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As interim solution, stadium commission offering new deal to keep Vikings in Dome

In exchange for a lease extension, the commission is offering some new cash, some longstanding cash — but with new strings attached — and some new-stadium planning assistance.

A 1991 photo of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Photo by Mark Fay/Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A 1991 photo of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

So, you’ve said a couple of times you have no intention of extending your lease. Well, we’re your landlord, Zygi Wilf, so try this on for size.

We’ll offer you some dough … or maybe take some away. In exchange, you’ve got to extend your Metrodome lease even before state taxpayers and lawmakers decide on the future of any new stadium.

That’s what the finance committee of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission seemed to be saying this morning in a nuanced move that could be viewed as either hostile to the team or as the first — albeit tense — step in keeping the team in the Metrodome beyond its current lease, which expires after the 2011 season.

To be sure, the commission, led by its activist finance committee chairman Paul Thatcher, threw down a gauntlet, or as much of a gauntlet as its shrinking revenues allow. The commission passed a five-page, legally vetted resolution with an unwieldy title: “Relating to Metrodome Revenue Enhancements, Vikings’ Commitments, and Harmonization of Commission-Viking Relations.” (PDF)

Sounds like a harp is playing. Everyone wants to keep the Vikings forever, right?

A surprise for the team
Prognosis? Don’t bet on this harmonizing relations stuff. Indeed, the resolution passed today without the Vikings’ stadium lobbyists and executives even knowing it was coming or its details. (The Vikings reacted angrily later in the day. See the team’s reaction here.)

The commission, which owns and operates the 28-year-old facility, offered the team some new cash (about $675,000 a year), some longstanding cash but with new strings attached (about $4 million a year) and some new-stadium planning assistance ($500,000 a year).

In exchange, the commission, a public agency charged with preserving pro football in the state, wants the team to agree to play at the Dome for at least two years beyond the 2011-season end date on its current lease.

Specifics:

• Currently, the commission, which is self-sufficient and has been whacked by the departure of the Twins and University of Minnesota football team, keeps post-season/playoff stadium revenues. The Vikings have sought that cash, which amounts to about $675,000 per game.

The finance committee voted to give that money to the team from last season, and going forward. That’s good for the team.

• Currently, the commission forgives all rent that should be paid by the team. That’s been happening for nine years now as part of economic support sought by former team owners to keep competitive with other NFL teams with new, revenue-generating stadiums.

That rent payment has amounted to about $4 million a season or, so far, nearly $33 million. That’s been good for the team, too.

Under the commission’s resolution, that rental forgiveness would continue and the team’s lease would reflect that.

• BUT — this is the extremely large but — if the Vikings don’t agree to extend their lease beyond the 2011 season, that rent payment — $4 million per year — could go back in force. The extension price of $4 million annually seems to be the lever here.

• Plus, even if the Vikings agree to this offer, and if they leave town, they’d have to reimburse the commission for this added money in a so-called “clawback provision.”

• The commission will commit $500,000 a year to developing a new stadium plan, if it’s matched by the team.

• As it has already begun to do, the team can market — and capture all the revenues — from selling naming rights to entranceways and even to the playing surface,  which is now called Mall of America Field. With the Twins and Gophers in their own new stadiums, the Vikings can better control the Dome assets, if only for 10 games a season. Thatcher said that Vikings’ marketing amounts to about $1 million per year for the team.

In essence, Thatcher and a unanimous vote of the finance committee today turned that rent forgiveness issue — a significant $4 million a year — into a bargaining chip to push the Vikings to extend their lease at the Dome.

The move seems to have been triggered by public comments that Lester Bagley, Vikings’ director of public affairs and stadium development vice president, has made over the past few months that the team has no intention of extending its Dome lease. Indeed, Thatcher said today the resolution is “a direct response to the Vikings — unilaterally and without discussion — putting a new stake in the ground that under no circumstances would they extend the [lease].”

Bagley didn’t attend the meeting. He was traveling with players and team officials in Owatonna. But later in the day, he reacted angrily to the proposal.

As for the quid-pro-quo of exchanging rent forgiveness and other matters for a lease extension and clawback provision, Thatcher said without the Vikings agreeing to that, “The public would come and rip our gizzards out … We simply must have substantial consideration to do this.”

What it means
A few thoughts:

• To be fair, the Wilfs haven’t been gratuitously banging the table about a new stadium recently. Oh, they talk about it, sure, and have some of the finest lobbyists in the state on their side — Larry Redmond and Brian Halloran — but they’ve been relatively restrained.

To be sure, they want to bring it before the Legislature in 2010, an exercise that Thatcher called “politically impossible” today. He said, “No person with a political IQ over 3” believes a Vikings’ stadium proposal can be put on the legislative agenda until 2011, when a new governor is in office. Could be true, but the Vikes want some activity now.

• For his part, Sports Facilities Commission chairman Roy Terwilliger, who attended the finance committee meeting today, challenged Thatcher on the “harmonization” issue, noting that some key elements of the resolution haven’t been fully discussed with the team.

Presumably, Terwilliger knows that won’t sit well with an ownership group of real estate and shopping mall moguls from New Jersey that is impatient by nature and increasingly perplexed by Minnesota’s bizarre and extended stadium mating dance. This commission proposal might seem like fighting words, rather than let’s-make-nice. If the Wilfs know anything, it’s how landlords behave.

• In some ways, the audience seems to be the National Football League and its moguls, as the commission shows it is rolling up its sleeves and trying to make things happen. And the audience is the Minnesota taxpayers, too, who, it seems, aren’t willing to pull a new $1 billion stadium out of a state budget that’s headed for record deficits. Here, a public agency, with members appointed by the City of Minneapolis and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, seems to be engaged. Elected officials over at the state Capitol now have a template to work off of.

“We can’t impose this on them [the Vikings],” Thatcher said of the resolution, which may or may not be fully negotiated by the team.

The full commission will vote Thursday on this. Consider this a small, but dramatic, step in a saga that has a very long way to play out.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.