PHILADELPHIA - After enduring a season marred by a record-setting amount of losses, the Minnesota Vikings are inching closer toward capturing what may be the most significant victory in the franchise's over 50-year history.
A major hurdle to the Vikings' long-term existence in Minnesota was potentially cleared when both components of the state legislature approved a controversial plan to construct a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis this week, though a host of revisions to the initial proposal still has the team's future residency in the Land of 10,000 Lakes on somewhat thin ice.
The bill was passed by the Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday, but only after the Vikings' contribution to the estimated $975 million project was raised from $427 million to $532 million. The Senate voted to ease the club's burden to $452 million -- still a $25 million increase over the original agreement -- but tacked on a set of user fees on stadium amenities that would reduce the team's cut of game-day proceeds while defraying the state's portion of the cost.
Suffice to say, the Vikings aren't enamored with the legislature's audible, and they appear to have a reasonable gripe. The $427 million that the Wilf family, the team's majority owner, had previously consented to paying would be the third-highest sum of private funds allotted to the construction of an NFL stadium, and count for roughly 44% of the venue's estimated cost.
In comparison, nearly three quarters of the price tag on Target Field, the beautiful ballpark that became home to Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins in 2010, was paid for by public money.
In addition to applying fees on parking, selected team-oriented merchandise and stadium suite purchases or rentals, the Senate also rejected a stipulation that would have given the Wilfs a five-year exclusive-rights window to pursue a Major League Soccer team that would play in the new stadium. The lawmakers may have drawn the NFL's ire as well after putting in a provision that would prohibit local television blackouts at the facility in the event a Vikings game doesn't sell out.
The changes are enough to make a Vikings organization that has been admirably patient throughout the drawn-out process of trying to build a replacement for the outdated Metrodome seriously weigh all of its options, and there's one very lucrative one that could be on the table. Los Angeles has made no secret of its desire to rejoin the NFL fray by luring an existing team, and the prospect of having the second-largest market in the United States as part of its footprint once again is an idea that has obvious appeal to the league as well.
The NFL would rather the Vikings not be that team, however, which was made clear by commissioner Roger Goodell's visit to the Minnesota State Capitol last month to lobby for a revival of the stadium bill. And with the Vikings no longer bound to the Twin Cities (their lease with the Metrodome expired at the conclusion of this past season), the fact that the Wilfs have continued to push hard for a new stadium strongly indicates their willingness to remain in Minnesota.
That preference to stay doesn't seem to be lost on the public officials trying their best to bleed as much as they can from the Vikings, while attempting to appease both the proponents and staunch combatants of a very hot-button topic in the process.
They just better make sure they don't overplay their hand.
No one would have believed in a state where hockey is a religion that the NHL's North Stars would have bolted Bloomington for the greener pastures of Texas back in 1993. But a combination of low attendance, a failure to upgrade existing facilities and an out-of-town owner without any sentimental ties to the area caused the unthinkable to actually happen.
Nearly two decades later, Minnesota finds itself in an eerily similar predicament. The Metrodome's age and lack of a sufficient supply of luxury boxes and club seating have placed the Vikings near the bottom of the NFL in total revenue, and primary owner Zygi Wilf is a New Jersey native who's not a resident of the Gopher State.
And after politely allowing their stadium issue to be placed on the back burner for years while the Twins and the University of Minnesota were each green-lighted for publicly funded new buildings, it's hard to blame the Vikings for being a little antsy and ticked off.
"The last governor said in 2006 we'll come back and work on yours next year," Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development Lester Bagley told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in April. "That was six years ago. No action this year is a decision."
The events of the past few days are signs of tangible progress, however, and the prospect of some sort of compromise being reached seems much more attainable today than it did a week or two ago.
Still, with plenty of strong opposition to the project despite the economic benefits (namely, a possible Super Bowl in the future) that both the stadium and its construction will provide, and the legislature scheduled to adjourn for the remainder of the year on May 21, the outcome remains very much touch- and-go.
In other words, the Vikings are about to run the most critical two-minute drill they've ever had.