I never considered stadium referendums a matter of life or death.
That was before I got lost inside the Minneapolis Metrodome.
No joke. The longer the Minnesota Vikings go without a new facility, the more I fear for the safety of their fans after enduring firsthand what they must deal with at home games.
When it comes to the game-day stadium experience, NFL media members have no clue. We're spoiled by reserved parking, free meals and our own separate entrance into the press box. That's where I was heading last October before Favre Bowl I - a.k.a. Green Bay vs. Minnesota - when I took a wrong turn acting on the advice of a Metrodome usher.
I needed 45 minutes to finish just one lap around the facility searching in vain for an entrance located one floor below. The entire concourse was as crowded as Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday. Not even the Williams Wall could be as effective in clogging human traffic.
Local merchandise vendors with permits were crammed onto the left side of a passageway that would be the size of an alley in newer venues. On the right side were amenities like restrooms and concession stands with long lines. Wedged in the middle were folks like me just trying to eke past repeated standstills.
I'm not claustrophobic nor am I up to speed on Hennepin County fire codes. But I couldn't help but think we were all screwed if an emergency occurred that required immediate evacuation.
For the Vikings, their stadium situation is reaching five-alarm status. According to a team-sponsored web site ( www.minnesotamomentum.com ), Minnesota ranks last in the NFL for stadium-generated revenue. The 28-year-old Metrodome has inadequate luxury seating compared to the 28 venues that were either constructed or renovated since 1992. Two former tenants - the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota - have recently left this dump for new stadiums.
The Vikings, though, have been unable to procure partial public funding toward fresh digs. The latest proposal was rejected Wednesday by a 10-9 house committee vote. It now seems unlikely that any stadium bill will pass before the state legislature adjourns on May 17.
Should nothing happen, all bets are off regarding the franchise's future in the Twin Cities once its Metrodome lease expires at the end of the 2011 season.
I'm not an advocate of corporate welfare for teams with stadium issues. I understand there are greater social needs with tax dollars. But I am sympathetic to the Vikings' plight.
This isn't like with the Florida Marlins, where team owner Jeffrey Luria is saving money hand-over-fist at the expense of his on-field product while waiting for the city of Miami to build him a new baseball stadium. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf actually is trying to win a championship. He has spent liberally on Minnesota's roster through free agency and lucrative contract extensions. Those expenditures paid dividends last season when the Vikings came one Garrett Hartley field goal away from reaching Super Bowl XLIV.
Under the watch of head coach Brad Childress and personnel guru Rick Spielman, Wilf has cleaned up the Love Boat-soaked image that was damaging the franchise upon his purchase in 2005. Although he isn't a Minnesota native, Wilf doesn't want the Vikings to set sail for greener pastures. He is trying for a solution but is understandably running out of patience.
The Vikings can't count on future financial assistance from other NFL teams. The $15 million to $20 million the franchise annually receives in subsidies would be gone if alterations are made to the league's revenue-sharing model as suggested by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Those changes could be coming next year connected to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players union.
Long-time Minnesotans will remember when the NBA's Lakers moved from their state to Los Angeles in 1960. I wouldn't blame Wilf if he also tried taking his club to Southern California where a gold mine, err, new stadium may be in the offing.
On the bright side, the Metrodome's concourses would be clear on game days. The only folks at risk of getting hurt then would be heartbroken Vikings supporters whose team deserves better.
Here are nine other NFL franchises that are facing current and future stadium issues:
San Diego (Qualcomm Stadium): This franchise could ultimately return to its Los Angeles roots if nothing is done to replace this 43-year-old facility. A proposal that would allow an increase in tax dollars for stadium funding (among other downtown projects) is scheduled for a May 27 San Diego City Council meeting. San Diego was becoming a regular spot in the NFL's Super Bowl rotation until 2003. The game won't be returning to Qualcomm Stadium.
San Francisco (Candlestick Park): Like with San Diego, the Bay Area won't host another Super Bowl until a new stadium is constructed. The 49ers, though, are far closer than the Chargers or Vikings in their quest. A public vote for a new $937 million facility in nearby Santa Clara will be held June 8.
Oakland (Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum): It isn't just seven consecutive seasons of 11-plus losses that keep fans away. This 33-year-old facility is brutal. The lack of a family-friendly atmosphere doesn't help matters. The Raiders also share the stadium with the Oakland A's, which means playing football on a dirt infield through September and possibly longer depending on baseball playoffs. One glimmer of hope: The possibility of sharing a new Santa Clara facility with the 49ers.
St. Louis Rams (Edward Jones Dome): It's hard to believe a stadium built just 15 years ago could already be antiquated. But that's the problem facing the Edward Jones Dome and the city officials who will try to keep the Rams from leaving town. The franchise's lease stipulates the venue must rank among the top eight NFL stadiums in quality by 2015 or the Rams are free to move elsewhere. Such renovations aren't in the offing. An uncertain ownership situation provides more dark clouds for St. Louis football fans who already lost the Cardinals to Arizona in 1988.
Atlanta (Georgia Dome): In 2005, Falcons owner Arthur Blank failed to receive help refurbishing his stadium through a Super Bowl hosting bid. Blank is now pushing for a new facility that would include public and private financing. He estimates the project would take seven years to complete. Atlanta's stadium lease expires in 2020.
Buffalo (Ralph Wilson Stadium): A stadium with one of the NFL's largest seating capacities (73,967) is also among the smallest in overall square feet. The Bills would benefit from a stadium with fewer traditional seats and more club/luxury areas. Such a project wouldn't be considered while 91-year-old Ralph Wilson still owns the team. There is a chance new ownership would consider leaving Buffalo for a more lucrative market.
Jacksonville (Jacksonville Municipal Stadium): Actually, the venue is fine. The problem is getting people to fill it. In March, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said "you can't continue to have an NFL team with 40,000 people in the stadium." Jaguars management is gamely trying to sell seats, but there isn't a flood of interest in a region far more dedicated to college teams (Florida and Florida State) located outside city limits.
Cincinnati (Paul Brown Stadium): Like in St. Louis, the Bengals have a clause allowing early exit from their lease unless future technological stadium upgrades are made. The franchise already is at odds with county officials because of a stadium deal that is straining the local budget. Even with all these problems, I can't foresee Bengals owner Mike Brown moving the franchise under his watch.
Miami (Sun Life Stadium): South Florida hosted its record 10th Super Bowl in February, but the NFL is threatening not to return unless significant renovations are made. That bluff may have to get called. Sensing an unsympathetic populace, the Dolphins already pulled the plug on pitching a $200-million hotel tax proposal that would have included a partial stadium roof. With the end zones facing east and west, the uncovered north side of the stadium bakes in the South Florida sun. The issue has become so problematic that Stephen Ross, who owns the Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium, successfully petitioned the NFL for no early kickoffs in September home games even at the expense of losing home-field advantage against opponents unaccustomed to the sweltering heat and humidity.