The Metrodome: It lost its luster fast

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) On April 6, 1982, a cold, snowy day in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Twins welcomed the Seattle Mariners for the first game ever played in Metrodome.
A day later the teams played again in the same state-of-the-art arena — or was it?
Less than 15 years since the Metrodome opened as the stadium that would keep the Twins and NFL Vikings in Minnesota forever, the Twins say the dome was obsolete for their purposes almost from the day it opened.
Why is a team that thrived in the Metrodome in the late 1980s and early 1990s threatening to leave town if it doesn’t get a mammoth public handout to build a new stadium with a revolutionary hideaway roof and a price tag over $300 million?
How did the Metrodome, still hailed as a monument to good business and sound financial planning, become so outdated so quickly?
“The reason for that was the time in which it was built,” said Twins president Jerry Bell.
The Metrodome was the last multipurpose stadium built in the nation, ending a trend that began in 1966 when Atlanta and St. Louis opened new outdoor facilities to be shared by the NFL and major league baseball.
Similar stadiums followed in 1970-71 in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The first multipurpose domed stadium popped up in Houston in 1965, and Seattle opened the Kingdome in 1976. The Metrodome didn’t open for six more years.
Atlanta and St. Louis now have separate stadiums for the two sports and the other six cities are either in danger of losing one franchise or talking about building a new baseball stadium.
Only in Kansas City, where the NFL Chiefs and baseball Royals moved into new side-by-side stadiums in the early ’70s, did political and civic leaders seem to foresee the financial future of professional sports.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the Metrodome isn’t configured for baseball,” said the Rev. Ricky Raske, who has been the most vocal opponent of public funding for a new stadium .
Why wasn’t the Metrodome designed in a more baseball-friendly manner? Football simply had more pull.
While the Twins were languishing under tightfisted owner Calvin Griffith in the 1970s, the Vikings were dominating the NFC and the Twin Cities sports scene.
Both teams were threatening to leave if they didn’t get a new arena, and stadium politics dominated the state Legislature in 1976-77 just as they do now. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission was formed in 1977 to manage the issue, a role it is playing once again.
The Vikings regularly had sellout crowds of about 48,000 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, and they had a waiting list of about 15,000 potential season-ticket buyers. They wanted a stadium that would accommodate that demand.
The Twins, whose attendance sagged as the stadium debate raged in the ’70s, only wanted a roof over their heads.
“The Twins were passive in this whole thing,” said Bell, who was the facilities commission’s first assistant executive director.
The Vikings not only got a stadium clearly built with their sport first in mind, they also got year-round, full control of all luxury suite revenue when they paid about $5 million to build the dome’s 115 private boxes.
Both teams agreed to pay rents that were among the highest in their sports, and also agreed to a stadium that provides no parking revenue for either team.
The Vikings pay 9 1/2 percent of their gate receipts in rent under a lease that expires in 2012, unless they renegotiate or move. Money to improve the dome for the Vikings could be included with the stadium financing package, but the only way for the Vikings to terminate the lease is to buy it out.
Although Griffith, who sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad in 1984, didn’t get the Twins a stadium that would keep pace with their changing game, he did get them some leverage.
The Twins’ lease includes an escape clause that lets them leave after the 1998 season if they post operating losses in 1995-97.
They’re already two-thirds of the way there, claiming losses of $10.8 million in 1995 and $5.4 million last season.
“So Calvin wasn’t so dumb, after all,” Bell said.
What has changed the most for the Twins since the dome opened is player salaries.
Kirby Puckett was baseball’s first $3 million-a-year player in 1989, and the $30 million, five-year deal he signed in 1992 was the second-richest package ever. Chuck Knoblauch signed virtually the same deal last summer and he isn’t even near the top of the highest-paid list, where Albert Belle sits with the $55 million he got from the Chicago White Sox.
The Twins could afford top-scale deals in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were flush from their first World Series title in 1987, which generated a then-AL record 3 million fans the following season and more than 2 million four of the next five years.
They haven’t drawn more than 1.4 million since, and public opinion polls are running solidly against taxpayer financing of a new ballpark.
“We knew people would say — and rightfully so — ‘What’s wrong? You’ve got to be crazy. All you have to do is get a few more good players and you ought to be able to solve your problems right where you are and you don’t need to get a new ballpark,’ ” Bell said.
“And we were of that belief as well until we got into studying all of the issues, all of the trends and the details. The fact is that the Metrodome, which saved this franchise 15 years ago, no longer provides enough revenue to keep this team.”
With about 7,800 quality seats between first and third base, the Twins have fewer premium-priced seats than any other team. Boston’s Fenway Park, with the most quality seats in the majors, has about 13,000 more than the Metrodome.
Add that to the lack of suite and parking revenue, and concession and advertising deals that rank among the lowest in the majors, and the Twins paint a bleak financial picture.
They also point to the cash being raked in by new stadiums in Baltimore, Cleveland and Colorado, and new ballparks under construction or consideration across the country.
Bell says stadium revenues are growing at about 14 percent a year, and the Twins clearly want in on that windfall.
“If you can grow your revenues at 14 percent a year, that’s pretty good,” he said. “And that’s what stadium revenues will be doing for several more years.”
If the Twins do get the public funding they want, the soonest they could be in a new ballpark probably would be 2001. Although Bell guarantees that a new stadium will keep the team in Minnesota for at least 30 years, skeptics recall the same rhetoric when the Metrodome was built.
They wonder if the Twins once again are making long-term promises to get short-term profits.
“We were told that this state-of-the-art Metrodome would take care of their needs for ever and ever and ever,” said Minneapolis City Councilman Dennis Schulstad, a member of the council when the dome was conceived. “And here I am looking at another stadium.
“I have to wonder what will happen 15 years from today when they come back again — either the Vikings or the Twins — saying, ‘Well, that’s no longer state-of-the-art and now we need something else.'”