As long as it stands, the new U.S. Bank Stadium will be a landmark, a shimmering glass testament to years of persistence, divisive public debate and the brute clout of the National Football League.
To Minnesota Vikings fans, it represents a renaissance for a beloved 55-year-old franchise still aching for a Super Bowl title. To others, it will never be anything but a misguided $1.1 billion paean to money and sports. To city and state political leaders, it’s big-buck bet to resuscitate a forlorn part of Minneapolis and keep professional football downtown.
This month, Minnesotans get to see what they’re paying for as the building that Gov. Mark Dayton called “the people’s stadium” opens its five signature pivoting glass doors for the first time. Festivities start July 22 with a ribbon-cutting, followed by a weekend open house and free self-guided tours of the main concourses.
Reviews are likely to be mixed. “Minnesota modest” this building is not. The appeal of the stadium, already a distinctive feature of the Minneapolis skyline, remains an open question. Will fans take to it as they did to Target Field in 2010? Or will they trudge into it as they did the utilitarian hump of the Metrodome — despite the two World Series the Twins won there?
“It’s a significant building nationally,” said Steve Berg, who is writing a book documenting the stadium’s already long history. “You have indoor stadiums. You have outdoor stadiums. You have retractable roof stadiums. This is something else.”
It had to be bold, said Augsburg College professor Kristin Anderson, who studies sports facilities. “Every sports broadcast will open with a view of the stadium, the skyline shot, the establishing view of the city,” she said. “If it weren’t distinctive or if it were ugly like the Metrodome, that’s not the statement you want to make.”
It’s aggressive, said architecture critic and author Larry Millett of St. Paul. “It’s the NFL saying, ‘We’ve got the power. We’ve got the money,’ ” he said.
Bagley: ‘Sometimes I marvel’
The opening has been more than a decade in the making. Before the Vikings decided to stay in Minneapolis, they flirted for years with Anoka and Ramsey counties: Blaine first, then Arden Hills, courting controversy at every stage.
As the team’s fans brewed up grass-roots “Save the Vikes” efforts, the Vikings let their Metrodome lease run out. They got nowhere with Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s no-new-taxes administration. But DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, taking office in 2011, didn’t want the team to leave town on his watch. He wielded clout at the Capitol as only a governor can and, despite a $5 billion budget deficit, cajoled a bill from the Legislature in May 2012.
After weeks of negotiations that nearly collapsed until team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf agreed to increase their contribution by $50 million to $477 million, the bill passed the House at 4 a.m. after hours of what was described at the time as “bare-knuckle bargaining.” Senate passage came the next day, but the plan faced another hostile audience, squeaking through the Minneapolis City Council on 7-6 vote.
“Sometimes I marvel at how we were able to get this done because it’s a difficult environment over there,” said Vikings vice president Lester Bagley, who started lobbying for a new stadium in 2000.
Unlike the dome, which was done on the cheap for $55 million, the new building is the most expensive public-private partnership in state history. State taxpayers paid $348 million. Minneapolis paid $150 million. The Wilfs’ contribution climbed during construction; their final tab: $602 million.
The Wilfs’ contribution will never be enough for those who dislike the economics of big-time sports, or that a league with $10 billion in revenue expects taxpayers to help pay for their playgrounds. The Wilfs have seen the Vikings’ value climb from the reported $600 million they paid in 2005 to the $1.6 billion Forbes magazine reported last year. Much of that spike came in 2012, the year of the stadium deal.
As the building’s main tenant, the Vikings will reap the advertising and naming-rights revenue. What U.S. Bank paid to have its name on the building isn’t public, but the estimate — which Bagley said was on the high side — is $220 million over two decades.
The Wilfs also expected sales of “stadium-builder licenses” to raise more than $100 million toward their share of the tab. Fans must purchase a one-time license, ranging from $500 to $9,500, in order to buy season tickets for the majority of the 66,200 seats in the stadium. The sale of the licenses, a common practice in the NFL, so angered Dayton that he initially threatened to pull out of the project.
Fans jump on board
But fans have paid up. More than 48,500 stadium-builder licenses have been sold out of the 49,700 available, according to the team. Of the 131 suites, all but two have been sold. More than 60,000 seats are committed for the upcoming season, leaving just the 3,250 single-game tickets that will go on sale this month.
In return, fan comfort and enjoyment have been at the center of every decision from the width of the seats to the height of the video boards, the proximity to the field and the choice of concessions.
To give an indoor stadium the outdoor feel the Vikings wanted, Dallas-based HKS Architects went to the technological vanguard. The translucent roof above the 66,200 purple seats is a high-tech structure made of thin plastic called ETFE for short. Technically, it’s an ethylene tetrafluoroethylene pneumatic structure that is nonstick, self-cleaning and guaranteed by engineers not to collapse.
Even though the Vikings are the main tenant, they won’t use the stadium more than a dozen days a year. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) hired venue management firm SMG to keep the building busy the rest of the year.
MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen said the building will be in good financial shape. She expects the life span to be at least 40 years with the stadium playing host to concerts and high school and college games from multiple sports. Two massive events are already booked: the 2018 Super Bowl and the 2019 Final Four.
Impact already felt
Enthusiasm for the project reaches into the surrounding neighborhood. There’s a new city park, two 17-story Wells Fargo office towers with 5,000 employees, housing, a hotel, condos, a parking ramp and another recently announced office tower. The former Star Tribune building was sold and torn down for a park and plaza.
Former Mayor R.T. Rybak, who helped make the deal, holds up the construction boom as an indication of the stadium’s success. “I rode my bike down there and looked around. I thought: It turned out pretty much how we thought,” Rybak said. “I always had a push-pull with this. I don’t like the economics of sports.”
In exchange for helping with the stadium, Rybak said the city got the money to renovate Target Center — and a new park — instead of losing the NFL team and possibly Wells Fargo. “I would put that up against a white elephant in a sea of vacant parking lots while a major attraction moves to the distant suburbs,” he said.
City Council President Barb Johnson said the stadium beautifully anchors a neighborhood now called East Town. “No one anticipated the level of development we are seeing around the stadium,” she said.
Berg, a retired Star Tribune reporter, said the new stadium will always be controversial. “There will always be people who think this is a monument to the misplaced priorities of a sick society,” he said.
On Aug. 3, the stadium with the 270-foot prow designed to allude to a marine vessel sets sail with a soccer match, the International Champions Cup, between AC Milan and Chelsea FC. Country star Luke Bryan and Metallica will test the acoustics with concerts before the Vikings’ first preseason game, Aug. 28 against the San Diego Chargers. The Green Bay Packers roll into town for the first regular season game of the U.S. Bank Stadium era on Sept. 18. Of the journey, Bagley said, “The end result is worth the tremendous energy and disappointments.”