Zygi Wilf (Brace Hemmelgarn/US Presswire)
The Wilf brothers from the East Coast never played hardball even when the “Minnesota Nice” legislature did. No matter. The Wilfs, the Vikings and their fans were reveling in the reality that the stadium bill finally was approved by the Minnesota Senate and House.
Zygi and Mark Wilf approached the steps of the Minnesota state Capitol building, and were immediately swarmed by high-fives and cheers from Vikings fans.
The Vikings owners beamed as they celebrated finally landing public funding for a new $975 million stadium that will keep the team in Minnesota for another generation.
For two East Coast brothers whose purchase of the team in 2005 was viewed with skepticism and nervousness by a community that has lost professional sports franchises before, the Wilfs sure have come a long way — in the eyes of the fans and state lawmakers.
“We’re here to stay,” Zygi Wilf said Thursday night at a press conference to celebrate the passage of a stadium bill.
The cheers from purple-clad fanatics in the back of Gov. Mark Dayton’s reception room weren’t always so hearty.
The Wilfs have been pushing for a new stadium to replace the drab and outdated Metrodome ever since they arrived seven years ago. And no matter how many times they assured everyone they were committed to staying in Minnesota, their lack of roots in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest served to undercut their efforts.
Glitzy Los Angeles always loomed in the background, with fans worrying that the nation’s second-largest city would steal the Vikings away from mid-market Minnesota much like it stole the Lakers back in 1960.
Legislative leaders chafed at giving public money to outside businessmen and fans had difficulty fully embracing the new owners of the most popular sports team in the state.
As the Wilfs ran into road block after road block, frustrations ran high both inside and outside the organization. They were continually told to wait their turn while other facilities were built for the Twins and University of Minnesota football team, and many thought they would have to threaten to move or sell the team to get any traction with legislators who had grown weary of stadium politics.
From the day they arrived in the Twin Cities, Zygi and Mark steadfastly refused to play that card, perhaps compromising the built-in leverage they had to pressure lawmakers in the process.
“We knew from day one that we were going to fight to ensure that this day would come,” Zygi Wilf said. “Our commitment to having Viking football here for generations was always the overriding factor.”
For two guys from rough and tumble New Jersey, they sure know a thing or two about “Minnesota Nice.”
Rep. Morrie Lanning, a Republican who was the stadium’s chief House advocate, said it was a wise strategy.
“They handled it exactly the right way and I think it would’ve made matters worse, or more difficult, if they had actually threatened, which they never did,” Lanning said.
In some ways, they never had to. Two groups working feverishly to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles grabbed plenty of headlines themselves, and the dots were easily connected when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited last month.
“We always understood that in talking with league officials and knowing what’s happening around the country, that if we weren’t able to do something here, there were going to be other people looking to buy this team or move this team,” Lanning said. “That’s a very real possibility that now is no longer going to be happening.”
It came down to the wire. The Vikings’ lease at the Metrodome expired last season and setback after setback threatened the franchise’s 51-year history in Minnesota.
Separate deals with Anoka County in suburban Minneapolis and Arden Hills in suburban St. Paul fell through in previous years, and this legislative session went into overtime as supporters and opponents vehemently argued their positions.
“I never had a doubt that we were going to build a stadium,” Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, a Republican, quipped. “It was just what year and which team is going to play in it.”
Even Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development, started to wonder if it was possible to make it happen in Minnesota.
“Oh yeah. There was a lot of defeat and ups and downs and points in this debate where it was ‘This might not be able to get done.’“ Bagley said after the final vote came down in the Vikings’ favor.
The Wilfs had to pledge $50 million more to close the deal. The Vikings and NFL will put $477 million toward the project, the state has pledged $348 million and the City of Minneapolis will chip in $150 million.
Now Vikings fans can exhale, secure that Minnesota will not join the list of cities — Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Houston — that have lost NFL franchises and had to scramble to try to get one back.
“We just secured the Minnesota Vikings for the whole next generation,” said Vikings fan Steve Smith of Oronoco. “The little kids with the school buses coming by right now, they’re going to be grown men the next time they have to deal with this. That would make me proud.”
After the bill passed, the Vikings and the University of Minnesota announced a preliminary agreement to allow the NFL team to use TCF Bank Stadium while a new Vikings stadium is built on the Metrodome site. The Vikings will pay the university a fixed fee of $250,000 per game. The combined rent and expected concessions and sponsorship revenue that the Vikings would share with the university would amount to $300,000 per game, or $3 million per season.
The new stadium should be ready for the 2016 season, and the two brothers who were once outsiders will have a new home — in their new home — for decades to come.
“This will be truly special,” Mark Wilf said. “As hard as we’ve worked for this day, we will commit going forward that this will be first class and special, and something that all Minnesotans can be truly proud of.”