Thursday, September 2, 2010, brought something rare to the Minnesota professional sports scene: a night when the Twins, the Vikings and the University of Minnesota football team were all in action, with the Vikings at the Metrodome, the Twins at the new Target Field and the Gophers away at Middle Tennessee State.
Gophers fans attending the Twins-Detroit Tigers game at Target Field were in luck: The Twins devoted one slot of the out-of-town scoreboard to tracking the team’s progress in Tennessee.
Vikings fans? Not so much. The score of the team’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos was never posted or announced, though you could watch the game — if you happened, as I did, to find the one television in the entire stadium showing the game, inside the Town Ball Tavern in left field.
The Twins decision to disappear the Vikings wasn’t an accident. According to someone familiar with the decision but not authorized to talk about it, Twins management prohibited employees from showing the game or announcing the score in any form. The only mystery is how the Vikings game ended up on that one screen. (After this story was first posted, Twins President Dave St. Peter disputed that there was a specific directive regarding the Vikings at Target Field — that the Twins’ longtime policy has been to post information on regular-season Vikings games on the scoreboard, but not on exhibition games).
A history of hard feelings
When the Twins departed the Dome after the 2009 season to move into Target Field, they took some hard feelings with them. The Twins always felt like second-class citizens at the Metrodome, a venue primarily designed, built and configured for football, and a facility where the Vikings held priority on dates except for the World Series.
Many Twins officials never forgave the Vikings for refusing to switch a Monday night game with the Green Bay Packers in 2009, forcing the Twins to play Game No. 163 — an extra game vs. Detroit to decide the American League Central Division champion — on a Tuesday, then fly overnight to New York and open the playoffs against the Yankees the next night. The Yankees went on to sweep the Twins.
So when Major League Soccer formally awarded an expansion franchise to former UnitedHealth Group CEO Bill McGuire and his group — basically telling Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, who pursued a franchise for the new Vikings stadium, to pound sand — it was perhaps not a surprise that the Twins gladly hosted the press conference at Target Field. McGuire’s group includes the Pohlad family and Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor. The Wilfs, attending NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, sent no one.
Twins CEO Jim Pohlad, who with brother Bob attended the press conference with McGuire and MLS commissioner Don Garber, denied his team took any special glee in outmaneuvering the Vikings. “That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I know them personally. I like those guys.”
But when I mentioned the knife-twisting feel of the event to another Twins executive, he laughed heartily and said: “It’s good to be in your own stadium.”
A battle of billionaires vs. other billionaires
Of course, it’s hard to find a white hat in any battle between the two pro franchises that lead the Twin Cities in levels of entitlement. In a smug-off among our men’s pro franchises, the Timberwolves come in fourth, the Wild third (barely). But the Twins and Vikings would need to go to a shootout to determine a true champion.
The Vikings play in a league that prints money and throws lawyers at every problem. The Twins play in a league that prints money, and in which everyone involved — from the owners to the players to the ticket sellers — considers themselves superior to everyone else.
So there’s something entertaining about watching one set of cutthroat executives stick it to another set of cutthroat executives. McGuire, backed by an all-star coalition of Minnesota’s rich and powerful, is one of the few people in Minnesota with deep enough pockets to take on the New Jersey-based Wilfs. That coalition of the willing includes Carlson Companies board member Wendy Carlson Nelson, the daughter of former Carlson CEO and board chairman Marilyn Carlson Nelson, which is an intriguing addition to the group. Carlson owns Radisson, which suspended its Vikings limited sponsorship last September when the team reinstated running back Adrian Peterson after he was charged with child abuse in Texas.
McGuire money plus Carlson money plus Pohlad money plus Taylor money means more than enough money and clout to finance a soccer stadium privately, given the lack of public appetite for additional stadium subsidies. And the Wilfs, never gracious losers, will tap whatever friends they have remaining in the Legislature to scuttle anything, anyway.
In fact, even after the MLS made the official announcement, the Vikings made it clear they weren’t going to concede just yet. “We have been and continue to be in discussion — ongoing dialogue — with the MLS,” Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley told the Star Tribune. “We’re monitoring and watching the situation. But we congratulate United.”
Coming soon: soccer games at Target Field?
The Twins haven’t exactly forgotten about butting heads with the Vikings over potential stadium deals, either — even before the Wilfs came on the scene. In 2001, the Twins felt they belonged at the front of the line for a new facility. But that March, three days after the team introduced legislation for a $300 million ballpark, the Vikings announced their own plan for a stadium, one they would share with the University of Minnesota. Twins officials were furious; neither proposal went anywhere.
It’s not like the Pohlads are lifelong soccer fans. When I mentioned a “friendly” to Jim Pohlad — soccer parlance for an exhibition game — he had no idea what I was talking about. He said the family joined McGuire because top-level soccer enhances Minneapolis’s standing as a major-league city. “That’s important to me,” he said.
So is revenue, and the chance to bring more people into Target Field. Twins executives plan to pursue major international matches similar to the one last August at TCF Bank Stadium between English Premier League champion Manchester City and Greek champion Olympiakos. The Twins lost out on that in part because it conflicted with the Paul McCartney concert at Target Field.
In fact, in-house conversations already determined the layout of a soccer field for Target Field, spanning the outfield left to right and crossing part of the infield dirt, avoiding the mound and home plate. Groundskeeper Larry DiVito gained experience converting a baseball field to soccer with the Washington Nationals at the old RFK Stadium, which helps.
Minnesota United may also play a handful of games at Target Field, though not an entire season, like the MLS expansion franchise New York City FC will do this summer at Yankee Stadium.
If nothing else, the Twins would love to find some excuse to bring in the Dark Clouds, the charismatic Minnesota United fan group that essentially took over the press conference this week. More than 100 of them showed up, chanting and singing as they flanked the stage.
Pohlad was impressed. “We’re starting a Twins group,” he said. “For baseball, it’s The Bright Clouds.” With the Vikings slinking off sans MLS franchise, those clouds seemed bright indeed to the Twins.