Let’s Check our Stadium Chump-dom on the Replay

NEW SLAUGHTERThe decent thing to say would be that since all of us blunder from time to time we shouldn’t get all fiery righteous when our elected leaders screw the pooch, even in a really big, major league way.

But I won’t go there. Decency is above me. There were enough of us a year ago screaming that the NFL and the Wilf family were playing us and our top-tier politicians for provincial chumps that we get this moment. We get to screw the phony compassion and tolerance bit and enjoy a moment of sweet, sweet vindication.

Over the past week it has been revealed first by Jean Hopfensperger at the Strib and then amplified by Tim Nelson at MPR (who has followed the Vikings stadium financing saga better than anyone else in the local institutional media) that the state took it’s patently absurd estimates of likely revenue from expanded, electronic gambling … from the gambling industry intent on selling them the iPad-like machines needed to play. As you may have followed, the Dayton administration first said it was unaware of the source of the numbers that showed the state raking in an easy $67 million a year from a new feeding frenzy among barflys and rubes.  More than enough to cover the $348 million “share” the state (i.e. you and me) agreed to kick in to build the Vikings/NFL a new Xanadu-like football palace. Hell, Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans, an otherwise bright enough guy, even called those numbers “conservative”.

Ignore the fact no one had ever attempted to close a $348 million hole in a $970 million deal with this gimmick before.

After Dayton’s office offered that unfortunate “unaware of the source” explanation, Nelson checked the files and re-discovered a two year-old statement … by the Dayton administration … acknowledging that the aforementioned (absurd) numbers were coming from some gambling outpost in Florida. At which point the Team Dayton story switched to something like … “Well there were so many numbers flying around back then who could possibly keep them all straight?”

(And I ask you for chrissakes, Florida? Gambling experts? … in Florida? Mullets, dead manatees, shirtless hillbilly meth-heads hiding under double-wides? And no one was suspicious enough to get a second opinion? What if I said a Russian guy I know has a trunk full of Rolecks watches? Do you start lining up in the parking lot with rolls of Twenties?)

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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?

Signs That Vikings’ Poor Play May Be Impacting Stadium Push At Capitol

For a long time, I’ve maintained that the quality of the Vikings’ play has almost no impact on the team’s push for a state subsidy to finance a new stadium. But recent developments at the State Capitol are causing me to reconsider that opinion:

• Following yesterday’s twelfth loss of the season, Vikings stadium bill is now being considered as part the Omnibus Homeless Assistance Act.

• During a recent heated exchange on the House floor, a legislator was heard to be bitterly calling his opponent a “Loadholt.”

• During this morning’s opening prayer in the House, firebrand preacher Bradlee Dean referenced Vikings’ quarterback “Muslim Ponder.”

• A member of the Capitol press corps asked the staffer allegedly in an “inapporpriate relationship” with Senator Amy Koch, “who taught you pass defense, Leslie Frazier?”

• The Wisconsin Legislature reportedly has offered to pay for 100% of the new Vikings stadium, to keep the Vikings in the Packers’ division.

• To finance their stadium push, Ramsey County is now suggesting a tax on surging local sales of Prozac and Wellbutrin.

I’m not a lobbyist, but these do not strike me as good signs for the Vikings.

- Loveland

Occupy Arden Hills!

The high likelihood that Zygi Wilf’s dream of a taxpayer-funded stadium will go to the legislature next month amid still-growing protests against the immunities of gilded wealth is almost … almost … enough for me to feel sympathy for the guy. I interviewed him last summer for a magazine piece and — major news flash here — the development around his Arden Hills plan is everything. Zygi, who by the way does have a sense of humor and occasional flashes a side other than the highly disciplined business automaton, is first, second, third and probably fourth through twentieth a developer. After that he’s a football fan.

Wilf owns the Vikings because falling in with the loony Reggie Fowler scheme gave him access to assurances that the state’s political leaders — if that’s what you dare call Tim Pawlenty — would throw their weight behind something for the Vikings once the Twins had their deal done. Shockingly, Pawlenty kept spooning out the bullshit even as he left office, dropping the stadium ball (and everything else) in the next guy’s lap.

The next guy, Mark Dayton, may not be the slickest operator around. But like any politician with a head for the twists of history he knows with some certainty that no matter how much caterwauling and venom ricochets around prior to the deal getting done, the guy in office at the time the damned thing is built is a hero among the sports hagiographers — crusty old sports columnists, radio jocks with hundreds of hours to burn and fat cat sources to fellate with at least intermittent enthusiasm — when the gates open and the gawking public takes their $150 seats.

But this is 2011, and nothing at all like 2006. Five years post-bubble, as we see now in virtually every city of the western world, people, some maybe even pro football fans, are demonstrating that they are not only hip to the fixed game if casino-style financialization and the client-employee relationship between Wall St. and DC, but they’ve had enough of it. Damn it, and thank you.

So here’s Zygi, as I say, a pleasant enough guy who followed in his Holocaust-survivor father’s footsteps (the old man is still alive and sharp) and built quite a nice business for himself. He was thinking he’d do a bit more business in Minnesota by throwing up some shops and hotels around this football team he happens to own. Having done his savvy developer homework prior to buying in to the Vikings Wilf had every reason to believe that his Minnesota adventure would go down pretty much like every other owner’s (save a notable few), with the local fan base rallying/shaming their politicians into jacking up common rube taxes to have something as pretty from the Good Year blimp as they have in Denver and Dallas and Phoenix.

But no. Instead, Zygi has to figure out a way for an oddball DFL governor to lead the pro-tax charge … in the face of a $5 billion deficit that wasn’t really resolved last year, another deficit projected for this year, and while surrounded by Tea Party anti-tax zealots who might normally consent to a small-ish tax on the rabble if it meant protecting the plutocrats probably won’t dare pull anything like that in an election year, what with this “Occupy” crap going on and their approval ratings already in the toilet.

I loved the bit the other day from the state’s GOP leadership, demanding that Dayton guarantee X-number of DFL pro-tax votes to give the Republicans cover in exchange for them voting pro-tax. Christ. But you gotta give ‘em points for their craven candor.

Dayton’s argument will of course be that a billion-dollar stadium is a hell of a lot jobs when the construction industry is in a depression. But the obvious — and certain to very loud rejoinder to that argument — is that there is no end of heavy-duty infrastructure work that needs to be done around the metro, if not the state, that would put the same crews to work and return far greater value to the broader public — small businesses, big businesses and private citizens — than (another) football stadium. Moreover, where the anti-tax zealots are forever shrieking that the government doesn’t have the assets to fund … schools, roads, bridges, you name it … the Vikings have an entity with ample resources to — at the very least — loan them the cash to build the stadium. And by that I mean of course the NFL. (One of their former Goldman Sachs suits was in town earlier this week pressuring Dayton to, you know, move the ball up the field, taxpayer-wise.)

It would of course be a terrible precedent, a fabulously profitable sports league, underwriting capital investments in its network of teams. But I suspect the NFL’s credit rating is better than Minnesota’s, and what with TV networks willing to pay virtually any figure the league lays down when it comes time for their next TV contract, collateral would hardly be a problem.

I know the Kurt Zellers and Amy Kochs of the world profess to be confused by this OccupyWall Street/Minnesota/Duluth/Berlin/London nuttiness. “Why do they hate the job creators”? But wait and see what happens in St. Paul if this stadium tax thing looks like it has legs.

Metrodome Collapse Winners and Losers

THIS POST HACKED.

Zygi’s PR Hail Mary Puts Vikings In The Game

In the political world, there is something much worse than being opposed. It’s called being ignored.

And until Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his team showed their teeth this week, they were being roundly ignored by the Legislature. The billionaire not only couldn’t get half a billion bucks from the Legislature, he couldn’t get a hearing, a cup of coffee, or a sideways glance.

But when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission only offered Zygi millions in post-season revenues as he waits for his much bigger taxpayer financed pay day, the wounded Wilf howled.

“Shocked, exasperated, and extremely disappointed,” the Vikings penned to the Commission.

Holy moly! Shocked, exasperated AND extremely disappointed? As every good corporate communications toady knows, the Three Adjective Smackdown (TAS) is the WMD of business communications world. And today, the Vikings unleashed another rhetorical blitz, with sly talk about the need to “move on,” which of course is just two scary letters away from “move out.”

Finally, Zygi is flashing his New Jersey for us. Though he is speaking genteel corporatese, he is making it crystal clear that he is making an offer we can’t refuse.

And it’s working. Some are hating on Zygi to be sure, but he is no longer being ignored. Zygi has led the local news, and national sports news, for two days. He has DFL Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Keliher talking about a “purple ribbon commission” to study the issue. (Sure, it’s just her way of not taking a position during the gubernatorial campaign, but it’s more than the cold shoulder Wilf had been getting.)

And today, Wilf’s tantrum has generated follow-up stories about the mythical prospects of the LA Vikings Scenario, which has the purple face-paint types curled up in a fetal position. All that buzz has made Wilf’s well-timed whining the week’s top “talker” on local radio stations.

Wilf is a long, long way from winning. To get out of the big Teflon dome in Minneapolis, he is going to need to get a lot better at operating under the big gold dome in St. Paul. But he will eventually win, and the PR move he put on the pols this week was nearly as nifty as the move Purple Jesus put on the 49ers to find an obscure receiver in the back of the end zone. Skoal Vikings!

- Loveland

expense nice

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