06:25 am.

    Who’s going to pay for the $1 billion+ Vikings stadium project which doesn’t include the value of the 20-acre Metrodome site, infrastructure, and various forms of tax relief.

    What is the value of the publicly owned Metrodome site? You realize the 8-acre Twins stadium site, which is next to a garbage burner, cost over $30 million.

    How much will the proposed Winter Garden LRT station, which will be funded with federal tax dollars, cost and how much will it add to value of the surrounding property?

    What is the value of no property tax obligation with public stadium ownership?

    What is the value of no sales taxes on stadium construction materials?

    What’s the value of income tax exempt revenue streams that come with public stadium ownership?

  13. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/05/2008 - 07:09 am.

    Do we want the Vikings or not? If we do, retaining them comes with a price attached. If we make the decision as a community that the price is to high, or that we should not pay it, we must do it with the understanding that someone else will, and then the Vikings will be gone.

  14. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/05/2008 - 08:24 am.

    Of course we want to keep the Vikings in MN, but at what price?

    The “sweetheart” deal Zygi’s seeking is beyond belief.

    A stadium deal that’s good for the Vikings and good for MN is possible, but we’re nowhere near it yet.

  15. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/05/2008 - 09:01 am.

    Returning to the topic at hand…

    Ideally, the Vikings winning a Super Bowl and Vikings players being good role models should help their stadium cause, but such things should NOT justify a “sweetheart” deal that’s great for the team and bad for MN.

  16. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/05/2008 - 09:05 am.

    Something to remember about NFL football franchises. The market for them is much more competitive than for some other sports because the cost and commitment to NFL games is relatively inexpensive. That means the pool of cities that can support an NFL team is much larger than it is, for example with baseball which requires much larger communities to support it.

    The NFL thrives in Green Bay, a small Wisconsin town. And the Rams found it profitable to leave the large Los Angeles market for St. Louis when the deal was good enough. For years now, the NFL has allowed the huge Los Angeles market to go without a franchise because the size of the market doesn’t have all that much to do with the profitability of a franchise.

    My point is that we engage in philosophical and political debates about how much a stadium should cost and who should pay for it, other communities will be putting real offers on the table, offers that the Wilfs will not be able to afford not to accept.

  17. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/05/2008 - 09:44 am.

    LA doesn’t have one or two NFL franchises because there isn’t a revenue generating pro-style football stadium there yet.

    …and yes. Zygi’s got up by the short hairs. He wins if he gets his “sweetheart” deal or not.

    You realize he’ll be able to sell the franchise in a couple years for at least $1 billion without a new stadium, don’t you?

    Zygi’s on-track for matching Red’s $500 million total profit “windfall” in six years. It took Red seven years.

  18. Submitted by Jon Miners on 12/05/2008 - 11:24 am.

    “You realize he’ll be able to sell the franchise in a couple years for at least $1 billion without a new stadium, don’t you?”

    I simply don’t care whether about the deal Zygi makes for himself. He is going to make his money somewhere. What I do care about is whether a good deal or bad deal is made on behalf of Minnesotans. I am in favor of driving as hard a bargain as we can to keep the Vikings here. My guess is that the Wilfs will settle for less here than they can get elsewhere. But they will not be played for fools. If we make the decision to stand on some high philosophical or moral principle and not negotiate with the Wilfs in good faith, they will take their team elsewhere.

  19. Submitted by Spadafora Spadafora on 12/05/2008 - 02:54 pm.

    good… then we agree.

    We need a deal that’s good for the Vikings and good for MN. NOT a “sweetheart” deal that great for the Vikings and bad for MN.

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