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Is new Vikings/Lottery scratch-off game the opening kickoff for latest stadium funding drive?

As the sun rose over downtown Minneapolis this morning, from the brightly lit parking lot of a Holiday Stationstore, it felt as if a slippery slope toward funding for a football stadium was emerging in the distance.

As the sun rose over downtown Minneapolis, darkness faded into an amber dawn. From the brightly lit parking lot of a Holiday Stationstore, it felt as if a slippery slope toward funding for a football stadium was emerging in the distance.

Everyone says that’s not the case. For now, that’s true.

But at 5:30 a.m. today, a partnership between the Minnesota State Lottery and the Minnesota Vikings was launched with Hall of Fame-bound defensive tackle John Randle sipping coffee as he pleasantly greeted early rising fans wanting his autograph on footballs and his photo taken with their children.

Coincidence or not, the convenience mart used as the blasting-off stage for the Vikings lottery game sits in the shadow of Target Field, the much-embraced Hennepin County-subsidized Twins ballpark.

The kickoff for the $10 scratch-off ticket comes as Vikings’ training camp is set to open in 10 days, as the gubernatorial race turns towards the primary and then general election, and as the Vikings lease at the Metrodome moves into its next-to-last season. After another whiff at the Legislature in 2010, the Vikings, with 13 lobbyists still registered with the Campaign Finance Board, are poised for another run at the Capitol in 2011.

Vikings deny any stadium link to Lottery game
Still, Vikings officials are quick to point out that this new marketing partnership with the Lottery is not stadium-related. No revenues from the new scratch game — which will be highly promoted with TV and radio commercials — will go toward a stadium. As with all Minnesota State Lottery proceeds, the Vikings lottery game sales will flow into the state general fund and for environmental programs.

“We’re trying to be very upfront about this,” John Mellein, the Lottery’s director for marketing, said this morning. “There’s no connection to a Vikings stadium.”

Former Viking John Randle signs a helmet for Ian Olson during the event.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Former Viking John Randle signs a helmet for Ian Olson during the event.

In fact, as sponsorship dollars become increasingly important to the local NFL franchise, the Lottery deal guarantees the team a nice $193,000 in licensing fees and maybe more; if $9 million in Vikings scratch games are sold, the team will get a piece of the sales action, Mellein said. In exchange for that flat fee to the team, the Lottery will get signage at the Metrodome, a presence on the Vikings’ website and other promotional rights.

The Lottery has partnered with the Twins, Timberwolves and NHL All-Star Game games in past years. And, of course, Indian-owned casinos have become partners with local teams; Treasure Island Casino is a key Twins and Target Field sponsor. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which operates Mystic Lake Casino, gave the University of Minnesota $10 million for an Indian-themed plaza at TCF Bank Stadium.

In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty mentioned a lottery scratch-off as a potential stadium revenue source. Earlier this year, in a proposal offered by Sen. Tom Bakk, among others, a lottery scratch game was proposed to help fund a roof for any new Vikings facility.

This current Minnesota State Lottery arrangement comes a year after National Football League owners broke a longstanding ban on gambling-related sponsorships and opened the doors for franchises to make deals with local lotteries. The league still opposes links with casinos, even though much interest in the NFL is driven by point spreads and wagering.

Hall of Famer Randle deftly dodges stadium questions
For his part, Randle politely dodged questions about gambling and stadium funding as adeptly as he did offensive linemen during his brilliant 14-year-career. “This benefits the state more than anything,” he said. “This is not connected with sports betting.”

As for a further discussion on the dangers of sports betting being linked to team sponsorships, Randle diplomatically said, “I think that’s a good question for the commissioner.”

About funding sources for a new Vikings stadium — somewhere in the $800 million range — Randle again veered. “That’s up to the higher powers,” he said. When he played at the Dome in the 1990s, he said the facility was fine. “In the new millennium, you see all the new stadiums … We’ve got a great baseball stadium now. I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a great football stadium.”

Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president for public affairs and stadium development, told MinnPost this morning that there are “quiet conversations” under way with some legislators and local government officials to craft a stadium finance plan for the 2011 legislative session. A different lottery game could be part of such a plan. Projections last year suggested anywhere between $4 million and $9 million could be generated with a stadium-linked lottery game, he said. By law, much of that revenue has to go to environmental programs. Stadiums, most notably in Baltimore and Seattle, have used local lottery proceeds for funding.

A Purple Pump proposal
As for the fans, there were a few who showed up right at 5:30 a.m., including parents Craig Olson and Lisa Elliott with young sons Ian and Evan Olson. In making their short pilgrimage from south Minneapolis, they confirmed the value of the Vikings brand to the Lottery. According to dad Craig Olson, Randle was a “role model” for his little boys because of how the retired player rose from humble beginnings to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Olson, a medical illustrator, said he had no concerns about any gambling links to the game and would favor a scratch game for stadium funding. He offered another idea, too.

“A purple gas pump,” he said.

Olson’s concept: Drivers who voluntarily fill their tanks at special Vikings gas dispensers would see some proceeds go to stadium funding.

You could almost hear Vikings stadium guru Bagley gulp over the telephone when he was told of the Purple Pump Plan.

“We’re open to creative ideas,” Bagley allowed, noting that voluntary, user-fee funding generally garners public support.

Still, that gas-guzzling revenue steam will have to wait for another dawn, one when a Vikings stadium finance plan comes into clearer focus.