Vikings stadium: Zygi Wilf saves franchise

Zygi Wilf was able to secure a new stadium for the team without resorting to threats of relocation. Icon SMI

More than a decade of memories came flooding back after seeing the Minnesota Vikings' stadium bill pass through the state Senate and head toward the inevitable signature of Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday, ensuring at least 30 more years of franchise continuity.

I picked up the beat in 2001, when state leaders began years of inattention by insisting the Sept. 11 attacks made for an inappropriate time to discuss stadium subsidies. I remember calling a young state legislator named Tim Pawlenty, who cheerfully suggested the team's top stadium lobbyist secure a straight salary rather than working on commission. "There's just no appetite here for more stadiums," Pawlenty said a few years before he was elected governor.

I took a trip to San Antonio, home of former owner Red McCombs, to scout it out as a potential relocation site. I wrote about an NFL meeting in 2003 in which league officials made a preliminary plan to place the Vikings in the NFC West if they eventually relocated to Los Angeles. I watched plans to share a stadium with the University of Minnesota collapse, as did suburban collaborations in Anoka and Arden Hills.

But most of all, I remember sitting in a converted racquetball court in the Vikings' cramped practice facility on June 16, 2005. On that day, new owner Zygi Wilf made a pledge that astonished all of us and figured to haunt him for the rest of his tenure atop the franchise.

Wilf said he would never move the team, regardless of a revenue deficit that forced McCombs to sell. He acknowledged he would like a new stadium but said: "If we're stuck in the Metrodome, then we'll be stuck in the Metrodome."

Given the years of inaction we had already witnessed, most of us figured the only way the Vikings would secure a new stadium would be by waving a ready-made offer to relocate elsewhere. But here, on one of his first days as an owner, Wilf had cut his leverage out from beneath himself and guaranteed a struggle to upgrade the franchise's home.

So on this day, it's worth noting that Wilf and his staff have agreed to relatively equitable terms on a bill for a new stadium without so much as an indirect or implied threat of relocation -- much less engaging in any substantive discussions with another locale.

Really, the only tense moment came last month when a state committee derailed the bill in a spate of political infighting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell swooped into St. Paul to add some weight to the Vikings' campaign, and from then on final approval has seemed nearly inevitable. In the context of stadium debates, Wilf and the Vikings kept the tone cordial, amicable and most importantly aboveboard, securing a state legacy for the franchise and the owner himself.

It's been months since Wilf has spoken publicly on the stadium issue, a strategic decision the Vikings made to minimize attention on the "billionaire subsidy" argument and focus it on Dayton and the resulting job creation a stadium would bring. I'm sure there will be plenty of people who can't get past the additional revenues Wilf and his investors will receive in this deal, and I understand that. But in the context of professional sports, I truly think Wilf and his investors deserve some credit for saving the franchise for Minnesota.

Think about it. For years, state leaders fully exercised the leverage they held by virtue of the Metrodome lease and Wilf's publicly stated willingness to continue playing there. When the tables turned, Wilf declined to reciprocate and instead pursued a deal with the same people who wouldn't take the Vikings' phone calls in previous years.

Really, from a cold business standpoint, Wilf would have been better off minimizing his expenses, awaiting the expiration of the lease then shopping the franchise to the highest bidder from around the country. He paid $600 million in 2005 and, six years later, the Jacksonville Jaguars were sold for $760 million with a stadium situation much worse than the Vikings'. Outsiders bidding for the franchise almost certainly would have left the Minnesota legislature to match a much less equitable deal to keep the team, if it had the opportunity at all.

Instead, over the past seven years, Wilf and his partners have funneled the team more than $100 million in personal funds to account for a competitive player payroll, a larger front-office staff and modernization of the practice facility. Wilf aggressively pursued the stadium issue but passed on every opportunity to up the ante or enhance his leverage by turning his attention elsewhere. You might disagree with some of his decisions as a franchise operator, but Wilf and his investors have proved exemplary franchise stewards.

I can't control how you view Wilf and his group of out-of-town investors. But, Vikings fans, you guys lucked out. This could have been ugly and easily might have ended differently. Zygi Wilf made sure it didn't.

Earlier: The first post-approval questions the Vikings must consider.