Stadium issues leave Gophers in limbo

by Mark Heller

The state Legislature and taxpayers have spent parts of the last few years listening to Carl Pohlad and the Twins discuss their need for a new baseball stadium in order to keep the team in town.
So while the future of the Twins in Minnesota remains foggy, the Vikings, under new owner Red McCombs, have begun discussions with local businesses and politicians in hopes of having their own stadium built in the near future.
With both professional teams currently sharing the Metrodome, and both looking for new and different places to play, where does that leave the third and fourth tenants: Gophers football and baseball?
“There are no (Gophers football stadium) proposals I’m aware of,” men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said. “The only remarks relative to the stadium that I’ve heard are those that (University President Mark) Yudof has made publicly, and he’s made it clear that this is not one of his priorities.”
Dienhart and McKinley Boston, vice president for Student Development and Athletics, have said that if things change with the Vikings and Twins in terms of the Metrodome and its lease, the University will deal with any problems at that time. Both Gophers teams will call the Metrodome home for at least a few years before any possible stadium could be ready.
At any rate, the Gophers football and baseball teams’ future homes seem completely dependent on the Twins’ and Vikings’ plans for the future.
If both those teams move to a different building or city, a major public and legislative decision will have to be made on what to do with the Metrodome — and Gophers baseball as a result.
Minnesota plays most of its home games at Siebert Field, outdoors on the University campus. But the baseball season starts in February, and snow doesn’t usually leave Siebert until around the beginning of April.
“It would take a subsidy of about $4 (million) to $6 million per year to keep (up the Metrodome if vacated by the Twins and Vikings),” said Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. “I’m not sure if the public would be willing to subsidize it for that amount.”
Lester said another possibility would be to tear down the Metrodome.
“But there are the motor sports which are very popular around here, plus concerts, high school and amateur events,” he added. “So if the Dome comes down, that precludes (those events) from being hosted in this community for six months out of the year, and I don’t think this community is ready to let that happen.”
Share the wealth
Vikings officials say a new shared facility for the Vikings and the Gophers football program would greatly benefit both teams.
“I think sharing with the Gophers is a real possibility,” Vikings General Manager Tim Connolly said. “(A new football stadium) would help the Vikings in meeting some of our revenue needs. We think it would certainly help Minnesota in terms of revenue and recruiting, and creating a real college football atmosphere as well.”
Connolly said the Vikings are looking for a football-only, outdoor grass facility as a way to cure their financial shortcomings. He added that the Vikings aren’t losing money; they’re just not making enough.
“(The Vikings) are not doing as well as teams with new stadiums because they don’t control all of the revenue streams,” Lester said. “Some of the new stadiums — like Ericsson Stadium in North Carolina — which were privately funded, will make $40 (million) or $50 million more than here.”
But the Vikings revenue problems don’t include leaving Minnesota.
“Our lease runs through 2012 and we’ve never looked into breaking it,” Connolly said. “Our home is Minnesota. We’re trying to move, but we mean … four or five blocks or miles. We’re not going anywhere.”
The Gophers football lease runs through the end of the 2011 season, and neither Dienhart nor Boston say they have any interest in trying to break the agreement at this point.

On their own
Minnesota is the only Big Ten school not to have its own football facility, and a Gophers on-campus stadium is by far the sentimental favorite. But there are no talks or apparent interests on the part of the school or state Legislature to construct one.
“The stadium doesn’t seem to be a priority to Minnesota officials, and most of us feel the same,” said Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, D-Owatonna.
“I would tell you that there is no doubt we would use public money to build a football stadium for the University quicker than we would the Vikings,” he added.
Gophers football coach Glen Mason would agree with Day’s sentiments. “If they’re going to build a stadium using taxpayers dollars, give it to the Gophers, ’cause we’re not going anyplace.”
But the lack of land space on campus would also be a sticking point to an on-campus stadium.
“I’m not sure if there’s a big enough footprint that would accommodate it,” Lester said. “I know there’s some undeveloped area, but it’s being booked up for other uses.”
Minnesota officials have made it clear they will continue to play in the Metrodome unless a move of some kind by the Vikings, Twins or both changes the status of the Metrodome.
“We are contractually obligated to include the University’s facility needs,” Lester said. “There can be no solution that does not provide for the University’s facility needs.”