Big-league sports teams are having an unlikely bromance with art. All around the country, new stadiums are popping up and boasting about their art collections.

The Vikings' new $1.13 billion U.S. Bank Stadium is the latest in a lineup that includes the Yankees' $2.3 billion extravaganza in the Bronx, the Dallas Cowboys' $1.2 billion stadium and the San Francisco 49ers' $2 billion Levi's Stadium.

At those tabs, today's stadiums really are "palaces for the people," as art museums were described a century ago.

U.S. Bank Stadium has more than 350 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other artworks plus a couple of murals and some 250 photos decorating its suites and concourses. Most of the art is sports- or Viking-themed, although there is a portrait of Prince, a Minnesota music alcove and some abstractions and landscapes sprinkled about.

Pieces range from a 3-foot-tall bronze Viking raider, standing in a fragment of a longboat, to a 123-foot-long mural of purple ovals spiraling through space in an imaginative interpretation of a quarterback's perfect throw.

"That's 41 yards," corrected Vikings Vice President Tanya Dreesen with a mischievous grin. "We say 'yards' in football."

She declined to say the total cost of the art, but allowed that it was "several million."

It's a niche business

Stadium and Vikings officials commissioned the art through a firm called Sports and the Arts.

Founded by Camille Speca, based in Rhode Island, and her sister-in-law Tracie Speca-Ventura from Nipomo, Calif., the firm also assembled art for the Yankees and 49ers.

"Once we did the new Yankee Stadium, that clinched the deal" for the Minneapolis project, Speca-Ventura said.

While the coupling of art and athletics may seem awkward at first, it is in many ways a natural evolution.

Both compete for the public's leisure time and discretionary dollars. Both package inspiration, achievement and fame in imposing buildings. And historically both art and sports were touted as tools for self-improvement: A century ago, art offered moral uplift, cultural cachet and museum tea rooms for white-gloved ladies. Back then sports nurtured strong bodies and improved coordination, while stadiums sold beer, brats and a day off from the factory to fans in fedoras.

Stereotypes aside, sports and art have evolved into entertainment industries. The Dallas stadium sets a standard with a museum-quality collection purchased from marquee names that would be right at home at Walker Art Center — if only Walker had the space.

At 3 million square feet, the Dallas behemoth is nearly double U.S. Bank's 1.75 million, with toilets to match (1,600 vs. 979 in Minnesota). The Dallas commissions include a stainless steel "Sky Mirror" by British artist Anish Kapoor that stands three stories high and weighs 15 tons, and a yellow wall punctuated by 50 striped aluminum panels by French artist Daniel Buren.

Artists heard the call

U.S. Bank Stadium includes art by about 50 professionals.

"Each project has its own legs," Speca-Ventura said. "We put out a call for artists in Minnesota, and more than 1,100 responded. In San Francisco, we got 300, so this is phenomenal. Usually in sports, you get comic or commercial art, but the variety and quality of the art here is amazing."

Work by three former Vikings is featured, too — a Matt Blair photo mural, Carl Eller pottery and a Jim Marshall painting of his personal "Silver Eagle" emblem — along with wildlife prints that were a collaboration between former Vikings coach Bud Grant and pioneering Minnesota wildlife painter Les Kouba.

At least 20 images of slender football players in motion fill the walls of the Medtronic Club, a two-story space for Vikings owners and sponsors. The brushy paintings and quick sketches by Minneapolis artist Gary Welton capture the graceful, almost balletic movements of athletes whose bodies are often hidden in bulky uniforms.

Elsewhere, Leslie Barlow, a recent MFA graduate of Minneapolis College of Art and Design, ramped up a palette of purple, violet and green for energetic portraits of former Vikings stars. The team's colors also echo in Andrew Wykes' landscapes of the Stone Arch Bridge and Twin Cities skyline; in the monumental spinning football mural by Ed Charbonneau and Jeremy Szopinski, and in Nicholas Schleif's larger-than-life portrait of Prince composed of words from his songs in pin dots of lavender, purple and yellow.

There's also a painting by kids from Waite Park Community School in Minneapolis, plus pop-style portraits of 18 sports heroes (including Herb Brooks and Lindsey Vonn) by eighth-graders from Grand Rapids, Minn.

'What Minnesota is all about'

Viking motifs recur throughout: in Mike Nathe's elaborate fur-trimmed helmets sporting horns engraved with dragons; Lynn Hanson's painting of a mist-shrouded Viking longboat; Andrea Carlson's abstracted longboats in plunging seas; Peyton Scott Russell's graffiti-inspired light-box version of "Skol," the classic Scandinavian toast, and in David Rathman's delicate watercolors of football players in action.

One of the most engaging displays is a mural of photos former Viking Blair took in the 1970s at training camp, in locker rooms and on the road. Bursting with energy and the camaraderie of youth, the pictures suggest a simpler era in pro sports when young athletes joked around at suppertime, wore funny hats, played Ping-Pong, barbecued and palled around together. They may still do that, but without Blair there snapping candid pictures, fans may never know.

"They were just normal guys then," said Dan Speca, who designed the wall with his wife, Camille. "Pro athletes make so much more money now and are so much more guarded. I just don't think you're going to see this sort of normal anymore."

Aside from the 41-yard mural of spiraling footballs, the U.S. Bank Stadium art probably doesn't measure up to the Texas competition on a museum-quality scale.

But that's irrelevant. A stadium isn't an art museum and shouldn't aspire to be one. What matters is the feel of the place, the welcome of familiar landscapes and icons that humanize an outsized building and bring it back to scale.

"When the world is here," Dressen said, "we want them to see what Minnesota is all about."

"Skol!" to that.

612-673-4431 • @maryabbe