Minnesota's bid for a Major League Soccer franchise reaches a critical juncture Wednesday, when the local ownership group is expected to ask the league to extend a deadline to show progress on its plans for a stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
MLS officials were mum Tuesday on what the league would do now that its July 1 deadline for stadium progress had arrived, or how the league would define progress.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has virtually ruled out alternate sites — both Brooklyn Park and St. Paul recently had expressed varying levels of interest — by maintaining that the league was sticking to the expansion agreement of building a soccer-only downtown stadium.
"We really want to have a team in Minnesota, but they have to play in a downtown stadium because that's the deal we cut," Garber told reporters last week at a news conference in New York.
An MLS spokesman said the league would elaborate on its issues in Minnesota on Wednesday.
The impasse contrasted with the enthusiasm that was on display in late March when Garber came to Minneapolis to award the franchise and shared the stage with Bill McGuire, the former UnitedHealth Group chief executive who is heading the local investor group. McGuire's group includes the Pohlad family, the owners of the Twins, and Glen Taylor, the owner of the Timberwolves.
A spokesman for McGuire, who owns Minnesota United FC, an existing lower-level soccer team, did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, declined to elaborate on comments he made this week to Minnesota Public Radio saying that the investors likely would ask MLS for an extension past the July 1 deadline.
In hands of league
"There's ultimately going to be some flexibility on the [deadline]," said Ted Philipakos, a sports business professor at New York University and a sports agent for several professional soccer players. With the league expressing its desire to have a franchise in Minnesota because of the state's favorable soccer demographics, "MLS is not going to run away immediately" because of problems building a stadium, he said.
But Philipakos said the danger for MLS, which also is facing expansion headaches in Miami and Los Angeles, is that if the league treats the July 1 deadline "as if it never really existed, then they sort of lose leverage. [They] have to show that they're tough and that they're serious, and there's something to lose."
Scott Bukstein, a director of the sports business program at the University of Central Florida, said there is "huge potential for a MLS team in Minneapolis." But Bukstein said Garber was "very direct" in saying "that the agreement was that the team would play in downtown Minneapolis."
Two weeks ago, a top MLS official reiterated the July 1 deadline after McGuire's group, which was seeking a set of local tax breaks, failed to get approval at the State Capitol for the public subsidies before legislators ended a special session and adjourned for the year.
The failure appeared to leave McGuire's group scrambling for alternatives — McGuire has largely refrained from public comments — and led one key Minneapolis legislator to say that the soccer group had waited too long to seek legislative approval this year.
"July 1st is the deadline that we put out there in March, and it remains the deadline," said Mark Abbott, MLS' deputy commissioner. Abbott said McGuire's stadium plan "needs to be something that's final enough so that we understand and know that it will ultimately be built."
With the backing of the Pohlad family, McGuire's group had concentrated on a stadium site near the Twins' Target Field and had talked loosely of a $120 million stadium with a roughly 18,500-seat capacity.
But a possible taxpayer subsidy package being considered by the Minneapolis City Council was not made public until May 18, the last day of the Legislature's regular session. The proposal would freeze property taxes on three parcels near Target Field being eyed for a soccer stadium and extend a city entertainment and beverage tax district to the properties.
While McGuire's proposal — at least at the moment — remains in limbo, others who have wanted an MLS franchise are watching closely.
In Sacramento, Calif., officials on Tuesday described the city's attempt to obtain its own MLS franchise and said Sacramento could be ready to host a team as early as 2017 by expanding an existing stadium to 14,000 seats. A new stadium, an official said, could be ready by 2018. "I'm thrilled by our progress," Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. "[Our efforts are] firing on all cylinders and our downtown stadium plan gets stronger by the day."
In Minneapolis, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley indicated that the team was not now actively pursuing an MLS franchise. The Vikings' owners had earlier obtained exclusive rights to try to bring an MLS team to the Vikings' new $1 billion indoor stadium, but McGuire had maneuvered ahead of the Vikings by promising an outdoor, soccer-only stadium.
"The Vikings are supportive of MLS coming to Minnesota," Bagley said. "[But] we have been fully focused on the development of our new stadium."