From experience, I can tell you stadium plans and ‘sports deals’ aren’t always what they seem

A proposed design for a new Vikings stadium in Arden Hills.
A proposed design for a new Vikings stadium in Arden Hills.

The phone rang. It was one of those old-fashioned phones on a wall, with a cord. There were no news websites, just daily morning newspapers.

It was long ago, 1994, and a sports news conference was set to begin.

The TV cameras were hot. The journalists were breathless. A deal was announced. Dollar amounts were tossed around. The NBA Minnesota Timberwolves were moving to New Orleans.

It turned out not to be what it seemed.

I flashed back to that false alarm Tuesday when the email came on my iPhone and the tweets started popping up as texts, as it became official that the Vikings had selected Arden Hills as their stadium site of choice even though the numbers don’t quite add up, and probably not even the politics.

Stranger things have happened …
I could be wrong. This could all be real, and this all could happen. Stranger things have happened. May the Good Lord watch over all purplish negotiations from the far reaches of the northern suburbs to the marbled confines of the Capitol.

Zygi Wilf
MinnPost/Jay Weiner
Zygi Wilf

But, as Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett pronounced their vows, I couldn’t help but hearken back 17 years ago to that mid-afternoon phone call. It came from Target Center’s executive director, Dana Warg.

After weeks of reports that the Wolves owners and Target Center developers, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, were pondering a sale of the team to local buyers, Warg called and said, “Team’s moving. Get down to Target Center. Stop the presses.” (That was when there WERE presses.)

I raced to the arena for a tearful news conference with “Marv and Harv.” Team sold and moving to New Orleans, we were told. Price $152.5 million, we were told. Outta here.

I ran back to the Star Tribune building, where I worked, to begin writing. A call came instantly from NBA Commissioner David Stern’s office. I was told to run to the fax machine.

A statement clicked out of the gadget. Stern said Wolfenson and Ratner “have received substantial offers to purchase the team and keep it in Minnesota; regrettably, they decided against accepting these offers.”

Hmmm. Didn’t sound good for Marv and Harv.

Minutes later, a league spokesman called, wanted to make sure I was prepared to take notes on the record and, more or less, acknowledged the league was stunned by the sale announcement and said curtly, “We have our position, and [Wolfenson and Ratner] have theirs. … There are different points of view.”

Three weeks later, the NBA blocked the move, proving it is not good to have different points of view from David Stern.

Soon after, Mankato businessman Glen Taylor struck a deal to buy the team. And the Wolves are still here.

A life lesson learned
That inaugural sports-deal news conference of my life wasn’t what it seemed, and that knowledge has guided me ever since.

By January 1997, the baseball Twins and state officials told reporters a stadium deal had been struck that included offering a share of the team to the public by owner Carl Pohlad. Deal botched, never happened.

Carl Pohlad
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Carl Pohlad

Nine months later, in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, a feisty, spirited Pohlad told me his then-imminent sale of the Twins to North Carolina businessman Don Beaver was “a real deal.” Greensboro, here they come!

The Twins are still here — in a sparkling new stadium.

And who can forget the intrigue around spy novelist Tom Clancy’s “purchase” of the Vikings in 1998. Had all the thrills of a Cold War saga. Never happened.

Dare we mention Feb. 24, 2005 and a big honking news conference at Winter Park, Vikings headquarters?

On that day, someone named Reggie Fowler claimed to have purchased the Vikings for $625 million. Amid great celebration, then Vikings owner Red McCombs handed over the keys to the franchise to what looked like the NFL’s first African-American owner, even though there were great doubts about Fowler’s net worth.

“Mr. McCombs is a very shrewd businessman,” Fowler said at a packed news conference. The implication: McCombs wouldn’t sell to someone who didn’t have the ability to pay.

On the fringes of hangers-on that day, outside the glow of McCombs and Fowler, stood a mustachioed New Yorker, Zygi Wilf, who was then being called a minor partner.

Five months later, after it became clear Fowler didn’t have the wherewithal to buy an NFL team and the league had questions about him, Wilf got the team instead. Another news conference had led us astray.

Reasons to wonder
So, as Wilf and County Commissioner Bennett stood at the lectern Tuesday, as Vikings fanatics cheered from the back of the crammed conference room at a Ramsey County building in Arden Hills, as journalists took it all in, as news organizations streamed the event live, as Gov. Mark Dayton and other political leaders warned about costs, as the state budget crisis hardens, one had to wonder.

How will we remember Tuesday’s Ramsey County-Vikings news conference six months, two years, 10 years down the road?

A real deal? Is it what it seemed to be? I could be wrong. I’m just asking.

MinnPost Asks Live Interview Series

Is there a future for the Vikings in Minnesota?

Join us on Monday, May 16, as MinnPost journalist Jay Weiner interviews Sports Facilities Commission chair Ted Mondale to discuss issues surrounding a new Vikings stadium. Click here for details and ticket information.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 05/11/2011 - 11:32 am.

    I myself have wondered if the selection of the Arden Hills site isn’t just an effort to improve Wilf’s bargaining position. Mayor Rybak seems to have responded to it as Wilf would want: by showing he’s willing to override the city charter and raise taxes on his constituents to keep the Vikings. Maybe the idea is that the Legislature is more likely to approve the Minneapolis deal if they have already rejected the more expensive Arden Hills deal.

    Personally, much as I have enjoyed the few football games I’ve attended, I’d be happy to see the Vikings pack up and leave for good.

  2. Submitted by James Blum on 05/11/2011 - 12:26 pm.

    As a Minneapolis resident and moderate Vikings fan, I’m a-okay with them moving to Arden Hills. I haven’t attended a Vikings game in decades and don’t foresee ever doing it — there is no sporting event (even the Super Bowl) worth $75 or more per ticket to me. Others obviously feel differently — good for them.

    I’ll already be paying for an Arden Hills stadium through the state contribution to the billionaire’s fund, but if I can avoid paying also for a City of Mpls contribution to that fund, I’m all in favor of it.

    And, again, I’ll make the point that my friend Paul always makes when people are worried about the Vikings moving away from Minnesota: who would you root for if the Vikings traded ALL of their players and coaches to the Packers in exchange for ALL of their players and coaches? If the answer is “the Vikings,” then you’re rooting for laundry.

  3. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 05/11/2011 - 05:05 pm.

    An urban football stadium is an oxymoron. Football’s ten home games per season, and hopefully a playoff game or two are weekend events sports fans will drive great distances to and tailgate hours before and after the game.

    Baseball’s 81 home games per season are mostly know games people go to after a long day’s work. Fans don’t have the time or the space to tailgate in an urban setting. There must be laws against BBQ grills in parking ramps.

    Part of what makes the Arden Hills site workable for the Vikings are the 21,000 parking spaces…. Imagine the parking revenues and imagine the tailgating… When Zygi was considering a downtown stadium, his offer was one third the cost of an open air stadium. That would have been $233 million even thought a fixed-roof or retractable roof stadium was under consideration.

    Zygi is offering over of 40% of the funding for the full cost of a retractable-roof stadium in Arden Hills.

    The downtown stadium proposal gives the Vikings 250 parking s pots on the Metrodome site… PERIOD!!

  4. Submitted by Mike Naas on 05/11/2011 - 05:46 pm.

    Jay Weiner’s interview on MPR’s Tues. Midday was informative. However, football is entertainment. There are many business segments that government should not be involved in. Entertainment is one of those areas. The argument that this or that is good for Minnesota is irreverent. All legal businesses are “good for Minnesota.” Giving handouts to selected businesses is government run-a-muck and is corruption. Government should not be involved in giving free money to any free enterprise in the entertainment business. Our elected officials should be forced to justify every spending initiative with Minnesota Constitutional justification. Building stadiums for entertainment cannot be justified. State loans to business, that must be paid back with the threat of liquidation of assets, might be a possibility, that would also compete against banks unfairly. Government should stay out of business completely, especially the entertainment. Every elected official that supports tax money gifts such as to stadiums do not understand the role of government and will spend our State into insolvency. They need to be voted out of office in favor of a someone who will practice frugal policy restraint within State constitutional authority. A recent poll reported in this paper that 60% of voters favor telling the Vikings NO to any funding. These voters understand these principles, but do our public officials understand?

  5. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 05/11/2011 - 09:04 pm.

    Mike Naas: I would agree wholeheartedly with you IF there was a federal law banning public subsidies for all pro sports stadiums. Until that happens, our pro sports teams could not compete financially or on the playing field when other teams receive public subsidies.

    Read any piece of legislation about pro sports stadiums and you’ll see the justification is “public good.” The courts ruled the Twins could not walk away from the last year of their extended lease because no amount of money could buy the Twins out of that last year, which ultimately bought the time to resolve the issue. Apparently performance leases take both sides to end, teams cannot buy their way out or the battles to lure teams would be endless.

    That said, good stadium deals that are good for the team, businesses, sports fans, and the general public are possible. So if all sides come out ahead, why not allow public funding if the benefits exceed the public investment?

    I think the proposed stadium deal for the Arden Hills site is a “good” deal for all concerned. The state and county funding in the bill that was submitted a couple weeks ago needs some work, but I don’t see a negatives for anyone. Seems to me the 800 full time construction jobs for three years is badly needed and the money the new stadium will bring into the state is also needed.

    The days of “sweetheart” stadium deals is ending… Minnesotans are too smart to fall for another one. I think the Twins stadium deal was the last of the Minnesota “sweetheart” stadium deal… which is why the Vikings are moving to Ramsey County. Hennepin Co./Minneapolis invest too much in that stadium and have come up shorthanded for the Vikings.

  6. Submitted by donald maxwell on 05/14/2011 - 02:48 pm.

    I don’t understand why any public money goes into stadiums unless the teams are owned by the public, but what do I know?

    There is an awful lot of land involved in the Arden Hills site. Is this deal being set up to enable this guy Wilf to make a billion on land development in the area?

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