Try “Tough Negotiations” with the NFL.

Perhaps you too struggle with rejection. I wrote this piece for the Star Tribune … but it was, respectfully, politely … declined. So, with news today of a “deal” on a downtown Minneapolis Vikings stadium, (a “deal” without any actual revenue production) I inflict my deep thoughts on you … .

It goes like this … .

Like many I’ve developed cramps and eye-strain from three years of scanning the distant horizon for a sign — any sign — of the “jobs, jobs, jobs”-creation agenda our local Republicans promised in 2010. Apparently they forgot to install fresh batteries in the laser they vowed to focus on that piddly issue. One minor oversight aside, credit must be given where credit is due for the idea advanced last Thursday by Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain. This is the one where our beloved, but “uncompetitive-because-of-their-dump-of-a-stadium”, Minnesota Vikings would be offered the opportunity to take out a $300 million loan from you, me and other taxpayers. This long overdue brainstorm would be lieu of the residents of some entity – the state, a county, a city – getting handed a bill for the honor of hosting a new billion-dollar stadium/studio for one of the most fabulously successful private enterprises ever begat in modern America.

Chamberlain’s plan would “allow” the Vikings to tax the bejeezus out of everything their loyal fans touched. Parking? A new tax. Tickets? A new tax. Undercooked hot dogs? A new tax. Naming rights? Taxed. As far as I could tell, the only “amenity” left untaxed would be the 100th to 120th decibels of that godawful country music the team pounds like the hammer of Thor on its fans, numbing them to the fact that they could see better football played Friday nights in Eden Prairie than whatever field the Vikings are on these days.

I was going to compliment Chamberlain and his colleagues unequivocally for breaking the surly bonds of the GOP’s blood oath against new taxes of any kind for any reason. But then I noticed that to this long overdue “take out a damned loan” idea they had attached their inevitable legislative milfoil, namely, you guessed it, the phasing out of commercial and industrial property taxes.

(In fairness, the GOP must be given credit for being resolute on this business tax phase out. It’s like a Tantric mantra with them, and there’s rarely anything they don’t try to attach it to. If doctors told them their dying mother needed an organ transplant, the GOP would consent only if a business property tax phase-out came along with Mom’s new heart.)

But Chamberlain is on to something with this loan business. Like many, I am often stupefied by the thought that in 2012, after four years of a recession brought on by financial piracy on a feudal scale, we would still be considering transferring $600 to $700 million taxpayer dollars to enhance the profitability, (or “competitiveness”, take your pick) of a family wealthy enough to call a $19 million Park Avenue apartment home and a league that just renewed its television contract for $39.6 billion, or nearly double the value of their previous deal.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently assured the public that he was going to be a “tough negotiator” when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of who pays how much and for what on the (inevitable downtown) stadium.

Were that the Mayor, the Governor, or the Sports Facilities Commission played “tough negotiator” with the NFL. I ask you, other than Palm Beach and Beverly Hills is there a municipality or state in the country with a better credit rating than the NFL? In late December the NFL let it be known that as much as $200 million “might be available” to this Minnesota project … as a loan. This money is believed to form a substantial portion of the Wilf family’s $400-plus million contribution to the project … leaving us rubes in our Helga hats to fuss as we will over the remaining $700 million.

Point being: The NFL could write a check tomorrow for every nickel of the construction costs of a new Vikings stadium. (And that’d be, “Straight cash, homey” if Randy Moss was explaining it.) At which point the league could lease the thing, in all its “competitive” glory, to Zygi Wilf to develop the acreage around it to his heart’s content. Alternately, the NFL could float Wilf the loan for the full number and make some nice change on that deal too since, my guess here, the NFL can probably “tough negotiate” the rockest of rock bottom interest rates with any number of well-placed banking associates on Wall St.

The idea of calling the NFL’s bluff and telling them, “The public subsidy-for-stadiums concept has worn out its welcome in Minnesota”, is of course naïve in the extreme. The reason being, as we are reminded every day, is because no public official with career viability dares risk pushback from the NFL. Like LBJ in Vietnam, no one is going to lose football on their watch, no matter what the cost.

With good reason, the NFL would regard such a counter thrust as a murderous, seditious, precedent-setting attack on a pillar of its business plan. The airwaves would fill with leaks and murmurings of the Anschutz Group, or another conglomerate, suddenly willing to bear any price to bring the Vikings to Los Angeles.

Although, I wonder. As much as the NFL would like to have a home team in the country’s second largest market, it makes far more sense, if they are transplanting, to take first from Oakland or Jacksonville or San Diego rather than Minnesota. Why? Because even a team as forlorn as the 2011 Vikings, playing in the 14th largest media market, consistently ranked in the top 10 in TV ratings. Pro football, as the NFL well knows, has no lack of interest in Minnesota. Much to the contrary. So what concessions and explanations would the league have to make to move the Vikings to the head of that queue of far less stable franchises? Moreover, what is the likelihood that a “take out your own damn loan” move here would embolden taxpayers in, say, California?

For years stadium boosters have been selling the infomercial-like prattle that with pro football comes the wholly unquantifiable value of “big league-ness”, for which the public should/must pay disproportionately to any other comparable entertainment amenity. Lions of local business will actually doubt their executive recruitment possibilities if their next CFO can’t sit in a better skybox. Please. We’re talking $700 million here, in real numbers. In business, the only things that count are what you can count.

Similarly, politicians have argued the “jobs creation” quotient of a billion dollar stadium project. As though they can’t imagine iron work for anything else. Well, if any of them needs a list of a billion dollars worth of things that need taxpayer funding around the state, stuff that voting citizens will use every day of the year, they can, you know, “Call me, dude.”

It is now 2012, not 2006. If The Great Recession has taught us nothing else, it is that the 1%, or the .01 of 1% like pro football owners, can pay their own freight.

Try playing “tough negotiator” with the NFL.

10 thoughts on “Try “Tough Negotiations” with the NFL.

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    What price fame?

    There is an old joke. Two hikers come across a grizzly bear. It’s a ways off, but it is charging. One hiker sits down to change out of his boots in to running shoes. The other hiker says: “You can’t outrun a grizzly bear.” The hiker changing his boots says: “I don’t have to out run the bear. I just have to out run you.”

    That essentially describes the problem with professional sports teams. There will always be some city in the country that is willing to do whatever it takes to get another professional sports team. And they don’t care one whit what happens to the city that loses it. As long as one city will hijack the local coffers to get a team, it forces all of the other cities to play that game. If all of the cities (and regions and states) said no, the problem would end. But for Rodney Dangerfield cities such as Salt Lake City, Nashville and Jacksonville, professional sports teams are a major indicator of their own importance in the eyes of the rest of the country, whether that “fame” will bring them even a single job.

    I was in Chicago recently and the University of Louisville was playing DePaul. The fans from Louisville came in as many as 30 busloads to see the game. And the Chicago locals, who have two baseball teams and historically famous football, basketball and hockey teams, treated them like a bunch of over-enthusiastic hicks. The restaurants could wait for them to leave and hotel porters were griping they filled up the lobby waiting for their bus ride home. No respect.

  2. Jeremy: Cities like Salt Lake, Vegas and San Antonio still have a facility/financing problem at least as big as Minnesota’s, not to mention regional TV/etc. conflicts with existing franchises nearby. Basically though, almost any locality anywhere is in the position of asking taxpayers for more or less the same arrangement they’re talking about here … at a moment when no politician wants to get within a mile of a tax increase.

    If we were to show a little courage in the matter we MIGHT embolden others to dig in, too. I’m astonished at how governors and mayors defer to the NFL’s rules.

    1. Jeremy Powers says:

      Oh, I agree. It amazes me to what level some of these cities will go to have a team of over-paid athletes who have no ties to these cities to play a “game.”

      I would love to see the mayors of these cities – most of them are cities, even when we have teams with monikers like Tennessee and Minnesota – have a summit to agree not to be blackmailed into giving away millions of dollars. However, the way politics is, as soon as those mayors agreed, some new mayors, who disagree, will be elected and the agreement would go right out the window.

      Karl Marx said, despite the popular misquote, that people turn to religion to deal with the inequalities of life. In some respects, modern American culture looks to sports as a way to deal with their inequalities. Rich person and poor person both have something in common rooting for a common team – a rare point of agreement in most locales. Most of the people I know who are most adamant about keeping the Vikings do so not because of jobs. But because sports provide a few hours of respite from a life spent meeting the obligations of the world.

      1. Erik says:

        Though I’m happy to observe this new SRC trend of analyzing the news using explicitly Marxist contexts, I’d have to disagree. Americans do not look to sports to deal with anxieties caused by wealth inequality. Excuse me now while I LMAO.

        Seriously though… everyone knows they look to sports to deal with anxieties caused by global warming.

        Anywho. Stripped of the usual astringents, the BL column is quite fine.

  3. I had a screed all worked up on the irrational, “mass-psychosis” aspect of stadium financing, along the lines of what you’re talking about. It included the NFL’s enormous advantage in this regard, in no part due to the free 365/24/7 promotional boost they get from local media outlets … like the Star Tribune. NFL marketing is second to none, and unlike the other sports, it comes with a suggestion of heightened masculinity, of warrior combat, that you don’t get in the others.

    But I was certain the Strib would never go for that line of thinking … .

    1. Jeremy Powers says:

      Just to be clear: I enjoy watching a good football game. Or a good baseball game. (Although I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, I went to high school in California and never “got” hockey.) But it is the extremism that fans go to that amazes me. And how it takes over their life. It’s all some people talk about. And it’s not just professional sports.

      When I worked for the Des Moines Register, there was an annual story about the biggest Hawkeye fan. I remember a guy who had all of his dishes – real china, not plastic – with the Hawkeye logo. He had custom-made carpet with the logo. His house was striped with gold and black vinyl siding that he had custom made. One company bought a condo just outside if Iowa City where they would take clients for a Hawkeye weekend. And people who had never entered a classroom at the University would be willing to be taxed to have a nicer stadium. The collegiate coaches were like gods.

      And the most common bit of Iowegian you would hear wasn’t “You betcha.” It was “How ’bout them Hawks.” And no one – and I mean NO ONE would refer to the team in an insulting way, like Vike-Queens.” You’d get your assed kicked and no jury in the state would convict the guy who did the ass kicking.

  4. Very fine work Brian. i think i am mostly in agreement with Brian and the commenters (though i did skim). we (any state) should say “no” to financing (subsidizing) the facilities of any private business. we should go so far as to provide adequate inrfastructure such as providing roads, electrical service, sewer, and similar amenities to the facility – but no more than that. consistent with previous commenters, we should stand on that principle and be ready to lose the franchise and hope that other cities are encouraged/emboldened by our efforts to take a similar approach. when that industry (in this case the NFL) decides that our market is suitable to re-enter without subsidies, then we will have them back. i love most professional sports and the vikings are my favorite. but i will no longer abide the fiscal lunacy of subsidizing pro sports.

    2009 total NFL payroll was about 3.4 billion, average salary is roughly 1.9 million. that is just players salaries and does not include profit to the owners. so rough calculation is that if NFL salaries are cut in half, that frees up enough money to mostly funds 2 new statdiums per year. with 32 teams, each team gets a new stadium every 16 years. taxpayers pay nothing. i don’t think gov’t can or should mandate that, but rather encourage that behavior by stopping the subsidy. that plan is just a simple and naive example. i’m sure with the kind of money and expertise the NFL has they can be creative and frugal – on their own dime.

  5. Newt says:

    Wilf has NOWHERE to go for at least 5 years. There is no rush to do this deal, if at all. RT seems haunted by the prosepect of being the mayor who lost the Vikes. Who cares.

    He’ll never be a congressman, senator or governor, so I don’t get his desparation to do this deal – any deal.

    If the NFL can’t establish viability in Top 15 media market, then we’re better off without them.

  6. Jed Leyland says:

    “We had these tough negotiations with China over the Mutual Defense Treaty…with Japan. You have to be tough.”
    Richard M. Nixon

  7. Chanhassen says:

    What a great post – I am a person who (luckily) can afford enough in life – but am so tired/weary of taxes for things and people that don’t contribut back. Vikings – let them leave – are they your neighbors? No. Do they really contribute to a better society? No. Want a new stadium – great – here’s your 30 year loan, your liability, your stadium – just win baby and people will buy your product.

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