The strong words Vikings V.P. of Public Affairs/Stadium Development Lester Bagley had for Gov. Tim Pawlenty Wednesday were softened somewhat by owner Zygi Wilf Thursday, but their underlying message remains the same - unless the state comes off its stance of refusing to participate in stadium dialogue, the Vikings will be free to leave Minnesota in three years and may well exercise that right.
A day after Vikings Vice President of Public Affairs and Stadium Development Lester Bagley fired a shot across the bow directed at Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the reaction may not have been what was intended.
Bagley told the media Wednesday that, in his opinion, Pawlenty “hasn’t lifted a finger” to engage in trying to find a solution to the Vikings stadium issue, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Both Pawlenty and his predecessor, wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, have consistently maintained that they would not support public funding for a Vikings stadium. At the same time, the Legislature has effectively drug its feet in getting involved in any stadium questions.
Minnesota is in the process of completing two stadiums already – one for the Twins and one for the Gophers. For many years, the state did nothing in response to the Twins' need for a new stadium. As a result, the team was instrumental in getting a vote to contract the Twins – completely eliminate the franchise. The Twins weren’t threatening to leave Minnesota, they were threatening to completely fold the franchise as though it had never existed. It was only when that threat appeared close to becoming reality that there was any movement. Even then, it was an aggressive stance by Hennepin County to take on the burden of imposing a county tax to help fund the stadium that a deal got done. The Legislature sat on its hands and did nothing.
When it came to the University of Minnesota, the Legislature really had no choice but to get involved. As a state institution, the Legislature is obliged to provide the Gophers with facilities to put on sporting events. College athletic teams don't often contract contract and can't relocate. The gun was to their heads and they got a funding package passed.
All the while, the Vikings waited patiently in line – knowing they were the third stadium proposal that would have to get worked out. Pawlenty isn’t alone in his criticism of public funding for a new Vikings stadium. Many of the tenured legislators have literally laughed off the prospect of the state providing $500-600 million in public funding for a stadium. Their rationale is always the same – why should the state help a billionaire build a stadium?
The reality is that they don’t. If the governor and the Legislature continue to deny funding assistance, the Vikings will go away. Bagley was quite clear when he said the Vikings have 30 games remaining in the Metrodome. Beyond that, there is nothing to say that the team won’t relocate. On Wednesday, the City of Industry, located outside of Los Angeles, had its planning commission approve a proposal to build a football stadium with the sole intention of bringing in an NFL franchise. It is expected to get city council approval Feb. 26, which would start the wheels in motion for the L.A. group to solicit offers to move a franchise back into the Los Angeles market. For years, the Vikings have been rumored to be one of those teams. Now that looks like more of a reality than merely speculation.
There are two very distinct sides to this ongoing argument. Some contend that keeping the Vikings is akin to preserving other state institutions. Minnesotans identify themselves with many things, high among them being Vikings fans. Many of the state’s hockey fans felt betrayed when the North Stars pulled up stakes and moved to Dallas. NFL fans have felt similar betrayals when franchises left St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston. In each instance, there was a groundswell of discontent that eventually led to all four cities getting another franchise as a replacement. With the NFL at 32 teams and having a balance of two 16-team conferences and eight four-team divisions, it is unlikely the league will be adding additional expansion franchises any time soon. The only way to get a franchise into L.A. will be to move one. As of now, the Vikings would seem to be the top candidate for such a move.
While we haven’t reached the point of Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling, the future of the Vikings in Minnesota would appear to be as cloudy now as it has ever been. When Ventura and subsequently Pawlenty both gave a “harrumph” at the notion of public funding for a stadium, there wasn’t any real sense of urgency. Back in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, opposition to a new stadium could be justified simply by saying that the team had an ironclad lease through the 2011 season. That was true.
But as we start the first steps toward the 2009 season, that leeway has dwindled down to almost nothing. When there were seven or eight years left on the lease, there wasn’t any reason for legislators to take the stance of kicking in hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Vikings. It wasn’t tangible that they would leave. With only three years remaining and the current financial crisis that has all but eliminated any chance of the stadium effort being heard at this legislative session (if not 2010 as well), things look bleak on that front and show no signs of improving.
Were Bagley’s comments the official beginning of the end of the Vikings’ 50-year run in Minnesota? Unless something changes quickly and dramatically, it would appear the clock is ticking down and, barring a change of heart from those at the top of the Minnesota political food chain, the Vikings may have to move west to find a stadium to their liking. They won’t be the first to do it and likely won’t be the last.
For those who don’t think it can't or won't happen, they should ask themselves why Los Angeles has a pro sports team called the Lakers? It’s not because of an abundance of lakes in the city. It’s because L.A. wanted a franchise and Minnesota had one.