The league sent a heavy hitter to talk to state leaders, and not many people noticed. Perhaps they should have.
You were not alone last week if the NFL's visit to St. Paul passed you by. After all, news that state leaders had essentially shut the door on stadium talk in 2008 was greeted with a yawn around most Twin Cities newsrooms, water coolers and message boards.
Privately, not even the Vikings believed there was much hope for addressing their $954 million stadium proposal in the 2008 legislative session. The I-35W bridge collapse, floods in southern Minnesota and the state budget deficit figured to overshadow their campaign.
Nevertheless, two significant events occurred that suggest the issue is intensifying in NFL circles and could lead to a relocation crisis as early as 2009.
First, the league sent one of its heaviest hitters to meet with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the leaders of all four legislative caucuses. Eric Grubman, executive vice president of finance and strategic transactions, is known as one of the league's most ruthless capitalists and a primary generator of its wildly successful business operations.
Grubman didn't fly to Minnesota simply to compile notes on the situation. He also was in St. Paul to deliver a message: That continued delays in the process -- part of which the Vikings themselves are responsible for -- has created a finite timeline for dealing (or not dealing) with the issue.
In an interview, Grubman said he did not "draw a line in the sand." He also left the impression that the NFL is on board with pushing the discussion into 2009, as long as that delay leads to approval of a plan at that time.
Because, as Grubman acknowledged, the Vikings lease at the Metrodome expires after the 2011 season. Any delay beyond 2009, he said, would lead to "speculation" and "outside parties" potentially getting involved. It was a nice way of saying that other markets could begin courting the Vikings for relocation, knowing the team was two years away from what would amount to free agency.
It is fair to ask if there is any real reason to fear that scenario, if for no other reason than the apparent ambivalence of Los Angeles, the most obvious destination, to pursue and secure a team. In addition, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is on the record as pledging never to move the Vikings.
Pawlenty, among others, is clinging to Wilf's statement and in essence is positioning himself to call the NFL's bluff. Ultimately, that might prove a prudent course. But like any good poker player, Pawlenty should make sure he knows his opponent.
Make no mistake: While Wilf might not have the stomach for moving the team, the NFL would have no such reservations if a stadium agreement appears bleak as the next decade approaches. The league has had difficulty rekindling interest in Los Angeles, but it simultaneously has been working to cultivate other markets -- most notably in Toronto -- to serve as potential destinations.
Which brings us to the second significant event that occurred in connection with last week's news: Wilf issued a carefully-worded statement Tuesday that, while friendly, also raised the intensity of his own rhetoric. He referred to the "seriousness" of an issue that has risen to a "priority at the league level."
There are plenty of ways to interpret his statement, and here's one of them: As the start of a paper trail. If there was any doubt, Wilf is now on record stating his concerns and pointing out the new development of league involvement.
Consider Wilf and the NFL in the role of a business owner who is beginning to have doubts about an employee. Firing him outright wouldn't be fair or good for business, but it's not out of the question down the road.
For now, the boss simply communicates concerns through meetings and written performance evaluations -- so, if a parting eventually becomes necessary, it should come as no surprise.
Kevin Seifert • firstname.lastname@example.org
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