William McGuire's sudden emergence on the professional soccer stage in the Twin Cities left one big unanswered question: How will his presence help or hinder the Vikings owners' attempt to land a Major League Soccer team in their new stadium?
McGuire, former head of the UnitedHealth Group and one of Minnesota's richest private executives, was introduced Thursday as the new owner of the Minnesota Stars FC, the financially troubled North American Soccer League team.
He immediately brought an up-tempo presence to the team, saying that he wanted to average 10,000 fans next year -- the Stars average fewer than 3,000 fans now -- and had even explored the possibility of the team playing at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium.
"It's difficult for me not to be involved, if I'm involved," McGuire told a large crowd at a downtown Minneapolis bar. McGuire, who declined to say how much money he expected to invest in his latest endeavor, was given a Stars jersey with the No. 13, indicating the first year he would be its owner.
While acknowledging he was unsure where the team would play its games -- it has been playing at Blaine's National Sports Center -- McGuire said he had already looked into possibly playing at the university's football stadium. "Whether or not [soccer] could be accommodated [at the U] in a way that would make sense [we'll] have to explore," he said.
He did, however, indicate that the Stars would likely play their season opener next year at the Metrodome, and probably most of its other home games in Blaine.
But much of Thursday's announcement, which was cheered loudly by soccer fans at the briefing, centered on how McGuire's entry would impact the Vikings, whose owners have exclusive but temporary rights to land an MLS franchise once the team's new stadium is built. While the Stars are considered to be -- talentwise -- a notch below MLS teams, McGuire noted that the Stars had recently beaten an MLS team.
McGuire said that he and Mark Wilf, the Vikings president, had recently talked about soccer, but the conversation did not go into details.
"We really have put the soccer discussion" on the "back burner" while the stadium is being built, Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president for stadium development and public affairs, said in reaction to McGuire's comments.
MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said that, beyond adding a team in the New York City area, the league has had "exploratory discussions" for franchises in Minnesota, Orlando, Atlanta and Miami. When the Vikings have been in New York City for NFL meetings, "they've stopped by our offices," he said, adding that MLS officials had not had any talks with McGuire.
Many seemed surprised by McGuire's move. Mark Stenglein, the new president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a business group, said it seemed inevitable that Major League Soccer would come to Minnesota but wondered whether McGuire and Wilf would compete for fans. Michele Kelm-Helgen, the chairwoman of the public body overseeing the building of the new Vikings stadium, said she immediately quizzed Bagley on McGuire's impact.
"Who's to say that they can't work out some deal?" said Dave Laidig, a Stars season-ticket holder, said of McGuire and the Vikings.
McGuire, who took over as president of UnitedHealth in 1989, oversaw its rise to the nation's second-largest health insurer. But McGuire also was involved in a federal Securities and Exchange Commission investigation for backdating stock options, a controversy that forced McGuire out of the company and led UnitedHealth to pay $900 million to settle shareholder lawsuits.
Outside Thursday's news conference announcing McGuire's new role with the Stars, a man handed out leaflets calling attention to McGuire's past problems. "Now he can use his dirty money to become the celebrated owner of a high-profile professional sports team," said Roger Cuthbertson, who passed out the leaflets.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673