Possible Vikings sale raises joint stadium concerns

Brad Unangst

News that the Minnesota Vikings might be sold has at least one University official concerned that a potential change in ownership could alter plans for a new joint football stadium on campus.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, who manages the University’s team of consultants involved in negotiating with the Vikings, said the ownership issue has raised some questions.

“We understand we’re talking to the current owner, but if we’re not talking to the party that will actually be in charge of that franchise, say in January, of course we’d like to know that,” Rotenberg said. “It’s obviously a volatile situation, from what I understand. (Viking’s owner Red McCombs is) actively looking at other options and that is a complicating issue, of course.”

In May 2002, the Legislature earmarked $500,000 from Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission funds to complete a stadium predesign and the Memorandum of Understanding – an agreement on the shared use stadium – which would be presented to lawmakers in December 2002 before public financing options could be discussed.

But in the past month, newspaper reports have said McCombs is reportedly asking approximately $600 million for the team and hired JP Morgan Chase in April to help identify potential buyers both locally and nationwide.

Vikings officials say that while news of the team’s potential sale has been distracting to the negotiations, it should not impede the process.

“Regardless of who the ultimate owner is, the organization to survive needs to have the stadium situation addressed,” said Vikings Executive Vice President Mike Kelly. “So, irrespective of who owns the team, work with the University of Minnesota will go forward.”

The memorandum would establish guidelines for the shared use of the stadium, field and facilities as well as who will be responsible for paying for the maintenance and improvement to the stadium’s amenities.

“One of the issues in the negotiations is to the extent that (the memorandum is) binding on the parties and the successors,” Rotenberg said. “And that is something that is going to be discussed and dealt with in the document.”

Commission attorney Corey Ayling, who helped secure a court-ordered injunction keeping the Minnesota Twins from breaking their lease with the Metrodome, said the University could draft a binding agreement with the Vikings, even during talks of an ownership change. Ayling said he believes McCombs will sell the team before a stadium is built, adding that the lure of secured public financing for a new stadium will be too great for a new owner to pass up.

While an agreement would be in McCombs’ best interest because it increases the value of the team, Ayling warned the University should be cautious.

“If it looks like (the Vikings are) going to be sold, it makes it kind of hard for the University to be cutting deals with a lame-duck,” he said. “You’re usually better off waiting.”

But reaching any type of agreement might be more difficult than expected.

Both University and Vikings officials said that news of the sale has not stalled talks, but Rotenberg added that certain negotiating points could prevent an agreement from being reached. Rotenberg declined to elaborate on what those points are.

“I think the jury’s out on how successful we’ll be, but we’re sure going to try,” Rotenberg said.

If an agreement can’t be reached, the state might not provide funding for the stadium.

An ownership change could also affect state funding, even with an agreement.

According to a 2001 stadium proposal, McCombs would contribute $100 million for construction with the NFL adding approximately $50 million in matching funds. That deal will expire in March 2003 if no stadium agreement is reached.

Without a private contribution, Minnesota legislators might hesitate to foot the entire cost of a stadium.

Legislators say that speculation on the possible ramifications of the Vikings’ sale is premature.

“I think there are too many ifs in the chain of logic to get to what might happen,” said Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins. In 2002, Kelley was the chief sponsor of a football stadium bill.

He added that the most important issue facing construction of a new stadium is what kind of funding a new owner will be willing to contribute.

“One of the uncertainties, after a sale – especially if the new owner pays a substantial premium – is whether the new owner is going to be able to commit to as much or more by way of the private portion of the construction of the stadium,” Kelley said.

The University Board of Regents said at its September meeting the institution would not pay for the construction of a new football stadium and warned that a commitment from the Vikings was necessary for the process to continue.

But for now, they are not overly concerned.

“I think the facts and the information will lead us to make up our minds if it’s a deal we want to enter into or not,” Regent David Metzen said.

For now, University officials say they will continue to focus on completing their share of the proposal by the December deadline.

“If it turns out that we don’t have a negotiating partner, then we’ll have to suspend the talks,” Rotenberg said. “Right now, we do have somebody we can talk to and we’re going to proceed on that assumption.”