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.
“Please [explain] how you reached the amount,” the Vikings’ Warren wrote to the school on July 15. The figure, the school told the team a day later, came from the M.A. Mortenson Co., which built TCF Bank Stadium and had submitted a proposal to make changes for the Vikings’ use of it.
Nearly a month after the initial request for payment, the school sent another note. In an Aug. 7 e-mail to the team, Elizabeth Zamzow, the school’s associate general counsel, wrote: “We still have not received the $150,750 from the Vikings. Please let me know when this will be delivered.”
Vikings officials downplayed friction that occurred during the negotiations, and said it helped the talks that both sides previously had negotiated for the team to play a game at TCF Bank Stadium when the Metrodome’s inflatable roof collapsed in 2010. “We already had a base line,” Warren said of the team’s previous dealings with the university.
Warren also said the initial problems over the Vikings sending money were quickly resolved. “[It] takes one or two laps around the track” to resolve glitches, he said. “It was nothing personal.”
Meeting date discord
There were additional signs of stress after the lease was signed.
University officials said they scheduled meetings in August with the Vikings — and had out-of-town consultants fly in to Minnesota — to discuss the project, only to be told that key team officials would be in Buffalo, N.Y., where the Vikings were playing an exhibition game. “There are several consultants from out of town that had airline tickets already purchased,” one school official told the Vikings.
The squabbling continued on Aug. 13, the day before the two days of meetings were to begin.
Richard Johnson, the school’s director of special projects, argued that the team had agreed to the dates and said the meetings would go ahead with or without the Vikings. He added: “FYI: Tomorrow morning we will meet from 9:00 – 2:00 to discuss field heating and turf options.”
Kieron Frazier, the Vikings associate counsel and the son of Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, replied just as bluntly. “As [we] informed you a couple of weeks ago, and as I have discussed early last week” the Vikings could not make the meeting, Frazier wrote in an e-mail on Aug. 13. The Vikings, in the end, sent team officials to the meetings.
As part of the agreement, the Vikings also agreed to contribute $125,000 per season in cash and in-kind contributions to help soften the games’ impact on neighborhoods surrounding TCF Bank Stadium. A university district alliance group had initially asked for $1 million over the two seasons, and said the amount paled “when considered in the context of a billion dollar stadium” being built downtown for the Vikings.
The talks, said Ted Tucker, the alliance’s chair, delved into minute details: Could a special appearance by Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson at a neighborhood event count as a Vikings’ in-kind contribution? Tucker said it should not. The Vikings, he said, kept on talking about building playgrounds and dedicating them with media events, but he added, “I’m not sure a playground is needed in any of our neighborhoods.”
The school and the team, meanwhile, faced other, minor blips. The Vikings said they could give the school free tickets to regular-season games but not playoff games at TCF Bank Stadium because of National Football League rules. The school, the final agreement stated, can buy up to 150 playoff tickets at the same price the public pays.
After the agreement was signed, a school official told the Vikings there had been 24 versions of the proposed lease.
“This has been a long journey,” Brian Wenger, an attorney for the Vikings, told the school.