Give Gov. Mark Dayton credit for this much: He has firmly planted a stake in the ground on behalf of average Minnesota Vikings fans who are receiving yet another harsh lesson in National Football League economics.
Critics of the $498 million public-financing package that Dayton championed on behalf of the team last spring might wonder why the governor's concern for the little guy wasn't more evident during those negotiations. But this page was in lockstep with Dayton's efforts to secure the team's future in Minnesota, and the Star Tribune Editorial Board was fully aware that the Vikings would try to squeeze every possible dollar out of stadium naming rights, sponsorships, suite rentals and, yes, the seat license fees that drew the governor's ire this week.
Disappointingly, Dayton said in an interview with an editorial writer on Wednesday that he had not been aware, even though he and his staff were deeply involved in the negotiations with the Vikings, the NFL and the city of Minneapolis, and even though the governor had signed a much-debated stadium bill that enables the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission to sell "stadium builders licenses" to help the team pay its $477 million share of construction costs.
But even if the development took him somewhat by surprise, the governor also may have seen an opening to score political points this week by sticking up for loyal fans such as Stephanie Schleuder.
The Star Tribune's Richard Meryhew featured Schleuder in his Nov. 11 front-page story on seat licenses that kicked off the tempest. Schleuder and other Vikings season-ticket holders recently received e-mailed surveys from the team inquiring about their willingness to pay thousands of dollars in one-time fees simply to have the right to buy tickets.
Based on the survey, Schleuder believes it could cost her as much as $20,000 to keep two 50-yard-line seats that have been in her family since the 1961 birth of the franchise. "How many average citizens who own season tickets can afford a fee like that?" she wondered.
That's the same question the Vikings are trying to answer. And if the team goes ahead with a premium program, it will join a long list of pro and college sports teams -- including several at the University of Minnesota -- that charge seat fees on top of ticket prices. At the top end, the New York Giants raised $371 million in seat license fees when their new stadium opened, and the Dallas Cowboys charged fans $2,000 to $150,000.
In many of these cases, longtime fans like Schleuder with the best seats in the house have been priced out of the market in new stadiums. Some end up accepting less valuable seats with lower fees, while others walk away. Some teams allow fans to resell their licenses, with the value often dependent on the popularity of teams at the time the licenses are for sale.
Dayton, who struck the right theme in championing a multiuse "People's Stadium" that will be used for a variety of events beyond pro football, doesn't want a "Rich People's Stadium," he wrote Tuesday in a strongly worded letter to the team.
In addition to the bully pulpit, the governor continues to have leverage because the licenses would be sold through the Sports Facilities Commission -- an arrangement that provides some tax advantages for the Vikings.
For their part, the team says the survey was simply intended to help determine how to structure a premium seating program, and no pricing decisions have been made. The Vikings will have to determine the market value of their tickets in the new stadium and structure pricing accordingly. That analysis will need to recognize the public-relations risk if the team comes up with a plan that's too rich for this market.
It's unfortunate that Dayton threatened to undo the stadium deal based on news reports of the survey. That's a hasty overreaction. As he wrote in his Tuesday letter, "Not surprisingly, given the project's magnitude and complexity, some details were not fully understood, and some differences still remain."
There's room for compromise in this dispute. But all parties should recognize that it's only natural for the Vikings, like any private business, to charge their customers what the market will bear.