In the parade of out-of-town owners and would-be owners who have either circled or controlled Minnesota’s professional sports franchises over the years, the Wilf family of New Jersey seemed a decent alternative when they came to town in 2005.
Unlike some of the other pro sports prospectors — the name Tom Clancy comes to mind — the Wilfs landed at MSP with significant net worth, much of it made in New Jersey real-estate development. Minnesotans are welcoming people, especially if an owner’s wealth helps make a local team a winner. Oh, and it helps if they can keep the players out of jail and off Lake Minnetonka.
The Wilfs have mostly delivered. They’ve spent money on players, hired an excellent general manager and head coach, and were a Brett Favre interception away from the Super Bowl in 2010. On the field, they appear to have a team on the rise. Off the field, like it or not, they have successfully played the stadium game by the unofficial rules established by their counterparts in the National Football League.
Still, they’ve never been easy to warm to. Zygi Wilf is challenged by public speaking, and his brother, Mark, is not often heard from. And there’s that New Jersey real-estate background, and the long-running lawsuit that re-emerged last week — and that this newspaper first described in detail in 2011. The question whether we could really trust these guys has long been in the air.
In recent years, Glen Taylor and the Pohlads have struggled with wins and losses, but they have deep local roots. We have a level of confidence in them that the Wilfs were never likely to enjoy — especially now.
If nothing else, the stunning rebuke the Wilf family received from a New Jersey judge last week serves as a warning that we Midwesterners had better keep our guard up. Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made that point in the wake of last week’s news, even as the state and city were moving at full speed into a stadium partnership with the New Jersey dealmakers.
Don’t believe for a second that Dayton and Rybak were stunned by the news of the judge’s decision in the 21-year-old case. Surprised at the strength of the judge’s language, yes, but not shocked that the Wilfs would be involved in such messy matters. After all, the words “books cooked” appeared in the headline of the aforementioned 2011 Star Tribune story.
Last week, Superior Court Judge Deanne Wilson said Zygi and Mark Wilf committed fraud, breach of contract and violations of New Jersey’s civil racketeering statute in ruling on the real-estate partnership litigation.
A team spokesman quickly labeled the case a “private business matter.” But in Minnesota, the Wilfs are involved in a business matter that is public, and that makes their conduct in other business dealings of great and legitimate interest to their partners — state and city taxpayers.
Legislation approved in 2012 calls for the state of Minnesota and city of Minneapolis to pay for $498 million of the new downtown Minneapolis stadium’s $975 million construction cost. The Vikings are responsible for the remainder through a $200 million NFL loan, stadium naming rights, sponsorships, seat license fees and other sourcing.
The Wilfs said in a statement that the New Jersey case will have “absolutely no impact on the stadium project” and that their funding is secure. Good to hear. The state, through the newly formed Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, is responsible to taxpayers to ensure that’s the case.
Like Dayton and Rybak, this page championed the stadium, which meant supporting the partnership with the Wilfs. We’re not backing off that position now. Even as owners come and go, an NFL franchise is important for any metro area that aspires to major-league status in economic vitality and quality of life. And the stadium and associated Ryan Development project will transform the moribund east side of downtown. (In the interest of full disclosure, we must mention that the Star Tribune also stands to benefit from the project if Ryan completes the purchase of our company’s downtown property near the stadium.)
What we have been reminded of in the New Jersey lawsuit is that the Wilf family didn’t accumulate its wealth by winning the Powerball. Hardball is their game. The Wilfs are real-estate developers in one of the most bare-knuckled markets in the country. They are canny dealmakers — and in this case deal-breakers — and Minnesota is now their partner in an important and expensive real-estate project.
The state and city are not without leverage, however. The Vikings are a consumer product, and the Wilfs understand that their business would be greatly harmed by any hint of malfeasance in their dealings with the state and city. In the wake of Judge Wilson’s smackdown, they should also be on notice that every business dealing they have in Minnesota from now on is likely to face greater scrutiny. If they’re uncomfortable with that, they should never have bought the Vikings or entered into the public-private stadium deal in the first place.