Board any Green Line train at Minneapolis’ Target Field Station and over the course of 50 minutes and 11 miles, you’ll get a good look at the heart of the Twin Cities.
You’ll also pass through one of the densest concentrations of sporting venues in the United States.
On a trip that begins at a Major League Baseball stadium and ends at an independent league baseball stadium, riders get close to: an arena for men’s and women’s professional basketball; an NFL stadium; a Big Ten college campus with three different facilities for three revenue sports; the future home of a Major League Soccer team; and an NHL arena.
Certainly none of this is news to even casual sports fans — or taxpayers. But what might not be as apparent is how unusual all this is for a region that is well-ensconced in the middle of what are considered big-league cities.
Along with Denver and Miami, the Twin Cities is among the smallest regions in the country with teams in what have long been considered the four major leagues: the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.
But Minneapolis and St. Paul have things those cities don’t — at least not yet: In Miami, there’s no WNBA team and no MLS team; and in Denver, there’s no WNBA and no major college sports program in the center of town.
Oh yeah, and the Twin Cities also has the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association.
So amid the celebration of Minnesota United’s inaugural MLS season, a question looms, one that has as much to do with economics as it does with sports: Can the region’s fans absorb all those tickets and that many broadcasts? Is the region’s business community potent enough to buy the ads, rent the suites and agree to the sponsorship deals that are needed to make pro franchises viable?
“You don’t really know the answer without doing a market survey,” said Mark S. Rosentraub, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “But looking at the data, you’d have to say it’s going to be a stretched situation.”
Economists who study how many teams a given region can support look at three numbers: population, wealth and the strength of the corporate community. Some also consider proximity to other television markets, since being in the midst of a large geographic region with no competitive markets nearby is an added bonus, especially when it comes regional broadcast rights fees.
Minneapolis-St. Paul had 3,524,583 people, based on the U.S. Census estimates for 2015. That makes it the 16th largest metropolitan area in the country. Denver was 21st, and Seattle-Tacoma was 15th. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that the Twin Cities region ranked 14th in the U.S. in total personal income for 2015, with $194.4 billion.
Minnesota also has more than its expected share of Fortune 500 companies (with 17 total companies), ranking 3rd in the U.S. with 3.1 companies per 1 million in population, according to a state Department of Employment and Economic Development analysis. If you expand the list to the Fortune 1000, Minnesota ranks 9th in the U.S., with 24 companies.
In each of these measures — population, wealth and corporate presence — the region and the state do better than the Denver area, which has been able to sustain teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS. And the Twin Cities is preparing to outperform, at least in terms of numbers of pro sports franchises, regions that are close in population and wealth such as Miami, Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix and San Diego.
But other analyses of population and economic data suggest the Twin Cities is one of the most oversaturated markets in the U.S. In what he admits was a back-of-the-envelope analysis, Seattle economist Dick Conway determined that Seattle would be the third worst-saturated market (after Denver and Cleveland) if it had NBA and NHL teams, as the Twin Cities does. And that’s with a nearly identical population but higher total income.
Another analyst, Nick Wallace, of SmartAsset.com, determined that based on people and wealth, the Twin Cities should be able to support just two major league teams. “This is probably one of the reasons there have been attempts and rumored attempts over the years to move one of the Minnesota sports franchises to a new city,” Wallace wrote.
The region’s sports history has long been riddled with such threats, including the Vikings to San Antonio and Los Angeles, and the Twins to North Carolina and oblivion, the latter in the form of a 2001 agreement by Twins owner Carl Pohlad to let Major League Baseball buy and fold the franchise as part of a two-team “contraction.” And, of course, in 1993 a threat to move the NHL’s North Stars was realized in the team’s move to Dallas.
Perhaps because the threats worked, the four existing major teams have stabilized their economic picture, largely thanks to the help of new or relatively new sport-specific stadiums and arenas. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ongoing challenges to compete — not only with each other but with the upstart Minnesota United.
For owners, how much is enough?
At a panel discussion in 2015 sponsored by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, the team owners of the Vikings, Wild, Twins and the then-not-yet-confirmed MLS expansion team Minnesota United were asked: Is there room for everybody?
Perhaps in the spirit of the discussion — or simply not wanting to throw cold water on the MLS — all of the participants said there is. But Jim Pohlad, the executive chair and co-owner of the Twins, also sounded a cautionary note. “The pool [of potential sponsors] is not shrinking but it is finite,” said Pohlad. “There will be competition. There’s no question about it. But MLS selected the Twin Cities because of the great market it is and the ability of MLS to succeed here along with the other major sports. We’re totally confident.”
At the time, the team was aiming to build a stadium in the area of the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, but subsequently turned its eyes toward the Midway area of St. Paul. The team has since gotten agreements with the city and the Met Council to build a stadium there, and it is waiting for the passage of two tax breaks by the Legislature before it moves forward with construction. In the meantime, the team will be forced to play one or two seasons as temporary guests at TCF Stadium at the University of Minnesota.
When the team gets its own stadium dictates when it can fully exploit its revenue potential, but it doesn’t change the underlying arithmetic, said University of Michigan professor Rosentraub. “It’s a region of almost 4 million people, five teams and four venues,” he said. “There’s a lot of product in the market, so the question is, does have its own niche market? That’s a question only the people in Minneapolis and St. Paul can answer but you are one of the smallest markets with four teams, let’s be honest.”
Rosentraub also said that how much a team makes, and whether it is adequate, is often personal, based on a team owner’s motivation. “There are a lot of people who want to own teams,” he said. “How much return on investment do you want or need? Different people come up different numbers of what they need. You could have an owner who wants to own a soccer team and loves soccer and it it doesn’t make a lot of money, you’re not that concerned.”
Other owners, such as the owner of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, continually threaten a move because the team isn’t profitable, or at least profitable enough.
Minnesota United has a unique ownership structure. While led by former UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire, the partnership includes a who’s who of wealthy Minnesotans, including the owners of the Minnesota Twins, and the Timberwolves and Lynx. That not only spreads the risk but brings expertise into what is required to successfully market teams in the Twin Cities. For good measure, Minnesota United’s front office includes key marketing personnel who previously worked for the Minnesota Vikings.
Is the Twin Cities market different?
Victor A. Matheson has a resume that makes him uniquely qualified to talk about the Twin Cities sports market. The College of Holy Cross professor of economics is a graduate of St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota. He’s also a former professional soccer referee who worked games involving the Minnesota Thunder, a precursor of Minnesota United. Finally, he once lived close enough to walk to the Rainbow Foods that’s adjacent to the site of United’s future home in Midway.
In its early years, the MLS was very aware of markets and market competition, Matheson said. It favored huge markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and smaller markets with few or no other pro teams. “Why end up in Columbus, of all places?” he asked. “Because it was one of the largest areas in the U.S. without pro sports.”
As the league has grown, however, it has moved into cities with more competition and has shed its aversion to middle-market cities with Major League Baseball teams, which share its spring-to-fall season.
Of the Twin Cities, Matheson said: “It’s fairly big, although again it’s pretty small for a place that has all of the pro sports franchises.” It benefits, however, from its relative wealth: “There’s a difference between putting more teams in Minneapolis and putting teams in New Orleans or Birmingham.” It also benefits from a large geographic footprint: “Go any direction except for Chicago and you go hundreds of miles before you find another major league city.”
Corporate and personal wealth are also higher in the Twin Cities, he noted. And that is important in how teams sell luxury products like club seats, suites and (especially for the NBA) courtside seats. Matheson said that the price of a pair of NBA courtside seats brings in as much revenue as entire sections in an arena’s upper level.
“It’s one thing to have four million people living in your metro area who can buy those nosebleed seats,” Matheson said. “It’s a different thing to have those handful of very wealthy individuals to buy those courtside seats or deep-pocketed corporations to buy those luxury boxes. Minneapolis is fairly well-situated that way.”
Besides, he points out, MLS is one of the least impactful sports in terms of what it costs to field a team. “Break even is way lower on an MLS team than on an NFL team, by a factor of five,” he said.
But won’t there be a glut of tickets given the population? Matheson uses a restaurant analogy to argue that there won’t be. “People have to eat the same amount of food, but if the only restaurant in town is a crappy, old-style Italian place, you’re not going to eat out as much, especially if you like sushi,” he said. “You don’t eat more, but you’ll go out more if someone is offering you something you really like.”
Opportunities, and challenges, for United
Galen Beenken doesn’t count himself as one of the fans who loves soccer because he played it as a kid. He didn’t. But as the founder of GameDay Sports, a marketing and media rights firm based in Woodbury, he’s learned a lot about the way soccer fans fill a special niche in a region’s sports market. “I do think it is going to be very successful in Minnesota,” Beenken said.
National market studies show that 54 percent of MLS fans say they are not fans of Major League Baseball. And there are other niche markets that could be tapped by MLS, including millennials and Hispanics, Beenken said. As such, he said there is a good chance that there will be less cannibalization of existing franchises’ revenues than feared.
That said, corporations are always reassessing their marketing, including how sports fits into the mix, he said. “I do think corporations are going to have to look at their budgets and determine how much they can invest in a Major League Soccer franchise and is that budget going to be pulled from their current sports budget, of if they are going to pull it from somewhere else,” Beenken said.
As an example of that process, he points to Target’s substantial sponsorship of soccer, including becoming the sponsor of Minnesota United’s uniform, which came after the company decided to reduce its investment in NASCAR. “It will be interesting to see if other corporations in the market follow suit,” Beenken said.
But there will be challenges for United, especially in the early years. The turnaround time between the final awarding of the franchise and the first game was short, making it more difficult for the team’s sales, marketing and sponsorship operation to get up to speed. That short turnaround has been made tougher by the fact that the team won’t have its own stadium to sell as part of sponsorship packages, the sponsored gates and clubs and seating sections at TCF Bank Stadium that are already claimed by the U of M’s sponsors.
That changes when they get into the new stadium at Midway, Beenken said. “When they build that new stadium, they’ll be wildly successful for two to three years,” he said. “That’s the lifespan before the shininess wears off.
“But here’s what it always comes down to: We can talk about the demographics and the logistics and the stadium all we want,” he said. “But if United is truly committed to being a championship organization, they will sustain that success well beyond the first two years.”
The Target deal as milestone
Minnesota United President Nick Rogers admits to the pressures and challenges involved in the team’s rapid path to joining MLS, but he also pointed to the Target sponsorship as an important milestone.
“As a pro soccer team you have two big, big partners,” Rogers said from Portland, where the team will play its first MLS game, a nationally televised match against the Timbers. “One of them is the front of the shirt and the other will be the stadium naming rights. There was a real possibility we were going to enter the season, just because of the timeline we had, without a front-of-shirt sponsor.”
He describes the Target deal as one of the more significant in the entire MLS. “Target sees the same things our investors are seeing,” Rogers said. “They see the future of their business in our fans and it’s a fan base that is rapidly expanding,” with families, millennials, certain ethnic groups from soccer-playing nations and even empty nesters.
A regional TV deal is expected to be announced soon, but some other key partnerships, such as stadium naming rights, will have to wait until United has its own building. “A lot of teams start their existences in temporary facilities,” Rogers said. “On the business side, there are certain constraints that come with living in somebody else’s building.” United can’t sell the name, for example, and the contract with concessions vendors is determined by the University of Minnesota.
“But in the big picture, these are minor issues,” he said. “We’re going in with our eyes open and none of it is a surprise.”
He expects the TCF experience will be good enough for the time being and is expecting a top-10 inaugural crowd in MLS history for the first home game, on March 12.
For now, he said he is enjoying the moment. “This is a project that started as a dream, an idea, in 2012 and to be 48 hours away from our first Major League Soccer game, the excitement is starting to sink in.”