Soft Sell

There's no place like Dome: No matter what happens this season, sooner or later the Vikings are going to want out
Christopher Peters

A good car salesman never rushes into the uneasy subject of payments. It's better to give a customer (especially a reluctant customer) a little time to soak up the pleasures of the leather seats, to fiddle with the power windows and the sunroof, to inhale that new-car aroma. The most vital part of a sale--the whetting of appetites--always comes first. Red McCombs, who owns the Minnesota Vikings and the sixth-largest auto dealership group in the nation, has absorbed this principle well.

And so, as the Vikings continue to display their own potent brand of horsepower on the field and are on pace to break their single-season franchise records for yardage, touchdown passes, and points scored, Red McCombs has remained relatively mute on that most volatile of topics: money. The front office did choose the giddy week leading up the Packer-Viking showdown to unveil a 25-percent price hike for 1999 tickets (a typical seat will go for $45, about average by league standards). But to date nothing much has been said of the inevitable demands the team will make for a new lease, an extensively remodeled Metrodome, or a new stadium.

Since assuming control of the team in August, McCombs has come across as an affable, enthusiastic outsider. Despite some initial murmurs that he might seek to move the team to San Antonio (calmed but not entirely allayed by a few delicately phrased statements about "intentions"), McCombs has enjoyed an unsullied honeymoon with both the media and the public, in part because he's a new guy with a winning team and in part because he has something of the common touch--unlike the previous owners, who were widely, if unfairly, perceived as cheap, joyless, and inept. In his public appearances so far, the 71-year-old Texan has generally confined his remarks to copious praise for the team and its fans. McCombs and his top lieutenants have been careful not to appear pushy.

"They are very sensitive about alienating the public. They want to have the public on their side," opines Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the state agency that provides and maintains facilities for the Twins and the Vikings, as well as the University of Minnesota's Gophers football team. Lester, who has met with the new Vikings regime a few times to discuss Dome issues, says the state's current political atmosphere precludes blunt demands for a new stadium or remodeled Dome--requests made by the former ownership. While stadium-building initiatives have passed in scads of cities across the nation, in Lester's view Minnesota is different. "I think people in those other communities took a less dim view of millionaire players and billionaire owners," he says. "They took the view that [professional sports] is an important asset to have for their community, and they wanted to make sure they kept their teams. They viewed it more as an infrastructure, like you would a library. In our state, the public and the elected officials have the feeling that it's not like a library if somebody's going to make money on it."

State Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, one of the more vocal opponents to sports subsidies, agrees. "I think the Vikings are aware of how Minnesota citizens feel about this and so they're playing it kind of coy," Marty observes, and predicts the team will go to great lengths to avoid repeating the blunders of the Twins.

If it's possible to produce a perfect template of how best to simultaneously provoke public hostility and indifference, the Twins accomplished that feat. Having fielded poor teams for the better part of this decade, owner Carl Pohlad spent 1997 engaged in a series of bald-faced bait-and-switch tactics. First he offered what appeared to be significant contributions to the construction of a new ballpark, contributions that upon closer scrutiny turned out to be loans. A subsequent agreement to sell the team to a North Carolina nursing-home magnate collapsed, but not before emitting more than a whiff of shabby subterfuge.

Then there was the TV ad aimed at prodding fans to rally the legislature, which depicted Twins outfielder Marty Cordova going to see a sick child at the Minneapolis Ronald McDonald House. "If the Twins leave Minnesota, an 8-year-old from Willmar undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from Marty Cordova," the announcer intoned, as the screen faded to black. To make matters even more repulsive, it turned out that by the time the ad aired, the patient had died. Even Cordova, unaware that his charity would be parlayed into a stadium shill, protested. After the state House of Representatives rejected a plan to help build the Twins a new outdoor ballpark, Sports Illustrated declared that Minnesota had "seceded from professional sports."

Not surprisingly, Tim Connolly, the Vikings' newly appointed general manager whose experience in stadium dealings includes the renegotiation of the Kansas City Chiefs' lease, is circumspect when discussing his new team's efforts. "No one can cram something like this down anyone's throat," he says, adding that the ballclub hasn't established any set strategy. "Our state of mind is: Let's go talk to the people. Let's get to know the people. Let's find a way that 99 percent of the people think is reasonable and prudent, and let's advance that way." The Vikings have assembled an advisory body of about 50 local political and corporate leaders in the hopes of reaching what Connolly terms "an inclusionary solution." The new GM refers to his team as "revenue challenged" and says the current lease arrangement and the Dome's capacity has "really put the Vikings at a tremendous disadvantage."  

He's right--at least when the the peculiar standards of the National Football League are applied. According to a 1997 report filed with the local sports facilities commission, the club ranks near the bottom of the league in nearly every imaginable category, from ticket sales to suite rentals to local TV and radio contracts (though, like all NFL franchises, the team collects an equal share of the league's new $17-billion network television contract).

Connolly balks at suggestions that public and political opinion present bigger barriers in Minnesota than elsewhere. "This city is like any other city," he insists. "All people want good things for their city. They want low crime. They want quality entertainment. They want the things that enrich the fabric of life: symphonies, professional sports franchises, theater--all those kinds of things."

Still, any proposal to spend public money to improve the Vikings' balance sheets will have to go through state lawmakers. And Republican state Rep. Steve Sviggum, who is slated to take over as speaker of the House in January, characterizes the likelihood of that as "next to nil." Says Sviggum: "It's a concern for professional football and for Red McCombs. I'm not sure it's a concern for government."

Others point out that the Vikings have even less bargaining power than the Twins, owing to the terms of their lease, which runs through 2011. According to Bill Lester, the football team could extract itself from its financial obligations to the Dome with a lump-sum payout of $19 million to $29 million--hardly a poison pill. But Lester believes that other provisions in the contract, as well as promises extracted from the NFL, would preclude the Vikings from leaving town. "I'm confident that we have sufficient weapons in our arsenal to keep the team here," Lester says. "That doesn't mean that I think we should allow a situation to be created where they cannot compete."

According to a report from the Brookings Institution, a public-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., by the year 2006, taxpayers across the United States will be footing the lion's share of a $7-billion-plus bill for the construction of new and highly profitable (for the teams that occupy them) professional sports facilities. In recent years eight NFL ballclubs have sealed deals for new stadiums, most relying heavily on public funds. Six others are already playing in "modern" stadiums, i.e., venues built in the past six years. Under one past proposal for a football-only Metrodome renovation--a $125-million remodeling project that would, among other things, double the number of luxury suites--the Vikings could pull in an additional $12.9 million per year. But even with that, Lester says, the team would lag behind rival franchises, many of whom have wangled sweetheart deals that deliver $30 million to $60 million annually in stadium-related revenues.

One factor, however, might make an enormous difference: winning. When citizens trudged off to the polls on November 3 in San Diego, they approved a plan to finance a new baseball park for the Padres, who'd just won the National League pennant. That same day in Denver, voters passed a sales-tax hike to cover $260 million of the $360 million needed to build the Super Bowl champion Broncos a replacement for Mile High Stadium. "Clearly the vote was not a vote for the stadium," political consultant Jim Monaghan told the Denver Post at the time. "The vote was a vote to keep the Broncos in Denver. I think in most people's mind the stadium was almost incidental. It was a way to show support for the team, to lock them in."

Should the Vikings manage to follow in the Broncos' footsteps and win the Super Bowl this year, even staunch naysayers like John Marty believe the tide will turn. "I think a Super Bowl victory would change public opinion somewhat. I think it would change legislative opinion of public opinion even more," the senator posits.

"I think it was great timing and good fortune that this referendum was put on the ballot the year after they won the Super Bowl," says Connolly, the Vikes' GM. "But I'd hate to think that you have to win a Super Bowl or a World Series to get people to take a rational approach to solving a realistic problem. It shouldn't be tied to a one-time, emotional event."

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