Wednesday could have been the ugliest day in the history of Minnesota sports. Today, Feb. 15, is the NFL deadline for providing notification of an intent to relocate, the long-feared endgame of the Minnesota Vikings' decade-long push for a new stadium.
Circumstances, as they stand today, are ripe to attempt a move or at least to maximize the leverage that a legitimate threat would bring. The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome has expired, eliminating all legal entanglements that could challenge their departure. State leaders have quashed a suburban stadium plan the Vikings spent nearly a year developing, and alternative proposals from downtown Minneapolis remain in development while political support remains uncertain.
It's true that the NFL hasn't endorsed any of the stadium plans percolating in Los Angeles, the Vikings' ostensible destination. But if they wanted to enjoin a ruthless and cutthroat issue with a similarly cold strategy, the Vikings could have sought out a relocation agreement with one of the Los Angeles groups and at least used it as leverage to apply substantial pressure to state leaders who have said "no" far more often than "yes" when faced with this issue.
That approach would have hurt some feelings and caused some rage, but it's also a proven formula for bringing such debates to a productive conclusion. As we noted Tuesday, the Vikings will allow the deadline to pass without ever seriously considering relocation or even using the option as leverage. Now stripped of that tool for the next 365 days, the Vikings have exposed themselves to an equally ruthless and cutthroat move from state leaders.
Now, what's to stop state leaders from flipping the leverage of the Vikings' expired Metrodome lease? Now that we know the Vikings want to play in Minnesota this season, why not require them to sign a five-year lease extension at the Metrodome while politicians continue mulling and/or delaying the project? What choice would the Vikings have? They need to play somewhere, right?
I realize that might seem to be a far-fetched scenario, especially in a state of passive-aggressive people and leaders. But in all seriousness, what has happened to this point for the Vikings to trust state leaders to consummate a stadium deal?
I asked that question of Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of stadium development and public affairs. For what it's worth, Bagley said that negotiations in recent weeks have left him confident that state leaders "feel the urgency" to bring this issue to a conclusion. He suggested that a site and financing proposal, fit to be submitted to the state legislature, will be ready within a matter of days, and implied that state legislators would be wise to clear this issue from the dockets before November elections.
"If there were people that were counting down the clock until Feb. 15," Bagley said, "and if they thought that we wouldn't have to solve this issue after that point, that's not the case. We feel there has been an acknowledgement that if we want to be an NFL community, we have to solve this issue. We would rather work with people who are willing to be constructive, who understand that the 15th has passed but that the urgency to get this done still exists. … State leaders want to solve this issue and get it off their plate. It sucks up all the oxygen at the capitol. Good luck running for re-election if this is still going on at that point, because the media attention will only be more intense."
The Minnesota state legislature is four weeks into a 10-week session that is scheduled to end April 10. If you operate from the assumption that politicians don't act until they have to, you wonder if Bagley's assessment of urgency is real or merely hoped for. But Bagley provided a sketch for how a stadium agreement could play out over the next six weeks, and it begins with a two-pronged plan that would call for the stadium to be built on or near the Metrodome site.
The proposal would spell out the costs for tearing down the Metrodome and using part of its foundation for a new stadium. But the Vikings would have to play three years at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus if that happens, a scenario Bagley said the team wants to avoid. As a result, the proposal would also provide leeway for shifting the construction site southeast of the Metrodome so that the Vikings can continue playing there until the new facility is ready.
However, Bagley acknowledged there is not enough time to complete site work and calculate its exact financial terms before the state legislature adjourns. There is some space between south 11th Ave. and I-35W east of the Metrodome, as well as south of that parcel, to build. Some businesses might need to be relocated, which takes time. But if all of that occurs, the Metrodome would eventually be torn down, and the space utilized for parking and a pregame plaza.
"The bill would provide us the flexibility to shift sites if we can do that within a budget," Bagley said.
If you think like a politician, you're probably looking at that sketch and seeing a chance to push back a decision until all of the research is done on the alternative site. Proposing a bill that allows for multiple sites and uncertain costs is inviting delay. But it's the best the Vikings can do given the hurdles thrown their way.
Would it have been any different with the threat, real or imagined, of relocation? We'll never know. The Vikings have placed their fortunes, and handed over their leverage, to a state that has yet to indicate its intent to cooperate. Well, at least not until Feb. 15, 2013.