Wells Fargo can keep the elevated signs on top of two 17-story towers near the new U.S. Bank Stadium — for now.
U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank, who issued the ruling Thursday, tempered the bank’s victory, however, by saying the Vikings have a “fair” chance at eventually prevailing and requiring that the signs be flush with the rooftop, not elevated 18 inches as they are now.
The Vikings wanted Frank to order the bank to cover the signs immediately, saying the signs violate a vigorously negotiated contract and amount to “ambush advertising.” The NFL team’s lawyers said that the signs photo-bombed and harmed the image of their “iconic” new $1.1 billion stadium on the site of the former Metrodome.
Under the two-year-old, 16-page agreement between developer Ryan Companies and the team, the Vikings say Wells Fargo was allowed to paint 56-by-56-foot logos on the rooftops of the office towers. In the past few months, Wells Fargo constructed signs on the rooftops that are raised 18 inches, which the Vikings say is a violation of the agreement.
Wells Fargo countered that the height of the signs makes little difference in their visibility and is within the bounds of the agreement. In his 15-page order, Frank said he found the bank’s argument “inconsistent” with its assertion that the signs are important.
The high-profile imbroglio is about millions of dollars in investments by three big brands — the Vikings, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, which bought the naming rights to the stadium for undisclosed millions.
Frank’s order merely addressed the Vikings’ request that Wells Fargo immediately cover the signs. The larger issue of whether the signs can be elevated or must be flat will now be considered. The case is on a fast track, and the next step is for lawyers and the court to set a schedule.
The issue to be determined as described by Frank is: “Whether the signage agreement permits Wells Fargo’s rooftop signs.”
Frank determined that both sides have “viable” arguments. He pointedly didn’t determine that the Vikings’ position is better than the Wells Fargo position, but said the team’s breach-of-contract claim has a “fair chance of prevailing.”
Clash of two titans
The battle is between two of the biggest players in the reshaping of Downtown East neighborhood. Wells Fargo heralds its $300 million investment in the $400 million Ryan mixed-use project. Some 5,000 bank workers will fill the office buildings daily.
The Vikings highlighted in court the public’s interest in the stadium. Taxpayers are covering just under $500 million of the project with the team paying the rest. The team owners recouped some of their cost by selling the naming rights to U.S. Bank.
In a statement, the Vikings said they’re confident they will prevail on the merits of the case because Wells Fargo violated a written agreement. “We intend to pursue the final court decision and we look forward to obtaining a decision that requires Wells Fargo to comply with the original agreed upon contract terms,” the statement said.
Wells Fargo spokesman John Hobot said the bank is pleased with the preliminary ruling and “will continue to vigorously defend our case in court because we have always believed we should have the right to display our rooftop signs as planned.”
The Vikings have repeatedly made the point that the dimensions of the signs on the buildings came out of a long, difficult negotiation with Ryan that almost brought down the entire development. The NFL team held sway over the nearby signage as a result of the legislation that got the stadium built.
The signs in dispute are on the rooftops of the Wells Fargo buildings. They are not visible from the street. No one disputes the lighted red and yellow logos that appear on the building faces.