Minnesota, no Vikings? Stadium drama stokes fears
ST. PAUL, Minn. – A YouTube video making the rounds at the Minnesota Capitol these days shows a man slowly opening a gift box as ominous music thumps in the background. He folds back the flaps, reaches in and pulls out a foam rubber cheesehead — a symbol of the hated Green Bay Packers next door.
"Some things are too sickening to imagine," warns the video. "Minnesota as Green Bay Packer country is one of them."
These are scary days for Vikings fans, who wonder if they are on the brink of losing the state's most popular team if it doesn't get the new stadium it wants. A long-simmering push for a publicly funded stadium is suddenly boiling over, with a lease that expires after this season, a fat new market in California beckoning and state leaders reluctant to pony up amid chronic budget deficits and spending cuts.
For those who fear the worst, there's good reason. This is the state that already lost one team to California — the Minneapolis Lakers left decades ago — and watched the NHL's North Stars decamp to Dallas. The NBA's Timberwolves nearly left before a rescue effort in the mid-'90s kept them in town.
"My observation is, the Indianapolis Colts used to be the Baltimore Colts," said Gov. Mark Dayton, who has emerged as the chief cheerleader for some kind of stadium package. "The St. Louis Rams used to be the Los Angeles Rams. The Los Angeles Lakers used to be the Minneapolis Lakers.
"Teams leave when they can't get satisfactory resolution to where they're currently located," said Dayton, who has recalled attending as a teenager the Vikings first-ever regular-season home game in 1961 (they beat the Chicago Bears).
There are powerful reasons to believe the Vikings aren't going anywhere for now.
NFL officials have called the Minnesota market (read: TV) a valuable one. Vikings ownership would be on the hook for a hefty relocation fee likely to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, too.
And if Vikings owners want to move in 2012, they'd have to notify the league in writing by Feb. 15, a relatively short window. Two business groups proposing football stadiums in Los Angeles haven't broken ground yet, though there are NFL-ready stadiums in the L.A. area.
No Minnesota political leader wants to be blamed for losing the Vikings, but hopes of settling the issue soon seemed to dim this week after Kurt Zellers, the Republican House speaker, called it unworthy of a special session prior to a regularly scheduled legislative session that begins in late January.
Stadium supporters fear that taking up a stadium funding issue in January could be even tougher. Minnesota government shut down over the summer as Dayton and Republican lawmakers disagreed on how to eliminate a $5 billion deficit, and the picture isn't expected to be much better three months from now.
An expansion of legal gambling is emerging as the most politically palatable way to complete a deal, though powerful factions in the Legislature oppose it. And some longtime stadium foes are against any state money being laid out for sports.
"The dollar amounts of these things keep getting bigger, while government is getting more and more pinched for money," said John Marty, a Democratic state senator who represents a suburban area north of St. Paul. "It's absolutely outrageous. If it was outrageous before, it's even more outrageous now."
The Vikings have wanted out of the Metrodome for more than a decade, calling the 30-year-old stadium obsolete and unprofitable compared to most NFL venues. The team's latest push has centered on building a $1.1 billion stadium on a suburban plot of land about 10 miles northeast of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, but at least three downtown sites appear to still be in play. The suburban plan, in Arden Hills, calls for a state contribution of as much as $650 million.
On Friday, the Metrodome's landlords said they believe a clause deep in the team's lease could require it to stay one more season, potentially buying more time. That clause calls for a one-year extension if the team is forced to play elsewhere for part of a season. That's just what happened last year when the Metrodome roof collapsed in a snowstorm, but the Vikings maintain that this is the last year of the lease.
Dayton and other stadium negotiators said no one with the Vikings has directly threatened a move to Los Angeles or anywhere else. The team declined to make owner Zygi Wilf available for an interview for this story; Vikings vice president Lester Bagley has told The Associated Press that both Los Angeles business groups have been in contact, but has continued to stress that the team's main focus is securing a deal to stay in Minnesota.
Representatives of both firms, Anschutz Entertainment Group and Majestic Realty Co., did not return phone messages from the AP.
The Vikings aren't the only franchise on relocation alert, but the team's tie to its current city appears to be the loosest in the near term.
The St. Louis Rams have a possible out after the 2014 season. The Oakland Raiders are under lease through 2013. The Buffalo Bills intend on staying put as long as the founding owner — 93-year-old Ralph Wilson — is alive. The Jacksonville Jaguars would need to exercise a special escape clause to leave Florida but would owe the city for lost taxes and parking revenue for years to come.
In San Diego, where the Chargers have been seeking a new stadium since 2002, the team has its eyes on a new downtown site but lack financing. The Chargers could get out of a lease starting in February if a better deal surfaces elsewhere, but the team is building toward a 2012 ballot measure.
In the meantime, a lot of Vikings fans are feeling nervous.
Tyler Richter, a 30-year-old Twin Cities media consultant, made the Vikings/cheesehead video in his garage and uploaded it last week. Richter said he's a Republican and no fan of government handouts to business, but his love for the Vikings trumps that.
"Don't hate the player, hate the game," Richter said. "In this day and age, the reality is these deals don't get done without a public component. Love it or hate it, that's what it is."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, Josh Dubow in Oakland, Calif., R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla. and John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y.