Vikings stadium: How will Pawlenty’s decision affect the future of the state’s popular NFL franchise?

If there is poetry in timing, then today’s Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission meeting was a compelling ode to the merging of sports and politics.

Think of the “The Odyssey” or “Paradise Lost.” For when it comes to professional sports stadiums, the journey is always the most politically charged part and the “cold Omaha” image sans teams is the tired-but-true fear factor.

Less than 20 hours after Gov. Tim Pawlenty — no stadium advocate he — announced he won’t run for a third term, the long- and much-maligned Sports Facilities Commission coincidentally gathered for a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the future of the aging and obsolete Metrodome and the impending deadline facing the agency and the Minnesota Vikings.

The Vikings’ “use agreement” — or lease — expires after the 2011 season. It takes three years to build a new stadium that’s sure to cost in the $1 billion range. For eight years, Pawlenty has ducked stadium issues deftly. A Twins ballpark and new University of Minnesota stadium were built under his watch, but, mostly, over his obstructions or inertia. A shared Vikings-Gophers stadium notion — a rational and socially responsible missed opportunity — crumbled under his watch.

Dome’s days are numbered
So here they sat, the relatively powerless stadium commissioners today, talking about how to keep the Dome afloat financially once the Twins vacate the premises after this baseball season and, come September, with the Gophers ready to play in their sparkling new TCF Bank Stadium a short walk away. Then, of course, there’s the catastrophic scenario: Can the Dome survive without the Vikings, too? (Short answer: No.)

There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global recession, terrible unemployment, flu worries, collapsing auto giants and millions without health care. Agreed. Stipulated to.

But on autumn Sundays, the Vikings are a state-wide cultural activity for many and — on some Sundays — for most Minnesotans. The future of the Dome and the franchise is racing toward a deadline and, of course, how the matter is resolved will land on the governor’s and Legislature’s plate. It’s not easy. It’s not pleasant. But we’ve got a situation here, folks.

Will it be on tap next session in 2010? Or will it be a matter for the next governor in 2011 with the clock ticking for a Vikings threat to move and much of the leverage shifting to owner Zygi Wilf and his partners?

Exactly how Pawlenty’s political future and the circus of a gubernatorial campaign will affect our next mother-of-all stadium debates is unclear.

My assessment of stadium politics
Based on conversations with stadium commissioners, Vikings officials and some lobbyists, consider this a mixture of educated speculation and bold assertions …

• The Vikings — the state’s most popular team in the nation’s most powerful league — are guaranteed to be in Minnesota for just three more seasons. The team isn’t in the mood to extend its lease at the Dome. The 2009 Legislature and the governor had a ton of stuff to deal with, and the Vikings stadium matter barely got a glimpse.

• The Pawlenty announcement could cut two ways: one that’s somewhat good for the Vikings, and one that’s not so good. Methinks the answer is the latter.

His new status as a somewhat disengaged lame duck isn’t good for any urgent issue.

• For the sake of argument, let’s take the opposite view, that his announcement frees him up to take new positions now that he’s not running for re-election. A stretch, but let’s go with it for now.

After all, in another context, at his news conference Tuesday, he said that by not running, “We can be ultimately aggressive without having to worry about the consequences.”

But the stadium issue is tricky, based on the governor’s previous positions.

Although the team must come up with much more private money than it’s previously suggested, there will be a public funding/financing component to any Vikings stadium deal. There will be. And it will have to focus on state funding, not local subsidies.

Pawlenty has long posited the notion that there must be a “local partner” in any stadium deal; that’s the Twins’ Target Field finance model, with Hennepin County paying for the thing and the state walking away scot-free.

But unless something miraculous occurs, there is no local partner to help fund the Vikings stadium. Hennepin County can’t be expected to subsidize it. The city of Minneapolis alone shouldn’t be asked to take it on.

Any statewide or metro-wide finance plan for a new stadium would run counter to the governor’s long-held no-new-taxes position. (He looked the other way on the Twins deal because the County Board had to take the tough vote, not him.)

Tuesday, during his news conference, the governor made it clear the stadium matter was a bothersome fly buzzing around. He made a very dismissive comment about it when asked about the agenda for the 2010 session and his lessening of power.

He called the 2010 session “a kind of adjustment session,” with no major issues to tackle. Then, he added, “The usual suspects will dangle some shiny objects in front of [us] like a Vikings stadium …”

He didn’t say he liked shiny objects.

• Why would he dive in to the Vikings situation? What’s in it for him at this stage?

Well, because if he’s running for president in 2012, the team could be in a full-blown relocation mode or a last-ditch threat phase if the stadium issue isn’t settled by then. Maybe he’d take the blame, although a DFL-controlled Legislature could, too.

Pro football in Minnesota won’t exactly be a major campaign issue in the Pawlenty-Obama debates, but it would show a certain lack of engagement on Pawlenty’s part in a relatively important statewide asset.

• But this leads to the more likely scenario. He does nothing significant to help get a Vikings stadium built during his administration. And he takes no heat.

If anyone else wants to push the stadium idea in 2010, Pawlenty lets them.

But who will?

Many of the potential gubernatorial candidates of both parties are in the Legislature already. As with the Twins ballpark debate of the 1990s and early 2000s, the issue of Vikings stadium support or opposition will become a litmus test for gubernatorial candidates. Newspaper “Voter’s Guides” and anti-tax groups will seek superficial yes/no answers on: “Do you support public funding for a Vikings stadium?”

Candidates in knee-jerk fashion will check off, “No,” locking themselves in.

(Already, a citizens group called Taxpayers United For Rational Football Funding has been formed, and a couple of its members attended today’s meeting. The grass-roots opposition is already organizing.)

Apparently, Democratic legislative leaders already have decided that, without support from the governor, they won’t elevate the Vikings issue in 2010. They don’t want it to be a DFL-linked albatross.

Also, every legislator is up for re-election in 2010, and the composition of the Legislature will determine the critical issue of statewide legislative redistricting, which comes with the 2010 U.S. Census. Both parties want to gain control of the Legislature to dictate the ultimate gerrymandering.

Thus, it seems likely the Vikings debate moves into 2011 and into the hands of a new occupant of the Capitol’s corner office.

• Here’s the next trick: Whoever fills that seat may have been running on a platform opposing public funding for a Vikings stadium. How will the new governor adjust, tweak or flip-flop on his or her campaign position once in office?

Indeed, the best Wilf and company can hope for in the 2010 election cycle is that no potential governors paint themselves into any no-way/no-how/hell-no position on stadium funding during the campaign.

It will be dicey, but the Vikings’ best talking point for any candidate has got to be: “The Vikings are a major state asset. We’d be a lesser community without them. I’m a candidate who can solve problems. I don’t know the answers right now, but I’m confident we can roll up our sleeves and get this done. I’m a problem-solver, not a naysayer.”

For their part, the Vikings are putting on a happy face and already have developed a cute one-liner. Lester Bagley, vice president of public affairs/stadium development, told MinnPost today, “The governor still has 19 months left, and we look forward to working with him on the other term that expires.”

The Vikes’ once-30-year-long Dome lease is that other term, of course. Its days are as numbered as Gov. Pawlenty’s.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Brian Marshall on 06/03/2009 - 04:38 pm.

    Wow, Jay. It appears that you will be losing quite a bit off sleep over this issue during the next couple of years. Just so you know, I will be sleeping well every night because I will not miss the Viking sfor one second if they leave town.

    In any event, Vikings fans in Minnesota will soon come to realize that it will not be the end of the world. There are other things to do with their time. They can always go to a Gopher football game. And let’s face it, it is undeniable that the loss of a major corporate employer has a much larger impact on a state than the loss of a professional football team that only plays eight home games per year. We will be just fine without them.

  2. Submitted by Mabs Turner on 06/03/2009 - 05:48 pm.

    I think the state should look at what happened in Massachusetts in the mid 90s. Patriots owner Bob Kraft tried to strongarm the Mass leg and then gov to support building a new stadium. The legislature refused. He threatened to take the team to Conn. or RI. The Conn. governor (who is now in prison I believe, for corruption) was ecstatic and tried to convince Kraft and Co. to move to Hartford. Eventually Kraft blinked, built Gilette stadium with his own money — and the state only kicked in for road improvements. Kraft is now even richer than he was before — and the Pats went on to win three Super Bowls.

    Taxpayer monies should NEVER go to sports stadiums.

  3. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/03/2009 - 07:17 pm.

    Your take on the Vikings stadium issue is correct because we’ve yet to have the real, open, upfront, and honest conversations needed to build consensus.
    A solution that’s good for the Vikings and good for MN is possible, but that solution might not be as sweet as the “sweetheart” deal the Vikings are seeking or as profitable for Vikings owners as the sale of the franchise to someone who could move the team to the lucrative Los Angeles market.
    Since “no deal” or a “sweetheart deal” both work for Zygi, he’s not likely to drive a deal that’s good for the team and good for MN. Governor Pawlenty or other public officials or business leaders need to fill the leadership void to make a “good” stadium deal a reality.

  4. Submitted by William Jewell on 06/03/2009 - 08:28 pm.

    Mall of America, we have tourism needs where nothing major has happened in 17 years and a “General Purpose Stadium” capable of hosting Vikings Games and other events would be a revenue and tourism machine and the perfect location is south of Macy’s where TGIF Friday’s is located along with 50 year old properties up to 86th St.

    The Legislature and the Vikings need to listen to the people, 99% of the people “Want it where it used to be,” they just smile and say “yes,” and when asked about the tourism aspect, their reply, “It’s a no brainier;” the media can help spread the word and Vikings, don’t be selfish, just ask the people, the ones who will pay for it, where “they” want it…

    Mall of America is the “World’s Most Famous Mall” and in adding entertainment facilities, we will attract 5 million new tourists to Minnesota each year for 10,000 new jobs; Billionaire Babble folks, want to keep jobs from those who need them; and $1 Billion in new state tax revenue and once again a great image builder for Minnesota and its people. More information at http://www.bludog(dot)com. Thank you.

  5. Submitted by donald maxwell on 06/03/2009 - 08:43 pm.

    I continue to be amazed that even with an economy in shambles, thousands out of work, foreclosures everywhere, even the strongest free market advocates can be all for putting public funding into stadia for still-rich sports owners. What did Galbraith say, “Socialism for the rich, private enterprise for the poor”?

    The power of the owners is such that even a logical fellow like Jay can make the assumption that they will get public money for their business – not loan money, free money. Even without direct gifts to the owners in the form of stadium money, the public carries huge amounts of infrastructure costs to support stadia.

    There is a big sports market in the metro, and the club owners are not going to let it go to waste. They’ll threaten, but they won’t walk. But even if they do, someone will come in with a better deal. That is, if we have public leaders with guts.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/03/2009 - 09:03 pm.

    Yes indeed, the MN Vikings should be on our Minnesota priority list.

    It should be in its appropriate place in that list, somewhere south of…

    – health care
    – primary and secondary education funding
    – higher education funding
    – needed aid to local government entities
    – funding for our court systems
    – investment to prevent job losses
    – a variety of infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects
    – there are a lot more things I could list here which have a very fundamental relationship with our quality of life.

    Somewhere down near the bottom of that list is the proper place for worrying about funding for a pro sports stadium and the financial welfare of the franchisees.

  7. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/03/2009 - 10:01 pm.

    A deal that’s good for the Vikings and good for the general public should be the the goal… a “win-win” where the team and public both benefit…

    If both sides come out ahead, the public’s net proceeds would help to fund your priority list, not take away from it.

    If it’s a deal that benefits the team at the expense of the general public, it’s a “bad” deal and shouldn’t fly.

    We seem to be always looking for a good year to pass what everyone assumes will be a “bad” deal for the general public.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2009 - 06:48 am.

    I just don’t there is enough value in the deal to make it both good for the public and good for the Vikings. Stadium deals only work financially for the teams when the interests of the public are unrepresented and ignored.

  9. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/04/2009 - 08:04 am.

    There are many examples of stadiums that were privately funded with the public contribution limited to land, infrastructure, and tax relief.

    I don’t think any “new” taxes should be involved, but I do believe there are some “but for” taxes that would go away if we lost the Vikings. Only those tax revenues should be used for public stadium funding…

    In this case, if no one fights for the general public, we will lose the Vikings…. I have no doubt.

  10. Submitted by d gustafson on 06/04/2009 - 08:27 am.

    Here is a simple solution, why doesn’t Ziggy just take his 200+ Million he was going to contribute to a new Dome, and donate to the the Gopher stadium? it’s been built for additions anyway, then you could get seating up to 60,000 plus. Seems like the Gopher stadium already has more premium seat options then the dome anyway. Pro football fans can sit in bleachers too, they do it at Lambeau. Then in end the stadium is still a half billion dollar upgrade over the dome. There is no reason they couldn’t share a stadium on campus.

    Well, as long as the U lets them sell booze anyway.

  11. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/04/2009 - 09:42 am.

    LOL… do you really think Zygi going to contribute anything to a new Vikings stadium?

    Stadium naming-rights, seat licenses, and the NFL’s contribution will more than pay for the $250 million team contribution.

    As far as sharing the Gophers stadium… will the U let Zygi re-name their stadium? Will the NFL contribute to the Gophers’ on-campus stadium? What about parking revenues? Development rights? etc., etc….

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2009 - 10:28 am.

    “There are many examples of stadiums that were privately funded with the public contribution limited to land, infrastructure, and tax relief.”

    That’s like saying the stadium is cheap just as long as you ignore the price.

    We to choose between building a stadium for the Gophers or the Vikings. For whatever reason, we chose the Gophers and it’s a little late to back out that decision now.

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2009 - 10:32 am.

    By the way, the naming rights issue is one that is easily solved. What’s valuable about naming rights is their use during TV broadcasts. Give the stadium two names. One name to be used during college games, the other during pro games. Change the signage accordingly.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2009 - 10:38 am.

    “There is a big sports market in the metro, and the club owners are not going to let it go to waste. They’ll threaten, but they won’t walk.”

    We have to deal with the reality here; there isn’t anyting at all stopping the Vikings from leaving if it that’s what they want to do. Football, unlike baseball, doesn’t need large markets to thrive. The Packers do quite nicely in Green Bay, the Rams seem to be just fine in St. Louis. Because smaller markets can sustain NFL franchises, there will be a lot of competition for the Vikings should they decide to move. And that’s without even considering Los Angeles whose lack of a franchise is glaring.

  15. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/04/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    Are you aware the NFL will charge an existing franchise at least a $300 million relocation fee to move to the lucrative LA market?

    …and don’t tell me about LA’s history of lost NFL teams.

    LA doesn’t have a pro-style stadium and never has. The LA market will easily support two NFL franchises once a new pro-style stadium is built in the City of Industry by Ed Roske.

    Can you say… Los Angeles Vikings??

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2009 - 12:57 pm.

    “Are you aware the NFL will charge an existing franchise at least a $300 million relocation fee to move to the lucrative LA market?”

    I am aware that the NFL will charge a premium price for what is a premium market. But the country is full of cities that could support an NFL franchise.

  17. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/04/2009 - 01:45 pm.

    ..and don’t forget Toronto.

  18. Submitted by Paul S. on 06/10/2009 - 01:06 am.

    L.A. is flat broke. Don’t worry about them…

    But when you do build a stadium… can you do us hardcore football fans a favor??… No domes please…You guys lost your mystic when you put away the blowtorches.

  19. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 06/15/2009 - 07:50 am.

    If & when we build a new Vikings stadium, it will have a retractable-roof. Building a third open-air stadium would be insane.

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