We Are Such Chumps for the NFL.

I have some sympathy for Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who so royally stepped in it last week. If you read the Strib — go ahead, rip away — you know that Souhan tore a GOP Rep. by the name of Dean Urdahl a new one for lacking the brains to NOT ask Vikings management why state taxpayers should build a stadium for a billionaire owner. Souhan descended on Urdahl like a starved turkey vulture on a fresh pork chop, basically calling him every name short of a toe-sucking pedophile … without checking the transcript enough to note that Urdahl’s question was couched as “a question a I hear a lot … ” and he ended up voting for the stadium in that particular committee.

So … Souhan spent the rest of his week taking shots from David Brauer, Urdahl in the Strib and the usual newspaper-hating trolls.

But amid an outbreak of the brain-eating contagion known as journalistic group think, what’s a poor sports guy supposed to do? Souhan is a team guy covering team sports for Team Strib, and Team Strib has not been shy about presenting a $973 million taxpayer-financed Vikings stadium as an unalloyed good/benefit/life-affirming necessity for the community of Minnesota. I’ll assume Souhan actually believes what he wrote. But he’s in a job where I very seriously doubt he or anyone of his stature with the paper could get anything skeptical much less negative about the stadium published.

The paper’s beat reporters, Mike Kaszuba in particular, have done a respectable job covering the shifting tides of fate, but the Op-Ed page and Sid and everyone else attached to sports long ago slashed their palms, grasped hands and chanted a blood oath to see only upside to giving the Vikings and the NFL … essentially the same deal the league slapped down in front of our elected leaders months ago. Oh, ten or twenty million has shifted here and there, but fundamentally we’re still talking the largest public subsidy for a private business in the state’s history … and we’re not talking taxpayer cash for a world-class lab to cure cancer … we’re talking about a football stadium/TV studio controlled by one of the wealthiest entertainment monopolies on the planet.

Mainstream news organizations still have this quaint and kinda cute ‘Marcus Welby-ish’ idea that they have an obligation to lead their community through life’s difficult decisions. Not all the time, mind you. There are exceptions.

If it means looking too close at what a noted arts philanthropist has done with his stock options, or how his gargantuan health insurance organization has sucked hundreds of millions of dollars of sheer profit out of a bloated and thoroughly gamed medical industry that kind of discomfiting tale can be told by The Wall Street Journal. Likewise, a warm and nurturing hometown media player wants to lay back on the appalling rhetorical dishonesty of its highest profile politician as she makes a fool of herself running for president. Ditto connecting the dots between the most fervid of the anti-government crowd and the constant government assistance they require to keep the electricity on and their TVs tuned to FoxNews.

Those kinds of things are messy and rancorous and make for unpleasant cocktail party interactions.

But … a gorgeous stadium … a technological marvel … a visual icon … for Our Team? You can’t be pro-active enough!

Let me be blunt. The Strib’s behavior in regards to its drumbeat boosterism for the NFL’s stadium package has been disgraceful, if only for how much they and by extension we look like a bunch of chumps. (Local TV is of course worse. But why would you expect otherwise? The various stations really should dress their anchors in culottes, tight sweaters — the women and men both — and have them shake pom-poms from the news set, for the non-existent level of skepticism they’ve applied to their “coverage”).

What appalls me most is that no one in Minnesota — politicians or mainstream press — seems to have seriously applied even minimal bargaining pressure on the NFL. To hell with the Wilfs, the other 31 owners are the people we’re really dealing with here. There was a time when big city newspaper columnists, sports and otherwise, could be counted on to be skeptical and intensely curmudgeonly about any slick suit who jetted in from the coast making artfully veiled threats about “lists of potential buyers”. Not so anymore. Certainly not in this case anyway. Those writers who aren’t sitting out the fight — over the largest taxpayer subsidy in state history — are all for it, as it was presented to us by the NFL.

Ask yourself, given the bargaining skills evident in this stadium scheme, would you have the Mayor, the Governor or Ted Mondale negotiate a trade for a used Hyundai for you? The concept of leverage is apparently a foreign language to them. And their embarrassing obeisance to NFL royalty should be tailor made for constant, hilarious public mockery.

Reading through reams and reams of stadium coverage and punditry for The Glean over at MinnPost, I was struck last week by a story at Forbes (radical, anti-capitalist, hippie rag) reminding its readers that despite the NFL’s protestations to the contrary, expansion is an option the league at the very least wants to protect, and an expansion fee of upwards of a billion dollars would be a lot … a lot … tastier split among the NFL’s 32 owners than the $200 million relocation fee they might … might … squeeze out of whoever buys the Vikings from Zygi Wilf and “asks” to move them to L.A.

Moreover, if I’m AEG tycoon Phil Anschutz in Los Angeles, and I’m watching the drama in Minnesota, I’m thinking to myself, “The NFL has no choice but to play tough in Minnesota. The league knows it is courting serious financial pain if it doesn’t slap down and snuff out the precedent of using its own money to build stadiums in medium markets. They have no choice but to move the Vikings rather than add more league money to that deal. Well shit, I’m a fool if I don’t play that to my advantage. When a guy has to do something, has no other viable choice, that’s when the worm turns in your favor. I’ll make ‘em sweat that relocation fee down to a hell of a lot less than $200 million … just so they can show Minnesota and everyone else who rules this island.”

But instead of anything from our principal leaders or press suggesting we play tougher with the NFL, we get the lamest rationale of all — and this time I’m not talking about how with the Vikings goes our “major league status”. No. The lamest of all is the scary story about how five years after the Vikings leave we’ll pay half again as much or more to build a stadium for an expansion team.

Really? How opaque is the bubble you’re living in if you can even imagine his state will pop for vastly more taxpayer money to lure back an entertainment option 98% of the fans only watch on TV?

4 Responses

  1. I absolutely love your outspoken gutsy candor on just about everthing you tackle, but despite more verbage than Proust a zillion times over for more than a decade on this subject, why isn’t it just a slam dunk for the NFL? The precedents are set. Advantage NFL. We play or go home. Life isn’t fair. I thought Powers had it right in yesterday’s Pioneer Press.

    • i enjoyed Powers’ piece but even Tom — who is as crusty as they get — maintains this resigned attitude toward dealing with the NFL and of course regards the loss of the Vikings as something akin to leveling the city and spreading salt over the ground. Part of an effective “leadership” strategy would be to lay out the NFL’s position for the public to see. Instead what we get, over and over, is, “This is the deal, suck it up.” No sportswriter can bear the thought of losing pro football. There is a lot of status and fun associated with covering the team. What I want to hear is someone making the case that if this is the best deal the NFL:cares to offer, it is in the state’s best interests that they leave and some other set of taxpayers pays their freight.We can spend $700 million on quite a few other far more productive projects.

      • Wouldn’t losing the Vikings mean the loss of quite a few ancillary jobs, including sportswriters?

        Just saying…

  2. Fantastic piece, Brian. I have been amazed by the shoddy, biased “journalism” being practiced by so many in the local newspapers, especially at the Star Tribune, and most especially the sports writers, who are beside themselves at the thought that the taxpayers might not pony up for this boondoggle for the wealthy (though as you point out, some have made valiant attempts to get some actual info out, instead of simply functioning as cheerleaders for a new stadium). Numerous studies have shown (I believe there was one in the NYTimes a year or so ago) that building such expensive monstrosities brings very little if any economic benefit to a city or region, and ends up costing more than it gains in the end. And they also have relatively short life cycles — new ones seem to need to be built every 20-30 years. The Wilfs and the NFL can surely build this thing without ANY taxpayer help — and still build upon their already massive riches. Hoodwinking gullible legislators and ignorant fans into supporting the taxpayer financing of these things is foolish at best and robbing future generations of much needed funds for more important things that actually help the public good at worst. I believe two things: the NFL will NEVER allow the Vikings to leave Minnesota. It is too iconic a brand, not just to the region but to football fans everywhere; and secondly that allowing an expansion team to come to LA (and not move an existing one) brings more money to the NFL and the other owners, and that’s all they care about. So blackmailing Minnesotans into thinking the team will leave if they don’t rush a poorly thought out plan into law is just cynical manipulation.

    Real newspapers would have served their readers well if they looked outside of Minnesota to those places where civic leaders refused to pay for athletic stadiums. Case in point: Massachusetts. Robert Kraft threatened to take the Patriots out of Mass. (with Connecticut laying out a red carpet full of tax breaks, public monies, etc. in an attempt to lure the team away, with Rhode Island joining in too) when the state legislature balked at spending ANY public money on a new stadium to replace the disgusting old Foxboro stadium. The legislature refused. After some hemming and hawing, Kraft caved, and he ended up building it himself (getting naming rights money from Gillette too) with the state only making some road improvements. The Pats went on to win 3 Super Bowls and Kraft is richer than ever, and is respected as being one of the savvier owners. His Patriots Place complex is a wonderland for sports fans, and it did him and his team nothing but good to build it.

    But the Star Tribune would never pass on such stories — acting as if no other place has ever said no to the NFL and that Minnesota therefore can’t even think of doing so. Minnesota should join Mass. in just saying no, and in refusing to give in to the NFL mob bosses who have cowed so many cities and legislatures. If more places started saying no, the NFL plutocrats would have to start paying for these things themselves more often, just as billionaire business owners in other industries do. Socializing the risk but privatizing the benefits (the Wilfs, in the end, will get the lions share of profits) to the extent that these stadium rackets do is unheard of outside of sports. It’s insane.

    And why isn’t anyone mentioning that the bloom is off the rose at the Twins beautiful new field?! Attendance is way down. The sea of empty seats on television when the Red Sox came to town was embarrassing. The Pohldads, one of the richest team owners in MLB, have a real scam going. They convinced the legislators to fund their stadium, and continue to refuse to funnel money back into the team to make it more competitive. They also happily take luxury tax money from those teams that DO spend money to improve their teams, like the Red Sox, which play games in a 100 year old stadium the team’s owners have spent hundreds of millions (of their OWN money, not taxpayers’) to fix up.So they have their hands out to the taxpayers and to the other baseball owners, but keep their wallets shut when it comes to improving the team — and they smile to themselves when locals rant about how the Yankees “buy” championships. At least the Steinbrenners put some of their profit back into their team.

    My question: where are the Tea Partiers? Why aren’t they protesting this giveaway of taxpayer money? And the Occupy people? Why aren’t they storming the Capitol to demand that this money go toward something that will actually help the public?

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