Hail Mary pass or timeout for Vikes stadium?

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2010 - 10:07 PM

As a potential NFL labor dispute looms and the team struggles to win, political tension is rising over hopes for a new football facility.

On the eve of a legislative session that the team calls do-or-die for its stadium dreams, the Vikings' challenges keep coming.

For one thing, the team hasn't exactly excited hopes with its play. For another, the State Capitol has turned Republican red overnight (as painters await instructions for the governor's suite).

And the clock is ticking down to an NFL lockout, now less than 100 days away.

Team owners are threatening to lock out players for the 2011 season -- in other words, lay them off -- if they don't reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union by early March.

The Vikings are confident that an agreement will be reached and don't believe it will become a stadium issue, team spokesman Lester Bagley said in a chat on vikings.com Tuesday.

But legislators and fans alike are worried about how a lockout could affect a publicly financed stadium deal.

"That's a new piece to this," said Republican Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, the new chair of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee.

DFL gubernatorial contender Mark Dayton, who leads Republican opponent Tom Emmer by 8,770 votes heading into a recount, has said that the new Republican legislative majority will be largely responsible for a stadium deal.

One of those new GOP leaders, House Ways and Mean Committee Chair Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville, said a lockout could handicap a stadium deal. But it's an absolute certainty that nothing is going to happen, she said, until the deficit is resolved and the budget is finished.

"There are a whole lot of other factors that are more important" in getting a deal done, she said.

A football lockout could give cover to pro-stadium legislators worried about the issue's political risks, and ammunition to those already indisposed to helping fund a new stadium.

"Getting public funds for a private sports facility comes down to getting the public behind it, and the public is going to be less behind it if there is a lockout," said Eric Brownlee, who teaches sports marketing and facilities management at the University of Minnesota.

"And with the team not performing well and in disarray right now, there's definitely more negative sentiment toward the Vikings."

A matter of billions

Bagley said that owners and players were talking last week and that signs were promising. Even if there's a work stoppage, he said, the issues could be resolved long before the season's first game. To resolve concerns about a stalemate, contingencies could be built into a legislative stadium deal.

"We've been facing excuses and reasons not to proceed for 10 years," Bagley said. "Now we're down to the last at-bat."

The football dispute centers on how much of the NFL's annual $8 billion in revenue the owners and players each get to keep.

Team owners, who use $1 billion for operations, say they're financially stressed and want to reconfigure the remaining $7 billion that they split with the players. Owners want to reduce the players' portion from 59 percent to 41 percent.

The players, fuming about the possible loss of income, want owners to open their books to prove hardship.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed NFL sources, reported in October that the league could lose $1 billion on a lockout even if the 2011 season winds up being played. The lost revenue would result from canceled preseason games and season ticketholders unable or unwilling to renew tickets.

But owners hold some important cards: NFL contracts with TV networks guarantee them billions in revenue for next season, regardless of whether any football is played.

A lockout season wouldn't affect the Vikings' 30-year lease at the Metrodome, which expires at the end of the 2011 season, said Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.

Vikings officials say they don't plan to renew the lease, at least until they have a new stadium deal in hand. Once they do, Bagley said Tuesday, they would commit to playing in a new facility until 2045.

In his online chat, Bagley said that the team is weighing a number of potential sites in Minneapolis (including the Metrodome's location) and one in the suburbs. He said the team is focused on "user-based financing," generating revenue from sources such as lottery games, a surcharge on NFL gear or taxes on food and lodging.

If legislators and the new governor want to use revenue from casinos or slot machines at Canterbury Park, Bagley said, the Vikings would "jump on board."

Latest estimates put the price of a new stadium with a retractable roof at nearly $900 million. The Vikings have said that they don't need a roof and wouldn't pay for it. But Bagley said Tuesday that "there is strong support across the state for a multipurpose, year-round facility" and that "we need to have the important conversation about how to pay for the roof."

The team currently is quizzing fans in an online survey on seating options in a new stadium that "would feature a fixed roof and climate control."

Have the Vikings been approached by groups hoping to lure an NFL team to Los Angeles? Yes, Bagley said, by both real estate developer Ed Roski and entertainment executive (and former Timberwolves VP) Tim Leiweke. "We are focused on resolving the issue in Minnesota," he said.

As the season goes

While the Vikings' play this year has cooled enthusiasm for the team, several teams struggling through miserable seasons still managed to secure public funding for new stadiums.

The Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals persuaded their state and county decisionmakers despite lackluster play. Voters in Tampa Bay, Detroit and Seattle approved referendums on the heels of forgettable seasons.

Roy Terwilliger, a former legislator who now chairs the Sports Facilities Commission, said he hoped that lawmakers would keep their eyes on the big picture.

"This is a facility that's about a lot of different things," he said. "The public uses it, and keeping [the Vikings] here helps us afford to have it."

Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and another former legislator, said a bigger issue for the Vikings will be persuading taxpayers that the Metrodome no longer works as a pro arena.

The Dome "doesn't have all the fan amenities and all the rest of those things on the wish list," he said, "but to say that the Vikings couldn't continue to play in the facility for another four, five or six years, I think, is a very insufficient argument."

According to Bagley, building a new stadium will create 13,000 jobs and an arena for large events and community functions in addition to the Vikings.

"Legislators have major priorities to contend with, no doubt about it," he said. "But we can't afford to let the Vikings become a free agent."

Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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