As part of their battle for a new $1 billion stadium, the Vikings are fighting a smaller, largely unnoticed skirmish to get a professional soccer franchise.
The team is resisting attempts at the state Capitol to strip out language from its stadium plan that would give Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, or anyone else whose family owns at least 3 percent of the Vikings, an exclusive right for five years to pursue a soccer team that would play in the new stadium, rent-free.
Major League Soccer spokesman Dan Courtemanche said the 19-team league has had "exploratory expansion discussions" in several markets, including talking to the Vikings about Minnesota. Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president for stadium development and public affairs, said a meeting this week between the Vikings and MLS Commissioner Don Garber was postponed because of the stadium's changing political fortunes in Minnesota.
"That's a huge issue which hasn't gotten a lot of attention," Bagley said of the soccer franchise. "I think the Wilfs have a strong interest in bringing a Major League Soccer team to this market." He said the Wilfs would have to pay a $30 million to $40 million franchise fee.
Though the issue has not been widely discussed at the state Capitol, where the stadium is poised to be voted on next week, it has raised some eyebrows. But Bagley and other stadium supporters have said that only a handful of critics -- as part of an effort to derail the stadium -- have complained about giving the Wilfs exclusive rights for five years to get a professional soccer team.
"Baloney," said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, who said he opposes giving private individuals exclusive rights for a team. "It's free rent forever" for a pro soccer team, Nienow said of the deal.
"If there's an amendment on the floor" next week to alter or eliminate giving the Vikings exclusive soccer team rights, "it'll be a close vote, absolutely," he said.
Ted Mondale, Gov. Mark Dayton's chief stadium negotiator, said it was the Vikings -- joined by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak -- who pushed for the soccer team language, and said state officials turned back the team's attempt to craft an agreement that would be more beneficial for the Vikings. "They wanted more, yes," Mondale said.
He also said that while Wilf and the other Vikings owners would have exclusive rights for five years, another ownership group could bring a team to Minnesota if the Wilfs did not match their offer. "They just have a five-year right of first refusal -- first right -- to bring a soccer team in," he added.
Mondale said part of the reason for giving the Vikings exclusive soccer rights was because the team was paying $427 million to build the stadium, and also contributing to its operating costs. "If you're going to pay for 65 percent of the rent on the building [you] ought to get something," he said.
The soccer team, according to the stadium plan, would pay for game-day costs and "reasonable marginal costs" incurred by the public authority that would own the stadium.
Rybak spokesman John Stiles said the mayor enthusiastically supported the soccer team language. "We would love to see Major League Soccer in Minneapolis at the new stadium," Stiles said.
Courtemanche said the soccer league was first focused on expanding to 20 teams, and would likely add a team in New York. This year, Montreal became the league's 19th team -- and the third in Canada. The league has added nine teams in the past eight years, nearly doubling its size.
"We believe the Midwest and Southeast are two areas of the country where we could add an expansion team to provide geographic balance," he said.
The league already has teams in Chicago and Kansas City.
Having a team, said Bagley, would be a "tremendous benefit to the state." He noted that the 17,000 fans, on average, who attend pro soccer games "are paying taxes on parking, on tickets, on concessions, on [team] merchandise."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673