By April of this year, University of Minnesota vice president Pam Wheelock had had enough.
The complex negotiations with the Minnesota Vikings to temporarily use the school’s TCF Bank Stadium had blown past four deadlines, had occupied team and school officials for “hundreds of hours,” and was still not settled. This, she told the team, would be the school’s final offer.
But the Vikings also sounded upset, and hinted at walking away from the table. “Please e-mail me your ‘final lease’ for my review and we can make a decision if it makes business sense for us to play at TCF while our new stadium is being constructed,” Kevin Warren, the team’s vice president of legal affairs, responded in an e-mail to Wheelock.
More than a hundred internal e-mails — obtained by the Star Tribune — show that despite public statements of a like-minded partnership, the school and the team continually struggled to find common ground before finalizing the lease in May. Even after the lease was approved, the university and the Vikings tangled over money and scheduling.
The talks took place with much at stake: The school eyed up to $3 million annually in much-needed money that the deal would provide for its athletic department. The Vikings, meanwhile, had to negotiate knowing that the school knew the team had few alternatives while waiting for its new stadium to be built in downtown Minneapolis.
Although the school and the team said the friction was part of normal negotiating, Tom Johnson, an attorney hired to help the university, said he thought the problems appeared to run deeper.
“There was still a possibility that it could come apart — just the whole thing,” said Johnson, a former Hennepin County attorney. “They weren’t very solidified” when he joined the negotiations in March, just two months before the lease was signed, he added.
“They’re tough negotiators,” Johnson said of the Vikings.
Wheelock said she was prepared to recess the talks last spring, after a year of negotiating, if there was not an agreement because the school had other pressing obligations. Wheelock said she wondered “are we close enough to be able to agree [or] do we just take a break from this?”
But Wheelock, the state finance commissioner for former Gov. Jesse Ventura, said the negotiations in the end proved not to be overly troublesome. “Like any new marriage, there’s a little bit of working out about the way the household runs,” she said.
Lester Bagley, the team’s vice president for stadium development and public affairs, agreed. “It’s all good,” he said.
Coke or Pepsi?
The agreement calls for the Vikings to play at TCF Bank Stadium for at least two seasons, beginning next year, and for the school to get $300,000 per game. The team will reimburse the school for any required stadium improvements and all game-day operating expenses. The team and the school would, according to the agreement, also agree to install new turf with an “appropriate heating element” for playing in cold weather.
The negotiations addressed everything from heated benches and portable heaters for kickers — a $62,000-per-season item at one point — to solving the dilemma of the school having a beverage contract with Coca-Cola, while the Vikings use Pepsi. Coke, according to one negotiating memo, was given four regular season tickets “in a prime location” to Vikings games played at the school.
Much of the negotiating dragged on even though the school and the Vikings had reached a preliminary agreement the year before.
Two weeks before Wheelock told the Vikings the school would be forwarding its final offer, the Vikings had sent a list of nearly three dozen issues it still considered unresolved. The list, as it turned out, was longer than it had been four months before. The March 18 list from the Vikings included 35 “open issue” items, and it asked the school to rearrange language in the “collaborative effort” section “to enable and value Vikings input.”
At one point, with the lease now in place, Wheelock complained that the continuing talks seemed “more legalistic than partnering.”
Even after the lease was signed, the school and the Vikings almost immediately began disagreeing over money. The school told the team in early July that it needed $150,750 to begin design changes at TCF Bank Stadium under the terms of the lease — and told the team the money needed to be sent in 15 days.