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.