Does the soccer stadium saga mean MLS is the smartest professional sports league — or the most fickle?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
United President Nick Rogers, owner Bill McGuire, Wendy Carlson Nelson and Bob Pohlad at the March event announcing the awarding of the 24th franchise in Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer likes to portray itself as different from other professional sports leagues.

The way it has gone about awarding, then threatening to yank away, its newest franchise — all in just three months time — might be the best proof of that.

Yet what’s unclear is whether the MLS is different because its actions in the Twin Cities so far have been brilliant (in a cynical kind of way) or completely haphazard.

‘We have a lot of faith.’ Or not.

It was only in late March when an effusive and celebratory MLS Commissioner Don Garber broke the non-news that Minnesota was being awarded a franchise in the growing — if still mostly unprofitable — professional soccer league. In the battle between wealthy team owners, MLS had sided with the wealthy owners of the Twins and the Timberwolves/Lynx. That meant it rejected a bid from the wealthy owners of the Vikings.

It also meant that MLS chose to work with the ownership group that didn’t yet have a stadium instead of the ownership group that did. Prior to the formal announcement, media coverage had focused on the lack of support for another stadium, a soccer-specific facility this time. Someone coined the term that stuck — Stadium Fatigue — to describe the mood of politicians who had been rolled so many times before.

So it wasn’t a surprise that the second question at the press conference posed to Garber and Bill McGuire, the head of the United ownership group, was about the stadium — or lack thereof.

Garber responded with a well-practiced line. “They are committed to building this stadium,” Garber said of the prospective owners. “We hope there will be support for that and our expectations are that there will be. We have a lot of faith in them.”

Was he worried about a Miami situation where a big announcement was made but where stadium deals keep falling apart? “No,” Garber said, “We’ve got great faith in Bill and his partners.”

Was the deal contingent on a stadium deal? “We’re very focused on the announcement, in ensuring that the right people came together — and that’s happened. Their plans are exciting and they’re very comprehensive and we’re just gonna get focused on ensuring that they get their deal done.”

OK, then. Faith was the keyword. Not once had Garber set a deadline — not in the ceremony nor after repeated questions about the difficulty of getting a stadium deal done. It was only later in the morning, after another reporter kept pushing Garber on timing, that the commissioner finally said he would like to see something by summer. By July.

Deadline? What deadline?

It was hardly a hard deadline, which makes sense. It was going to be hard enough to break the resistance of elected officials without adding pressure. Getting a stadium deal done in three months would have set a record safer than DiMaggio’s consecutive-game-hits total, especially when it would be several more weeks before a solid proposal was ready for a Legislature near the end of a contentious session.

All of the pre-announcement coverage assumed that if the team made any request for government help, it would be along the lines of the requests made by the Vikings, the Twins and even the St. Paul Saints: hard cash contributions measured in the tens or hundreds of millions plus tax breaks  for what were (technically at least) public buildings.

When McGuire asked only for sales and property tax forgiveness, the more pragmatic politicians recognized that it was so far on the low end of expectations that perhaps earlier opposition could be overcome. Why the wealthy partners in the team were willing to shell out $250 million to $300 million for the franchise and the stadium yet risk it all over a few million in tax breaks remained a question. But it seemed to be more about the region showing them some love by being willing to put a little skin in the game.

Yet no formal proposal to the Legislature was ever made by the team. No bill was introduced. With legislative leaders saying since there was no proposal on the table and that Minneapolis needed to be on board first, the conclusion seemed to be that maybe Minnesota United’s owners should come back next year with something a bit more fleshed out.

All of that seemed a familiar part of the slow dance of stadium legislation, the progression from “hell no” to “maybe we can talk” to “let’s make a deal.” But the media tends to love assigning deadlines for others almost as much as they hate having to abide by them themselves. So the vague July deadline morphed into a hard July 1 deadline — one that was apparently lost on McGuire and his partners. As negotiations with some city elected officials (though not Mayor Betsy Hodges, who has positioned herself as the leading opponent of any public help) advanced privately, never was a July 1 deadline mentioned.

As recently as June 11, in fact, McGuire himself seemed unaware of any hard deadline. At a forum with other Twin Cities team owners, McGuire said: “I’m not even sure I remember what Don said. But I wouldn’t get too caught up about hard deadlines.”

Yet the following week, MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott told the Star Tribune that, yeah, that July 1 thing had been the deadline all along. And since the Legislature by then was adjourned, meeting such a deadline was essentially impossible.

So was Abbott pulling the plug? Abbott, through a spokesman, refused to elaborate. Minneapolis officials weren’t aware of a deadline when they created a work group to look at the issue, one that includes the mayor, some council members and senior city staff. That group, created with the knowledge of the ownership group, wasn’t to report back until the end of the year, in time for the 2016 legislative session.

The next day, on July 2, Abbott took to the radio to insist that the deadline was real — and that the group had missed it. Then, after again raising the specter of a move to another city like Sacramento or Las Vegas, Abbott said he would help McGuire by coming to Minnesota to further on-going talks — with St. Paul.

Enter St. Paul

Ahhh, yes. St, Paul. Bidding entire regions of the country against one another has a prominent place in the sports stadium construction playbook. It’s almost as prominent as the one describing how to play one part of a community against another part of the same community (see “Vikings, Arden Hills”).

In MLS, those awarded a franchise have the rights only to place a team in the state. They can’t threaten to move the as-yet-nonexistent team to another state. So when Minneapolis and state officials were slowly working through their fatigue, the only way for the United group to wake them up was to flirt with other cities in Minnesota.

The first inkling that the United group was tiring of dealing with Minneapolis came in a community forum on May 24 in Powderhorn Park. Toward the end of a two-hour meeting during which many of the self-identified soccer fans also questioned use of public dollars in any form for the stadium, United President Nick Rogers said this: “Minneapolis might say to us, ‘We don’t want you here.’ And we’ll have to assess our options and figure out where is there a community that wants us.”

Given the league’s strong preference for soccer-specific-stadiums with natural grass in downtown settings, the only option that would fit was St. Paul. That’s when everyone went radio silent. Rogers, through a spokesman, refused to elaborate. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, through a spokeswoman, first said he was “not interested in interfering with conversations currently underway in Minneapolis,” and then refused to elaborate.

But a few weeks later, after St. Paul Chamber President Matt Kramer told a television reporter that he’d spoken to city officials who were interested in hosting soccer, the same mayoral spokeswoman said that Coleman had in fact met with McGuire — four days before he expressed his lack of interest in interfering.

Now comes the Abbott mission to meet with Coleman, who seems to be all ears. Yet a whole lot of questions remain: Is this a real discussion or just a way to goad Minneapolis into acting? Are the St. Paul sites downtown enough for MLS? The former bus barn on Snelling near the light rail station might not be, though the privately owned Sears site at least has a view of downtown.

One thing’s for sure: The way MLS has gone about the stadium dance in the Twin Cities is beginning to more closely resemble the way the other, more established leagues go about their business. That doesn’t fit very well with MLS’s self-image as the White Hat League — an organization that does things differently from its more arrogant (and richer) professional sports brethren.

All of which indicates that Abbott’s radio threats last week mean one of two things: Either the league is making strategy up as it goes along, not communicating or coordinating with the McGuire group very well. Or it’s communicating so well that it’s willing to play the bad cop, allowing the locals to portray themselves as the good guys — the likable, unthreatening types. 

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/06/2015 - 10:50 am.

    Too small?

    I think one problem with the United’s ask here — ironically — is that it is too small. When you’re willing to spend $150 million on your own to build the stadium and you have an ownership group populated with billionaire McGuire, billionaire Pohlad, billionaire Taylor, and heirs to the Carlson fortune, people rightly question why they can’t just do it all themselves.

    They might have been better off, from a public funding perspective, of floating a grander plan to redevelop the Farmer’s Market and surrounding area as well, which might have made public funds easier to obtain to support the larger vision.

  2. Submitted by Brad James on 07/06/2015 - 11:49 am.

    Who told?

    Who told McGuire to pay $100 million fee for a team that cannot be profitable without subsidies? Let’s say I purchased a Subway franchise $1 million and I insisted that the city would benefit because I served 200 people 17 times a year, so the city should forgive my property and building materials sales tax. That is basically what McGuire is saying.

    There is a reason why MLS acts differently than other sports leagues. It is much smaller in terms of revenue, ratings and public consciousness. The revenue for the MLS is 1/20th of the NFL, 1/15th the MLB and 1/9th if the NBA. It would be absurd if they carried on like the other leagues. MLS is still small time, and has been in financial straits for 75% of its existence. No reason it should be compared to more established leagues.

    Also the assertion that the MLS insists on downtown natural grass stadiums is not factually correct. Only five of the twenty clubs fit this criteria.

    Cheerleading for MLS seems to be an odd cross to bear.

  3. Submitted by Max Hammer on 07/06/2015 - 12:34 pm.

    Good summary but …

    Good summary, but this takeaway is a bit unfair.

    “That doesn’t fit very well with MLS’s self-image as the White Hat League — an organization that does things different from its more arrogant (and richer) professional sports brethren.”

    Whether or not the “playbook” is similar, the only part that really matters is that Minnesota United is asking for tax breaks that in their lifetime will equal what the public pays each year directly into the pockets of the Vikings.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/06/2015 - 01:20 pm.

    Local ownership

    What will a city do to help establish a new business in a growing market that will bring revenue into the community? Generally, a lot. How will a city feel about it if it is a local ownership group, as opposed to wealthy out of towners who have no loyalty whatsoever to our community? Generally, the reaction would be more favorable.

    If we were not building custom stadiums and facilities for all our teams, would we have two large publicly financed stadiums for football – for teams that never play on the same day? Wasn’t Target Field a total winner and a vast improvement over playing in a stadium designed for cold weather football? How much have public facilities subsidies delivered to the bottom line of the Wild and Timberwolves? And let’s not forget $25 million for a minor league baseball team. Are we become worse suckers for sports if we spend a handful of millions to support a new team coming to town, as opposed to tens or hundreds of millions to existing, profitable businesses that if we don’t give them what they want threaten to leave town?

    How many theatres do we have in the metro? The Guthrie is great and has three stages, but we have lots of different options for different tastes. Of course, the Guthrie and Orchestra Hall got millions in public support, but does that mean that we don’t provide at least some support to other arts venues? Arts and sports are both forms of entertainment – not fair in either case to focus all the public support on the heavy hitters and let the others struggle or fail..Are the Vikings using their clout to avoid competition, since they didn’t get the franchise. And why didn’t they get the franchise? Their interest in owning the team was purely financial and had nothing to do with bringing a great spectator experience to the Twin Cities. It would have been no different than the Twins Metrodome experience – never baseball as it is meant to be played.

  5. Submitted by brian hanf on 07/06/2015 - 01:37 pm.

    What? I never heard anything and I listened, very carefully?

    >Prior to the formal announcement, media coverage had focused on the lack of support for another stadium, a soccer-specific facility this time. Someone coined the term that stuck — Stadium Fatigue — to describe the mood of politicians who had been rolled so many times before.

    Prior to the announcement everyone was saying that Vikings would get the team, or no team in Minnesota. I recall not a single drop of ink on stadium fatigue regarding MLS.

    • Submitted by Max Hammer on 07/06/2015 - 02:14 pm.

      “Everyone” was saying?

      Our politicians were (purposefully?) negligent in using MLS potential as a justification for the Vikings subsidy, but with minimal digging it was clear that MLS was never going to find a full-time home in the Vikings stadium.

      1. No MLS teams play in 60,000-seat, indoor stadiums with artificial turf. A few MLS stadiums have one or even two of those factors, but none have all three. The stadium experience has been vital to MLS’ growth since ~2007, and there was no reason to believe the league would completely drop its stadium criteria for Minneapolis.

      2. Minnesota has had a professional soccer team for more than two decades, and the Vikings purposefully distanced themselves from that team. So when it came time to pick an ownership group, MLS could decide between one billionaire whose investment into local soccer had garnered much goodwill and support, or the league could pick an out-of-town billionaire with no previous commitment or public interest in soccer. It was clear which side the local soccer community was on.

      This information was included in just about every news article on the subject, both locally and nationally.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/06/2015 - 09:35 pm.

      Everyone?

      Most of the people (at least the soccer fans) I know were saying the opposite. It was apparent that the Vikings stadium was not going to be a viable facility for soccer and that the Wilfs – who wanted nothing to do with the existing team – would be terrible owners. If you do not recall a drop of ink, you were not paying attention.

  6. Submitted by Tate Ferguson on 07/06/2015 - 01:40 pm.

    Anybody beside me…

    … tired of sports?

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 07/06/2015 - 02:44 pm.

    Existing mistakes

    are no reason to commit future mistakes.

    Public subsidies of major league sports and major league businesses (Hi, Mayo!) have to end some day. This is as good a place as any to begin.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/07/2015 - 08:24 am.

    timetable

    What has surprised me about the MLS is it’s extraordinarily short time table. Although Minnesota has never turned down a stadium deal, no matter how outlandish, it’s never approved one quickly. For the MLS to get their building as quickly as their timetable requires would be quite unprecedented. The problem too, is that the stadium supporters have come close to gaining traction for their deal. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try to play one city off against the other when neither city seems to want a soccer stadium very much at all.

  9. Submitted by Tate Ferguson on 07/07/2015 - 10:27 am.

    We’re “major league” now; let’s step up and be “world-class”

    According to Wikipedia, the 2011 Cricket World Cup was broadcast to over 2.2 billion viewers. (By contrast, the last Super Bowl only drew 114 million viewers.)

    Melbourne, Australia, has a cricket stadium holding 100,000 spectators.

    Kolkata, India has a cricket stadium holding 66,000 spectators.

    Dhaka, Bangladesh has a cricket stadium holding 26,000 spectators.

    Minnesota has never turned down a stadium deal. So ask yourself: are we content to be less globally significant than Melbourne, Kolkata or Dhaka?

  10. Submitted by frank watson on 07/07/2015 - 10:32 am.

    If MLS is really interested.

    If MLS is so interested in having soccer here in the great state of Minnesota and all that is holding it up is the $3 million sales tax exemption maybe MLS would settle for a $147 million franchise fee rather than the $150 million. MLS can go a step further and drop the franchise fee to $145 million so the billionaire boys club can use $2 million to pay property taxes for the next 10 years. But it’s hard to see the forest through all the trees.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/07/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Soccer

    Minnesota has never turned down a stadium deal. So ask yourself: are we content to be less globally significant than Melbourne, Kolkata or Dhaka?

    I am actually a soccer fan myself. What I would like, and I think this is impossible, is for the American soccer league to participate in the the English pyramid system. As it happens, in the English Premier League you will find all sorts of stadiums in all sorts of sizes.

    One of my favorite things about soccer is that there is a real price for losing, and real incentives, both positive and negative for getting better. In Minnesota, we have the perpetually awful Timberwolves who never get any better. In a European soccer, they would have long been gone from the top league to be replaced by a better managed and dare I say it, better owned team. When you walch the end of the English soccer season, you don’t see bad teams tanking in order to get better draft choices, you see bottom of the table teams doing everything they can in an all out struggle to survive. Makes for much better tv, I can tell you.

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