Could stadium stalemate bring end to Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings rivalry?

Oct. 23, 2011
The Minnesota Vikings hosted the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL preseason football game Aug. 27, in Minneapolis, their first home game since the roof collapsed in a snowstorm last December. The Vikings’ lease with the Metrodome expires after this season. / File/AP


For my money, the most memorable moment in the bitter border battle between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings was the T.J. Rubley play.

Who could forget?

It was Nov. 5, 1995, at the Metrodome. Brett Favre was knocked out of the game because of a sprained ankle and backup Ty Detmer because of a sprained thumb, so Rubley was the Packers’ quarterback at crunch time in a 24-24 game. Rubley had completed four of five passes to take the Packers to Minnesota’s 38 with less than a minute to play and faced third-and-1. Coach Mike Holmgren called for a sneak, but when Rubley got under center and saw an extra Vikings defender in the box, he audibled to a pass.

Several years later, I learned that when Rubley started the audible, center Frank Winters turned and said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” But Rubley did it. He rolled to his right. When pressured, he tried a short pass back across his body. Vikings safety Robert Griffith tipped the ball, and Jeff Brady, a former Packers linebacker, intercepted. Minnesota quarterback Warren Moon then hit on two passes, which set up kicker Fuad Reveiz’s game-winning 38-yard field goal that left Vikings fans delirious and Holmgren apoplectic.

So, here we are in 2011, and this 50-year rivalry appears to be in jeopardy. The Vikings are pushing hard for a new stadium. They brought an NFL executive to the Twin Cities this week to not so subtly hint that if the stalemate on stadium talks continues, the Vikings could move to Los Angeles, the same city that stole the NBA’s Lakers in 1960.

The issue is coming to a head because the Vikings’ lease with the Metrodome expires after this season, and the dome’s revenue isn’t competitive with the rest of the NFL’s stadiums.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has a proposal for a $1.1 billion stadium in Arden Hills, a northeast suburb of the Twin Cities, that consists of the team paying $407 million, Ramsey County paying $350 million with a county sales tax and the state paying $300 million via an undetermined source of funds.

Dayton is calling a special session of the Legislature next month to consider his proposal or come up with a better one. Time is short.

And if the Minnesota Legislature, in this time of austerity, won’t pass a plan that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf agrees to, then that’s it, right? The team will be off to Los Angeles, maybe as soon as next year, right? And that will end a great Packers-Vikings rivalry that dates to 1961, right?

Not so fast.

“History shows us that at some point Zygi Wilf is going to get some public-private partnership for a new stadium,” said Dave Zirin, author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love,” a 2010 book about stadium financing.

“What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is that even in these tough economic times, and even with massive state layoffs, when pro owners say they want their stadium, they get their stadium. The prospect of the Vikings moving to Los Angeles is laughable. Los Angeles is far more valuable for the NFL as a kind of stalking horse, so other owners can threaten to move Los Angeles, than if there was an actual team there.”

Or, as put by Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who specializes in the local economic impact of sports franchises and stadiums: “In all of the instances in the past where there’s been referendums, the process works this way: (The first answer) is no. Come back with another proposal, maybe no, maybe yes. If no, come back again and that one’s voted in. No is not forever; yes is immediate.”

So as a practical matter, the smart money says the Vikings aren’t going anywhere, no matter how things look over the next couple of months or even years.

But there are ways in which the Vikings’ stadium quest is especially interesting and instructive.

The first is Zirin’s point that the NFL is in no hurry to get a team in Los Angeles as long as any of its teams needs a new stadium. The second is how much public financing the Vikings eventually will get at a time when state and local governments have been slashing budgets because of revenue shortfalls and ardent opposition to tax increases.

As to Los Angeles, there’s a compelling argument that the two stadium proposals aren’t particularly attractive to an existing NFL franchise.

First, both groups that are proposing stadiums — the Phillip Anschutz-led bid in downtown Los Angeles, and the Ed Roski-led bid in the City of Industry — insist on the right to buy part of the team, about 30 percent, according to reports.

Forbes magazine’s most recent values for NFL teams range from $1.8 billion (the Dallas Cowboys) to $725 million (the Jacksonville Jaguars), with the Vikings this year at $796 million, which ranks No. 28 in the league. Would Wilf, or any other owner, really be willing to part with almost one-third of a franchise that, especially with a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with its players, is likely to continue exploding in value?

Not to say it couldn’t happen, but an NFL owner would have to be in a really bad spot to do that kind of deal. It would be far more profitable in the long run to pay a little more from his pocket for a stadium where he is now.

There also are questions about financing the two Los Angeles stadiums. The issues are far too involved to get into here, but suffice it to say, proposals that sound great on paper usually aren’t so great for the team when you get into the details.

Ultimately, the NFL prefers franchise stability to movement. The last team that moved was the Titans, from Houston to Tennessee, in 1997. The league wants the Vikings to stay in Minnesota, where they’ve built a following since 1961. That doesn’t mean somebody won’t eventually move to Los Angeles. The Chargers, who in 1960 started in Los Angeles and now have stadium problems in San Diego, are a much better bet.

As far as public financing for stadiums, the Vikings are in an especially hostile environment because state and local governments in Minnesota are making substantial contributions to the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field, which opened in 2010, and the University of Minnesota’s football stadium, TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009. Hennepin County taxpayers contributed $392 million of the $544 million for the baseball park via a 0.15 percent sales tax. The state contributed $137 million of the $288.5 million for the university’s new football field.

The severe economic recession and government austerity alone makes new stadiums a hard sell to taxpayers anywhere, let alone those who are paying for two new stadiums and live in an area that suffered a catastrophe in 2007 when a heavily traveled bridge collapsed.

Whether any public money should be used to finance stadiums for pro teams is a huge issue in itself. A large majority of independent studies have concluded cities gain no long-term economic benefit by having a pro sports team — it’s just entertainment money spent one way rather than another in a given metropolitan area, with no extra jobs or wealth created. (Green Bay, because of its small size, might be the exception in the four major sports in the United States).

But the best bet is the Vikings will get their stadium in the next couple of years, with taxpayers picking up a big chunk of the tab.

“(Teams) get (funding) because politicians tend to be very weak when it comes to standing up to stadium bosses, sports bosses,” Zirin said. “No politician wants to be the one to lose the team and have that on their record. No politician also wants to open the can of worms that demands public ownership if you’re getting public funds, so it’s not this process where public money magically becomes private profit once in (the team’s) hands. If fans had their druthers across the country, they’d tell people like Zygi Wilf, ‘You want a stadium, you can pay for it yourself.’” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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