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If the National Football League were to let the Minnesota Vikings leave the state over the team's inability to get public financing for a new stadium, it would be tampering with what has been a golden goose.
Television ratings for the Vikings in recent years have been among the best in the league, according to the NFL and Scarborough Sports Marketing, a New York-based subsidiary of the Nielsen Company and Arbitron Inc., the media and advertising ratings giants.
Even with a losing record in 2010, the Vikings boasted the fifth best television ratings in the 32-team NFL, exceeding ratings in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Of the league's top five ratings giants last year -- New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Minnesota -- only the Vikings have not been to a Super Bowl in the past three years.
As the Minnesota Senate begins hearings Tuesday on a Vikings stadium, both the team and stadium critics have repeatedly pointed to the Vikings television ratings to bolster their case. For the Vikings, the ratings show how the team is woven into the fabric of Minnesota. For critics, the ratings show that the league, despite subtle hints, is unlikely to abandon such a lucrative television market.
The percentage of Minnesotans who watched a game on television, attended a game or listened to one in a given year consistently tops 60 percent, said Bill Nielsen, vice president for sales at Scarborough Sports Marketing. "Over [the past] 11 years of data, the lowest [rating] was three-fifths of the market," he said.
More importantly, Nielsen said, polling shows that Vikings fans fit the demographics most sought by television advertisers. "Vikings fans make more money per household than the total [Minnesota] market, their homes are worth more, they're more likely to be employed full time, more likely to be college educated," he said.
Big ratings for good team
When the team fell one game short of going to the Super Bowl in 2009, and were propelled by mega-star Brett Favre, the Vikings had the third highest television ratings in the league behind only New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
In 2009, the Vikings posted a 38.7 percent television rating, and a 68 percent share.
The 38.7 percent rating is the percentage of households watching the Vikings compared to all households that own a television in the market. The 68 percent share is the percentage of households watching a Vikings game compared to all households watching television at that time in the market.
Lester Bagley, the team's vice president for public affairs and stadium development, said the ratings are a ready-made argument for a public subsidy package to help the Vikings build a $1.1 billion stadium in Ramsey County's Arden Hills.
"More than half of the people in this state are following the team every Sunday, and that's part of our case as to why we need" a stadium, he said. "This is unparalleled to anything else that we do in Minnesota. The team belongs here."
But Phil Krinkie, the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said the ratings show there is little likelihood the Vikings would leave Minnesota -- with or without a new stadium.
"This is all about money for [an NFL] owner, right?" Krinkie said. "So why would you want to move a team out of Minnesota? These people aren't stupid. These people didn't become multi-millionaires and billionaires because they didn't know anything about business."
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy acknowledged that "fan support is among the factors" considered by the league when allowing a franchise to relocate, as is a "viable stadium solution."
NFL policy states that a team wanting to relocate "should consider whether the league's collective interests which include, for example, the league's television interests [and other interests] would be advanced or harmed by allowing a club to leave." All national TV revenue is shared equally among the 32 teams.
McCarthy said the NFL has not done an analysis of why Minnesota's television ratings have been so high, but said that while New York has many more overall fans watching games, Minnesota has a higher market penetration.
Large markets like New York, he said, "have more diverse population and more activities."
Carol Rueppel, vice president and general manager for KMSP-TV, Channel 9, which carries many of the Vikings' games locally, said the team's impact is significant.
"Vikings games on FOX 9 are the highest rated programs on our air each week," she said.
Despite the team's on-the-field woes this year, average television ratings have actually risen slightly among adults ages 25 to 54, a sought-after demographic group. According to Fox 9, the Vikings edged up from a 25.6 rating last year, to a 25.7 rating this year. The Vikings television share among that age group has also jumped from a year ago, from a 69 to a 71 share.
A move is not impossible
Andrew Billings, a sports media expert who holds the Ronald Reagan endowed chair of broadcasting at the University of Alabama, said the Vikings' high television ratings may in the end not play a deciding role in whether the team leaves Minnesota. Even if the team moves to Los Angeles and does not have television ratings as high as those in Minnesota, Billings said, the Vikings would still probably have more viewers and provide the NFL with a bigger advertising impact because Los Angeles' market is so large.
The threat that the Vikings might leave the state without a new stadium is not a hollow one, Billings said. "And it's entirely because of Los Angeles," he said, which lacks an NFL team.
But, Billings said, television ratings are also a measure of "how rabid your fan base is." Given the loyalty of Vikings fans and other reasons, he said, "I would be surprised, if not shocked," if the Vikings were to leave.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673