Writers contributing to this story were BRIANA BIERSCHBACH AND PAUL DEMKO
The Minnesota Vikings’ putrid performance on the field probably won’t hurt their prospects at the Capitol
The Minnesota Vikings have had a disastrous season on the field. Just one year after nearly reaching the Super Bowl, and with virtually the same roster, the team inexplicably scuffled to a 3-7 record in its first 10 games. At this point it would take a miracle for the Vikings to qualify for the playoffs. Last week head coach Brad Childress was pushed off the plank in order to placate the angry Sunday afternoon faithful.
The team’s behavior off the field certainly hasn’t helped matters. Brett Favre’s photographic self-portraits, Randy Moss’ short, diffident stay and the players’ shivving of Childress through anonymous quotes even before he was fired combined to suggest a dysfunctional and narcissistic locker room.
The implosion of the Vikings’ season couldn’t come at a worse time in a business sense, as the team prepares yet another legislative push for public assistance to build a new, nearly $1 billion stadium. The issue will likely have greater urgency this year as the Vikings head into the final season of their lease at the Metrodome, lending greater weight to the tacit threat that the franchise could move if it doesn’t get what it wants in Minnesota.
And then there is the prospect of a likely lockout by NFL team owners in 2011 that could scotch the whole season. “There’s a lot of big neon signs that are pointing to the fact that the owners are prepared to go down that route,” said Michael Misterek, a partner at Strategic Field Concepts, a local public relations and political consulting firm that is working with the NFL Players Association. “When you add that into a season that’s had a lot of turmoil and a lot of drama, basically a circus of a season, my general opinion is that that’s not good for a legislative effort.”
Looming in the background is the shadow of a new 75,000-seat football stadium in Los Angeles built by billionaire developer Ed Roski. Of course, L.A. doesn’t currently have a professional football team. Minnesota is among a half-dozen franchises frequently mentioned as a potential future tenant if the team can’t solve its stadium problem.
Most legislators insist that their work at the Capitol won’t be swayed by something as irrelevant as a football team’s repeated failure to score more points than its opposition. They also insist that any talk of a stadium will be on the back burner until they come up with a way to square the state’s $6 billion budget shortfall.
The most likely means of raising the more than $500 million expected to be required to satisfy team owner Zygi Wilf is some combination of expanded gambling revenues, game-specific fees and local taxes. Any gambling proposal would likely end up in the State Government Finance Committee chaired by Rep. Denny McNamara, GOP-Hastings. (Though last session, it should be noted, a Vikings stadium bill somehow first surfaced in the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division.)
McNamara points out that decades of competitive ineptitude has not been a disqualifier for previous stadium projects: “If that was the case, we would have never built the Gophers stadium.
“If they were in a run for the Super Bowl, you would certainly say that would help, but in the Legislature we try to see the bigger picture.”
Rep. Tom Hackbarth, GOP-Cedar, introduced a racino bill last year that would have paid for a Vikings stadium with revenues collected by allowing slot machines at the state’s two horseracing tracks. The proposal went nowhere. Hackbarth anticipates a difficult path for the bill again in 2011, but not because of the team’s dismal performance.
“We’re under some pretty tough economic times,” he said. “I think that there’s even a lot of Vikings fans who would say the state just can’t afford to do that now. But we have to face the consequences. The Vikings might be leaving us if we don’t get something done.”
Sens. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, were co-sponsors of a Vikings bill last session that relied heavily on increased taxes on jerseys, rental cars and hotels. They anticipate teaming up again on the project in the coming legislative session. “The Vikings are going to be around and have been around for a long time,” said Rosen. “The results fluctuate and the drama gets a little tiring, but they are just the flavor of the week this week.”
The outcome of this month’s legislative elections, which saw the Republicans romp to majorities in both the House and the Senate, also potentially complicates the prospects for passing a Vikings stadium bill. With many Republicans winning on a no-new-taxes mantra, justifying a $500 million gift to a billionaire developer could be difficult.
In addition, outgoing Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, who sponsored a bill that would have provided funding for a new stadium during the last legislative session, points out that gambling proposals can create strange alliances. “With any gaming bill you have the far right, the religious right, teaming up with the far left. It’s one of those matrimonies you don’t really see in politics,” said Juhnke, who lost his re-election contest earlier this month. “The far right sees gambling as essentially evil, and the far left thinks it preys on poor people.”
But Cory Merrifield, founder of the advocacy group Save the Vikes, is optimistic about the incoming GOP majorities. He believes that they’re more focused on creating jobs – which a Vikings stadium certainly would do for the beleaguered construction industry – than on polarizing social issues. “There’s a lot of people coming into office who are common sense business people,” said Merrifield. “I’m very encouraged by what I’m seeing in terms of the incoming Legislature.”
Of course, it might not hurt that the team finally unloaded Childress. He’d increasingly become the focus of fans’ ire as the once-promising season went to seed. “I think they’re taking a step in the right direction here,” said Hackbarth. “I think they had to get rid of Childress.”
There’s no word yet on whether new interim head coach Leslie Frazier will be making any appearances at the Capitol to lobby for a stadium.