New focus group report, showing surprising openness to sales tax, could be key to Vikings stadium effort

HHH Metrodome circa 1991
Photo by Mark Fay/Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Vikings are seeking a replacement for the Metrodome, shown here in 1991.

These citizens didn’t know the Vikings lease at the Metrodome is set to expire in two years.

A statewide sales tax to help fund a Vikings stadium, considered a non-starter by many legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, doesn’t offend them. Meanwhile, adding slot machines to horse racing tracks is their top funding choice.

Political leaders who back a Vikings stadium won’t feel electoral consequences, not from these groups of folks anyway.

Those are the highlights of a report distributed today to key legislators at the Capitol and obtained this afternoon by MinnPost.

The project was commissioned by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the agency that owns and operates the 28-year-old Metrodome. The commission — the landlord — and the Vikings — the tenant — have been in a contentious dance over the past few months about extending the team’s Dome lease past the 2012 expiration while also seeking public funding for a new stadium.

The six-page report grew out of five focus groups conducted between April 13 and 21 in the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth. Each group had between nine and 11 participants who were identified as potential November voters, not big sports fans and not following the Vikings stadium debate.

The focus groups were conducted by a Washington, D.C.-based firm called Momentum Analysis, which is headed by Margie Omero, a well-connected Democratic Party public opinion research expert.

This Sports Facilities Commission report seems to do the Vikings a big favor in the marble halls of the Capitol. It will undoubtedly lay the groundwork for future polling as the Vikings stadium matter heats up. The first hearing on a bill to impose some taxes to help pay for a stadium, or to use a Minneapolis city tax, is about to get under way this afternoon. Another is set for Wednesday.

As Omero noted in her memo to the Sports Facilities Commission, which was hand-delivered to law makers today: “Focus groups are qualitative in nature, and so results are not suited for percentages or statistical testing. These focus groups allowed us to examine the words and phrases participants use when discussing this topic, the depth and breadth of their prior knowledge, and the specific information to which they react. Only a valid survey produces results projectable onto the population at large.”

With that caveat, here are some of the things Momentum Analysis learned from its conversations with these scientifically selected Vikings stadium guinea pigs:

* Sports in general, and the Vikings specifically, define Minnesota.

“The Vikings are specifically part of Minnesota’s sports culture. The games define a season of their own,” Omero writes. “It’s a common theme of conversation, even among non-fans, that unites the state.”

* Participants are proud of Minneapolis, but most need encouragement (like parking and mass transit) to venture downtown.

The implication: Keeping the Vikings stadium downtown could aid the core city.

* More than anything else, the Dome is described as old, and preventing the Vikings from leaving is the top driver, while attracting the Final Four or other national events is also important.

These are all messages the Vikings management and boosters have been disseminating over the past few years, apparently with some success even to the marginal fan.

* Participants approve of a variety of funding mechanisms.

This seems to be the biggest surprise. While slots at a race track have long been supported in polls, the idea that a sales tax statewide didn’t receive contempt runs counter to what lawmakers and the governor have been saying. Use of a Minneapolis-based entertainment tax was also palatable, while the traditional user fees of bar or restaurant taxes, or car rental and hotel taxes were viewed as, on the one hand, hurting small businesses and, on the other, as “sneaky.”

Barely any participants said a lawmaker’s position on the stadium would drive their vote for their elected officials.

“Hardly a single participant across all five groups said this issue would determine their vote for this own legislators,” Omero wrote. “This was, in fact, one of our most consistent findings.”

And history bears out nationally that, generally, politicians who back stadium efforts are not punished by voters.

Expect this report to become a road map as the Vikings stadium effort lurches forward.

For the full report, click here. [PDF]

Jay Weiner has covered Minnesota’s stadium debates since their early days.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by tim roman on 05/04/2010 - 04:45 pm.

    Thank you for covering this. Focus groups are not scientific, and definitely not democratic.

    It sounds like the results are “if you vote for it, we won’t punish you at the ballot box.”

    That’s the message that they paid for with this tool.

  2. Submitted by tim roman on 05/04/2010 - 04:53 pm.

    Jay,

    Might be interesting to know how much the participants were paid/compensated for their time.

    It would also be interesting to know how focus groups skew when asking for comparisons, rather than just the outcome of questions on one issue. For example, if you had to choose between funding higher education and a new Vikings stadium, what is your opinion? (Rather than, say “Do you love stadiums as much as I do?) ;^)

    Since focus group outcome is affected by the instrument questions, I’d say that the outcomes are completely suspect, unless we can see the instrument. What were the questions?

    Thanks!

  3. Submitted by jim hughes on 05/04/2010 - 07:51 pm.

    The selling of this massive corporate welfare program gets more sophisticated all the time.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/04/2010 - 08:20 pm.

    Focus groups are marketing methodology, not reliable data collection. The stadium commission got what they paid for.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/05/2010 - 05:55 am.

    I think everyone intuitively understands that you can frame stadium issues in such a way as to get a favorable response from a focus group. I think the report discussed above supports that proposition.

    What is going on isn’t a policy debate, it’s a search for political cover. Politicians want two specific things here. They want a stadium, and they want a political strategy through which they can avoid the blame for it. The strategy that built the new Twins Stadium did that, but it took years of searching to find a public body both obscure enough and powerful enough to give the Twins what they wanted. And the price that was paid was a solution that in policy and economic, if not in political terms, was quite possibly the worst of all possible solutions.

    Is there another body willing to take on the burden of the Vikings Stadium? That remains to be seen, but what I hope we learned from the Twins policy fiasco is that we need to make sure that the right political solution is not exactly the wrong policy for taxpayer who will be asked to pay for it, the vast majority of whom, by the way, will never actually enter the building.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/05/2010 - 05:55 am.

    Any possibility of posting the report online, by the way? I would love to see it.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 05/05/2010 - 06:59 am.

    Most people will support something they think someone else will pay for, whether by sales tax on over-priced sports jerseys or dedicated gambling revenue. What most don’t consider is that there is a limited pot of potential tax revenue available. I’m sure most of us can think of ways to spend $500 million or more in tax revenue that don’t include $64 a seat ticket subsidies.

  8. Submitted by Jay Weiner on 05/05/2010 - 07:43 am.

    Full report is linked at bottom of story.

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