Gov. Mark Dayton criticized the Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday for considering extra fees on season-ticket holders as a way to help cover the team's share of a new $975 million stadium, but the team's owners point out that option was a key part of the deal.
The Democratic governor and Vikings management were allies during the long path to approving a plan for a new, publicly subsidized stadium that was approved by lawmakers this year. But in a letter to team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, Dayton said he strongly opposed "shifting any part of the team's responsibility for those costs onto Minnesota Vikings fans. This Private Contribution is your responsibility, not theirs."
The team quickly responded with a statement saying permission to sell so-called stadium builder's licenses was a "key component" of legislation that was "vetted by the Legislature, testified to by Vikings and state of Minnesota negotiators" and signed by the governor.
Many NFL teams that built new stadiums in recent years have relied on such fees, also called personal seat licenses, that are usually a one-time charge on top of the cost of a season ticket. The Star Tribune reported this week that the Vikings had raised the prospect in a survey recently emailed to season-ticket holders.
The stadium deal struck earlier this year between the state, Minneapolis and the Vikings requires the team to pay slightly more than half of the nearly billion-dollar price tag.
During a meeting Tuesday night in Rochester, Vikings vice president Lester Bagley said no decision had been made but confirmed that surveys were sent to sponsors, ticket holders and suite holders "to try to gauge their feelings about this," the Post-Bulletin reported. The meeting was held to discuss the stadium's design and construction, but Bagley was asked about the fee option by a season-ticket holder.
The stadium bill, which Dayton signed into law in May, does include language that allows "stadium builder's licenses," but the Vikings would face a significant hurdle if they try to levy such a fee. Any such arrangement must be approved by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, a five-member panel created to oversee stadium construction and operations.
That panel includes three members appointed by Dayton and two by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. A spokesman said Tuesday that Rybak agrees with Dayton and is "one thousand percent opposed" to seat licenses.
The state and city of Minneapolis together are contributing $498 million to stadium construction, with the Vikings paying the rest. Other sources that the team could tap for revenue include a loan from the NFL, stadium naming rights and corporate sponsorships.
"We now have a pretty clear statement from the governor," said Michelle Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the commission and a Dayton appointee. "The Vikings are only conducting a survey that includes a question about seat licenses. They haven't made a decision, there's been very little discussion about it between the authority and the team. I personally can't imagine how we would move ahead on this issue without a lot of public input, given the depth of concern we're hearing."
Kelm-Helgen is a former Dayton administration staffer who represented him in stadium talks at the Capitol. She said the subject of personal seat licenses was marginal to those negotiations; she also said she didn't recall Dayton raising objections before his letter.
"It was never a major source of contention one way or another," she said. Republican state Sen. Julie Rosen, a lead negotiator for the state, added that "everyone involved knew the deal included seat licenses. There was testimony about it in the committees."
But Dayton wrote in his letter that if the authority doesn't block any seat license plan, he would go back to the Legislature in January and urge that its authority to approve them be rescinded.
Jonathan Norman, a Milwaukee-based sports marketing executive, said seat-license plans from different NFL teams have varied, with fees ranging from a few thousand dollars to as much as $50,000.
"It's all about what the market will bear in a particular city," Norman said. "If you're the Vikings, you're not going to be able to charge as much as the New York Giants."
Teams in other professional leagues have used the same model, including the Minnesota Twins with a small portion of Target Field's seats. A frequent perk of buying a seat license is that the holder can claim the seat for anything else held at the venue, from other sporting events to concerts.
Dayton wrote to the Wilfs that seat license fees could put season tickets out of reach for many Vikings fans.
"I said this new stadium would be a 'People's Stadium,' not a 'Rich People's Stadium,'" he wrote.
The team is hoping the new stadium, to be built at the current Metrodome site, will be ready for the start of the 2016 season.
Larry Spooner, a warehouse supervisor from suburban Minneapolis, became the public face of Vikings fans during the stadium push at the Capitol. Always dressed in purple and gold, Spooner testified at numerous legislative hearings and held frequent vigils outside the Capitol in support of the team's bid.
Spooner, who has owned two season tickets for 16 years, is opposed to seat licenses.
"We don't know the details yet, but I'm adamantly against it," Spooner said. "It clearly is set up for people who have a lot more money than normal people. I don't like the philosophy of it."