THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
A little more than a decade ago, two New Jersey businessmen decided that they wanted to own a National Football League team. The estate of Leon Hess was selling the New York Jets and both Robert Wood Johnson IV and Zygi Wilf wanted the team. In 2000, Johnson beat out Wilf's group and bought the franchise from the Hess estate. There is no way of knowing what would have happened to the franchise had Wilf outbid Johnson for the team.
Wilf did end up with a National Football League franchise in 2006 when he led a group that bought the Minnesota Vikings.
Both Johnson and Wilf are still playing for a championship in the winter of 2011 although the titles they seek are totally different. Johnson's Jets will be in Pittsburgh on Sunday in the American Football Conference title game. Wilf is in a totally different arena but the stakes are probably much higher.
Wilf and his lobbyists are blanketing the state houses in St. Paul, Minnesota in a bid to get money to build a new stadium somewhere in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,
Johnson's Jets play in a new stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey complete with all the bells and whistles that make a venue a state-of-the-art facility. He has personal seat licenses, large concourses to sell food and Jets merchandise, and access to large in-stadium revenue streams. But Johnson's facility did not happen overnight.
Johnson wanted a stadium on the west side of Manhattan at a rail yards site between 30th and 34th Streets and 11th and 12th Avenues next to the Hudson River. He might have also been able to get land for a new stadium in the Jets old home borough of Queens. The west side stadium would have also served as the centerpiece of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in New York and New Jersey. The stadium plan died when New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and New York Assembly Speaker Shelton Silver refused to support the plan in 2005. The International Olympic Committee soon afterwards eliminated the New York bid and gave London, England the 2012 Games.
Eventually Johnson along with the New York Giants ownership, the National Football League and New Jersey officials signed an agreement to build a new stadium next to Giants Stadium. The NFL loaned Johnson, and the Giants Mara and Tisch families hundreds of millions of dollars and New Jersey kicked in hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure along with tax breaks such as reduced property tax payments to provide stadium funding.
Johnson and the Mara/Tisch family put up some of the money for the structure that is estimated to have cost $1.5 billion.
Wilf is looking for hundreds of millions of dollars from Minnesota to help finance the stadium. He will not get NFL help, at least not right now, as the NFL's stadium finance fund is tapped out. The NFL is also not actively seeking to help owners looking for funding for a stadium until there is a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFL wants the players to put up money for a new stadium in Santa Clara, California that would be home to the San Francisco 49ers.
In somewhat of a muddled message, the NFL's senior Vice President of Public Relations, Greg Aiello, wrote on ESPN's website that the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players is hurting Los Angeles chances of getting league financial support for a new stadium. Aiello said there are other cities also looking for money but did not name them. The other cities are Santa Clara and Minneapolis.
Minneapolis has been one of the epicenters of the sports financial earthquake that started in 1950 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee elected officials decided that the only way they could attract a Major League Baseball team to town was by building a stadium with public money and then giving virtually all of the revenue generated in the building to an owner.
The strategy worked as Lou Perini moved his Boston Braves to Milwaukee in March 1953.
Minneapolis elected officials pursued the same course of action. They allocated $8.5 million to build a stadium in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington that opened for the minor league Minneapolis Millers in 1956. The Millers team was the New York Giants top farm club and the stadium caught Giants owner Horace Stoneham's eye when he decided that playing in Manhattan's Polo Grounds was no longer a viable financial option for him.
Stoneham kicked the tires in Minneapolis but took what was a better offer in his mind from San Francisco in the summer of 1957. In 1958, Minneapolis elected officials took out a $9 million bond to expand the 21,000-seat Bloomington seat to 41,000 seats.
The nine million dollar gamble paid off as the Bloomington stadium was big enough for Calvin Griffith who moved his Washington Senators baseball team to the Twin-Cities market after the 1960 season and the National Football League. The Minnesota Twins franchise started play in April 1961. The NFL persuaded the owners of the Minnesota American Football League franchise to drop out of the new league and join the NFL in 1961.
The NFL's Chicago Cardinals had played two "home" games in Bloomington in 1959. The Minnesota AFL franchise was replaced by Oakland, California. The Oakland team played in San Francisco in 1960 and 1961.
In 1965, public money was set aside for the construction of an indoor arena in Bloomington. The gamble again paid off for politicians when the National Hockey League in 1966 decided to double in size from six to 12 teams and added a team in Bloomington.
On the other side of the Mississippi, public money built the St. Paul Civic Center that became a competitor to the Bloomington building. Minnesota was totally immersed in sports spending by the early 1970s.
There is more than a half-century of public support for sports facilities in Minnesota and Wilf is hoping to be the latest owner to grab public dollars for a private business — the Minnesota Vikings.
Ironically, it was the 1966 American Football League-National Football League merger that doomed the Bloomington park. One of the NFL's proposals before Congress as they lobbied Washington to approve the merger was ran in the face of antitrust laws was to move teams. The league planned to have 24 teams in 24 different cities. There was some discussion that would have moved Sonny Werblin's New York Jets (with Joe Namath) to Los Angeles. Daniel Reeves' Los Angeles Rams would have gone to San Diego. Barron Hilton's San Diego Chargers was headed to New Orleans and the Oakland Raiders franchise would have ended up in either Portland, Oregon or Seattle. But Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Cellar and his colleagues weren't in favor of the idea and it was dropped.
Werblin's Jets paid the Mara Giants $10 million to share the territory and the Raiders ownership gave San Francisco ownership $8 million to share the Bay Area territory. New Orleans was given a team in exchange for yes votes from Louisiana Senator Russell Long and Congressman Hale Boggs. The NFL owners pocketed expansion money from New Orleans and Cincinnati. The league did get one perk from Congress. They established that they could move any franchise if stadium capacity was fewer than 50,000 seats.
The Bloomington stadium had less than 50,000 seats.
In the 1970s, Vikings owners began clamoring for a new stadium and explored a move to Los Angeles. (Wilf could be offered a stadium deal in Los Angeles if things in St. Paul don't work out)
State legislators cobbled a deal to build a multi-purpose domed stadium for the Twins, Vikings and the University of Minnesota. The $80 million to fund the building came from a variety of taxes.
With a new stadium and two arenas built on the public dime, Minnesota seemed to have all of the sports facilities need in the 1980s. But that wasn't the case. The National Basketball Association was expanding and two Minneapolis businessmen, Harvey Ratner and Marvin Wolfenson, decided to go after an NBA franchise. In April 1987, the NBA junked its two team expansion in favor of a four-franchise expansion and took $32.5 million from "Harv and Marv" in exchange for a Minneapolis franchise. The two decided not to ask for public funding for an arena and that proved to be a massive mistake.
By 1994, "Harv and Marv" were broke. They sold the franchise to a group led by Boxing promoter Bob Arum and the franchise was headed to New Orleans. The NBA blocked the sale and found a local buyer. The Minnesota legislature allowed the city of Minneapolis to purchase the building. The NBA was still in the Twin-Cities, which is more than could be said about the NHL.
Minnesota might have been hockey country but various Minnesota North Stars ownerships struggled financially. The last North Stars owner Norman Green, a Canadian who had a sexual harassment suit hanging over him, moved the team to Dallas in 1993.
In 1997, the NHL was completing a nine-team expansion. St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman decided to go after one of the final expansion franchises and put together a more than $100 million proposal for funding to build an arena for an NHL team. The new arena was built on the site of the old St. Paul Civic Center. The NHL returned to the Twin-Cities in 2000.
The Twins ownership didn't like the Metrodome very much and almost sold the team to North Carolina interests led by Don Beaver. The team would have played in Greensboro, N.C. had voters approved a referendum to raise a restaurant tax to fund a stadium.
One of the reasons Greensboro needed a stadium? Young people would be energized to stay in the area and look for jobs in the Triad area of North Carolina because there was a baseball team there.
The Twins ownership began very serious discussions with state legislators in 2005 for a new Minneapolis stadium. Eventually a deal was worked out with the legislators on a funding mechanism, which called for the state to invest $392 million in a $522 million facility. There would a be sales tax hike in Hennepin County but Hennepin County residents would have to approve the hike in a referendum. The vote never occurred as politicians pulled an end around and claimed there was no time to hold a referendum.
The Republican governor Tim Pawlenty signed the funding bill into law and Minneapolis got a new baseball stadium.
Pawlenty, who seems to be running for the Republican nomination for President as one of those let's cut government spending to the bone didn't exactly act like a cheapskate when it came to sports spending.
Not only did he approve the $392 million Twins stadium deal in 2006, but two days prior to the Twins deal, Pawlenty put his signature on a deal to build a new football stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Nearly half of the $288.5 million cost for the facility came from the state. Students at the school, whether they liked football or not had to pay part of the cost for the stadium in their student fees
Pawlenty put at least a half of a billion dollars to build stadiums and that is without debt service.
Pawlenty did not run for re-election in 2010. The fiscal conservative left Minnesota with more than a six billion dollar deficit. He was in favor of a new Vikings stadium but did not want to spend public money. Pawlenty is now running around and doing the TV carnival barker route pushing a book and arguing against raising the federal debt ceiling.
Pawlenty's old Vikings problem is now the Democrat Mark Dayton and the GOP state houses' problem. Wilf's lease at the Metrodome ends after 2011 so there is pressure to get a new stadium-funding package done.
What Wilf wants is the same toy that Johnson has. A new stadium with overflowing revenue streams. Sometime after the Super Bowl, the Minnesota legislature will tackle the Vikings problem. Wilf wants an open-air stadium but if the state wants to put a roof on the building that's fine too. Wilf isn't going to pay for a roof but would come up with about one-third the cost of an open-air stadium.
The Jets-Giants building allegedly cost $1.6 billion. Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys home, Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas is also well over a billion dollars. An outdoor Minneapolis stadium is estimated to cost $700 million.
Wilf is next on line in St. Paul for a new stadium. Had he won the big game in 2000, he might have been sharing the Meadowlands with the Mara and Tisch family. But he came in second to Woody Johnson. Johnson's Jets are playing to get into the Super Bowl but Wilf's Vikings are playing for a bigger prize.
A new stadium.