Minnesota Disunited: The Fight Over an MLS Stadium in Minneapolis
The fight over MLS in Minneapolis involves feuding ownership groups, feuding government bodies, and feuding stadium plans.
Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
On March 25, 2015, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber stood in Target Field in downtown Minneapolis and announced that a new franchise was coming to Minnesota. More importantly, Garber announced that Dr. Bill McGuire's ownership group had beaten out the Wilf family (who own the Minnesota Vikings) for the right to the team. The key factor? The McGuire group had proposed a soccer-specific stadium, which, in Garber's words, is "the cathedral of our sport." Fans applauded, Garber and Dr. Bill smiled and did interviews.
But the optimism quickly faded. In fact, at that same gathering, Garber issued an ominous warning: the McGuire group had until July 2015, a span of four months, to work out financing for their stadium, or MLS may reconsider. Tossing even more water on the party, McGuire admitted that "We haven't talked to anybody about funding at all."
Doublespeak. That's the only way to describe MLS's words and actions. They picked an ownership group based on the possibility of a soccer-specific stadium, not an actual one. MLS basically took the Field of Dreams line with McGuire: "if you build it, we will come." But, as is the case with stalled stadium plans in Miami, dreams don't always come true. How did MLS get in such a confusing mess? Local politics and an unusual franchise bidding process split the City of Minneapolis down the middle. Not even Dr. McGuire's recent proposal and lobbying may be able to heal the rift.
In 2012, Dr. McGuire, a former UnitedHealth Group executive, stepped in to purchase the ailing Minnesota Stars soccer club of the North American Soccer League. He rebranded the team as "Minnesota United", invested in both the staff and players, and built a close bond with the Minnesota soccer community. I spoke with several members of the Dark Clouds, a supporters group for Minnesota United, and all sang his praises. One gushed that Dr. McGuire "shows up to our watch parties and tailgates without waiting for an invitation." To fans, he came off as "also genuinely invested in results and people's experience at games." Approachable, invests money, and wants to win. What more could you ask for?
At the other end of the spectrum, the Wilf family, Zygmunt and Mark, live in and operate a real estate business out of New Jersey but have owned the Minnesota Vikings since 2005. In 2012, the Vikings got the Minnesota State Senate, Governor, and Minneapolis City Council to approve a new stadium valued at $1 billion. The state sold about $500 million in bonds to cover the state and city's share of construction expenditures, at a cost of $30-40 million per year to taxpayers in interest payments alone. The stadium agreement also granted the Vikings' ownership group exclusivity: no other team or group can use the stadium for soccer (for the first seven years of operation).
Flash forward two years. On November 22, 2014, Major League Soccer officials, including Garber, visited Minneapolis to gauge local interest in an expansion franchise. At the time, other cities, such as Las Vegas and Sacramento, were also trying to land a franchise. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges personally toured the still-in-construction Vikings Stadium with Garber. Local press got wind and soon asked her office for comment. Her official statement was pro-Minneapolis and vanilla, but in emails I obtained via public information requests, one staff member, John Stiles, tells another, Kate Brickman, that "the short answer is that we're in favor of it going to the Vikings stadium." That short answer, at least in that form, did not get sent out to eager journalists.
Meanwhile, as Mayor Hodges gently nudged Garber towards the Wilf family bid, another Vikings buddy appeared: State Senator Tom Bakk entered the fray. Allegedly, he called Major League Soccer to tell them the Minnesota Legislature would not approve funding for a soccer-specific stadium. MLS refused to comment on the alleged call, but Bakk's office admitted the call happened and stated that "in the Senate there was no appetite for additional public financing for stadium funding."
Still, political favors were not enough: the Wilfs knew they had to at least appear to have grassroots support. Thus, they hired a PR firm, One Simple Plan, to touch base with the Dark Clouds. Dark Clouds members had conversations in person and via telephone with various members of the Vikings PR machine, including Executive VP Lester Bagley and Executive Director of Communications Jeff Anderson. While the Vikings were "intelligent" and "had a sincere belief that the new Vikings stadium would offer a great soccer fan experience", their tactic was to subtly plant the seeds of distrust in Minneapolis soccer fans and stakeholders.
Another Dark Cloud pointed out that the Vikings spoke like lobbyists and he "was surprised he didn't have more questions for me about how we work with Minnesota United or other fans to do what we do." Not surprisingly, the half-hearted PR bid failed miserably. On November 20, the Dark Clouds issued a press release explicitly backing Dr. McGuire's bid. On December 2, the Vikings held an event at the "New Stadium Preview Center" to promote their bid. They also released images of how the NFL arena would be reconfigured for an MLS game. It was not a pretty sight. They touted a "house reduction mechanism" which was really just some tarps with ads on them that would cover upper-level seats. Plus, the entrance banner on the first slide, "Welcome Back Minnesota Soccer Fans," was a bit of a sucker-punch to Minnesota United and the region's long-suffering fans who had never actually left.
The Wilfs pulled a few political strings, but so did Dr. McGuire. He got Mike Opat, the Chair of the Hennepin County Commissioners, to personally fly to Major League Soccer headquarters and support the bid. Numerous emails circulated among Mayor Hodges's staff revealed their indignation. There was also dissent within the Minneapolis City Council itself.
City Councilmember Linea Palmisano of Ward 13 invited other members to events supporting Dr. McGuire's bid from the start. Why and how did she become such a fan? Well, her social media profile reveals one key fact: she's been a Minnesota United fan for years. However, in an email sent on December 19 by Chuck Lutz, City Director, to John Stiles, City attorney Susan Segal, and Mayoral communications director Kevin Carpenter, he complains about Palmisano, saying that "she's in McGuire's thrall." He then lays out the City's real concern: a soccer-specific stadium would compete with the Vikings for public concerts and other events. Still, at least two other City Council members sided with Palmisano and support a soccer-specific stadium.
When Major League Soccer emailed invites to the Wednesday announcement on Monday and named the Twins stadium as the location and Dr. McGuire as a speaker, the Mayor realized she had supported a losing cause. Requests for comment came pouring in. Her staff frantically scrambled to craft and issue a joint statement with the City Council on the issue. The email exchanges were heated and terse. The original draft said that "we do not support any public funding for this new stadium." However, City Council President Barbara Johnson objected to the language about "opposing public financing." Thus, the final draft was softened to "best financed with private resources."
Even the Vikings issued a short and not particularly sweet congratulations to the McGuire group (which did not mention them). However, the question remained: if MLS was so insistent on a stadium, why not pick the horse who already built one? As VICE Sports contributor Neil De Mause has pointed out, stadium deals can take years to get done. In fact, the Vikings had a staff member designated for "Stadium Development" and spent half a million dollars per year to lobby the legislature. These legislative battles are won over years, not the span of four months.
Dr. McGuire's group recently revealed their stadium plan. Unlike the Vikings, they don't ask any governments to sell bonds to cover construction costs. Their plan, which they say will cost $250 million, will be privately paid for. That $250 million is broken down into a $100 million MLS expansion fee, $30 million to acquire land, and $120 million in construction costs. If you cut out the MLS expansion fee, which any ownership group would have to pay, the plan costs about one-eighth of the Vikings' stadium.
In an optimistic light, this is a relatively sweet deal for taxpayers, what with no state money going into the buying of the land or building of the stadium. However, Dr. McGuire's group glossed over some key details in their proposal: property and sales tax breaks (and caps) that add up to about $50 million dollars. Still, that's only slightly more than the interest payments for one year on the debt for the Vikings stadium. It's also less than the grants the Minnesota Legislature recently gave to an independent league baseball team in St. Paul to build a stadium.
Still, the Minneapolis Mayor is not sold, and here's why: money. Hennepin County financed the Twins stadium with a sales tax (through legislative engineering) and is actually now enjoying a surplus on said tax. Minneapolis, on the other hand, is splitting costs with the Minnesota Legislature on the costs of the Vikings' new dome. But the legislature is still trying to figure how to pay their part. On March 24, 2015, Minneapolis City officials emailed tax projections for a new MLS stadium and the City stood to gain around $700,000 per year in sales and entertainment tax receipts from home games alone. Guess what Dr. McGuire's proposal added a few weeks later? Sales and entertainment tax receipts.
Dr. McGuire has the County on his side and a decent proposal, but the clock is ticking. Major League Soccer has given a July deadline for a detailed stadium plan, while the Minnesota Legislature (which may be needed) closes shop in May until January 2016. In McGuire's basic stadium proposal, he quaintly forgot to include the costs of lobbying local officials for tax breaks (or tax caps). Working against him, the Minneapolis Mayor and Minnesota Legislature clearly don't want to be on the hook for any more fields of dreams. In fact, the Legislature just voted against tax breaks for a stadium. The biggest fear is that MLS rejected the Vikings because they wanted a soccer-only stadium, but that the well-connected Vikings have already poisoned the political well for other potential ownership groups. For a club renamed Minnesota United, things have never been more fractious in Minneapolis.