Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Stadium talk

As a native of a state (Wisconsin) where we recently took care of our NFL and MLB teams with new or refurbished stadiums (total tab: approximately $800 million), I can certainly understand what folks in Minnesota are going through right now. Stadium drives are no fun for anyone, as the debate is often contentious, and the result is often undesirable for close to half the interested people.

Miller Park is a monstrosity. It's a fun place to watch a ballgame when the stands are relatively filled, but when it's empty, it's a morgue. The place feels like a cavern when the roof is closed, which is a nice argument against retractable domes. But dreary weather on Opening Day 2006 in Milwaukee certainly presents a compelling argument for a park that can be an indoor stadium when necessary. That said, the roof, while it's an architectural marvel, has been nothing but a pain for the folks that run the stadium, and it's still a point of contention for pro- and anti-ballpark folks in the Milwaukee area.

The Lambeau Field project barely cleared Brown County voters (53% majority), but it went very smoothly, and the end result is one of the most beautiful facilities in the NFL. It's equal parts nostalgia and amenities, with enough nostalgia to remind everyone what Green Bay has meant to the NFL, and enough amenities to keep the revenue flowing in the NFL's smallest market. The inner seating bowl was expanded, and they added more suite space, but none of it compromised the integrity of the stadium. It still has the look and feel of an old, traditional stadium, despite all the amenities added.

Now, Minnesota is at a crossroads. While I'm not going to sit here and project threats of departing franchises and stadiums that are falling apart, things are not good right now. None of the Metrodome's three major tenants (the Twins, Vikings, and University of Minnesota football program) are happy to be there. The Twins have been seeking a new baseball-only facility for some time now, and they are working now on a project for a stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The Vikings have been in search of a new stadium, as well. They want a retractable-roof stadium in Anoka County (near Blaine, in the Twin Cities' northern suburbs). The Gophers are pursuing a new football stadium on campus, to be built in a parking lot across the street from Mariucci and Williams Arenas.

As I said, I'm not going to project gloom and doom, and at last report, no chunks of concrete were falling at the Metrodome. But I am here to discuss the three stadium plans, as well as to whine about the fact that UMD can't get their arena money secured.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins have been seeking a new stadium, as I mentioned, for some time now. They have talked about renovating the Metrodome. They have talked about building in St. Paul. They have talked about domes. They have talked about retractable roofs.

But they appear to have settled on the plan they want to push and make happen. The plan calls for a new open-air stadium in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis, at a cost of around $474 million when you include necessary infrastructure. The Twins are, according to a report in today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune, going to pony up $135 million, an increase of $10 million over last year when the plan was announced.

(The increase is part of a deal announced yesterday by Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, under which an increase of $30 million in the stadium's cost is being covered by the Twins and the county.)

The Twins still need to get approval from the Legislature to avoid a referendum over a proposed tax increase in Hennepin County that would help pay their portion of the cost. That is a major sticking point, as there are many who feel the Twins and the county should let the proposal go to a referendum (I, too, feel they are being chickens on this because they are confident the proposal would fail in a referendum).

Do the Twins "need" a new stadium? Probably. The Metrodome is a revenue pit for the team, because they get so little money from anything besides ticket sales. The Twins could probably draw 2.5 million per season and barely turn a profit, even with their relatively meager payroll. The stadium was built for football, and it is tough to sit through a baseball game in any spot in that stadium except portions of the lower deck along the base lines, as well as the left field lower deck seats. The cheapest seats in the 'Dome require a chiropractor visit after the game.

The Twins certainly have a strong case for a new stadium, and their current lease status at the Metrodome (not bound to play there after 2006) indicates that their situation is the most pressing this spring. Get it done. Build the Twins a new ballpark. The upside for the team, the state, and for downtown Minneapolis is worth the pricetag.

Minnesota Gophers

The Gophers are in a bad spot. They never should have left campus in the first place, but they were convinced that playing in a "big-time" stadium like the Metrodome would help their program. They couldn't have been more wrong. The Metrodome is too far away from campus, and it's too big. The UMTC football program isn't ready for a 65,000-seat stadium, and they need to be in a place where the college flavor can shine through.

(But there are big-time programs that play in NFL stadiums, and there are big-time programs that play in bigger stadiums than the Metrodome.)

True, but those programs have the crowds to back up playing in bigger houses. When was the last time Michigan failed to sell out a football game? Tennessee? Ohio State? Florida? LSU? Wisconsin?

The Gophers can barely sell out half their games, and when they do sell out, it's usually due to the fact that they're playing a team like Wisconsin, Iowa, or Michigan - a team that will bring fans by the loads to the Metrodome because those fans can't get into their team's home stadiums. It doesn't help that the Gophers usually load up on patsies during the non-conference schedule, but that's also not much of an excuse when you look at some of the crowds the Gophers get for Big Ten games.

I believe the Gophers need to get back on campus, and I believe the Gophers' need to get back on campus is bigger than whatever need the Vikings may have. While I'm not sure I can say the Gophers' situation is a bigger priority than the Twins', I do like how the funding has been set up for this stadium deal, and I think the Gopher program would benefit from a move back on campus. Then again, they also would benefit from a new coach to replace the overrated and highly overpaid Glen Mason, but that's a different column.

Minnesota Vikings

I've maintained for years that I had no problem with the Vikings wanting a new stadium. After all, everyone else in the NFL seems to be getting one. The Vikings are going to, at some point, need to get a new field built to keep up with the rest of the league. However, now is not that time, and this is not that project. There are a number of issues.

1. The roof. Football should be played outdoors whenever possible. The only way I would ever support any governmental assistance for a new football stadium that has a roof on it is if it were placed in writing that the roof would never be closed for a football game unless the outside temperature were above 90 degrees or below -15 degrees, or in cases of extreme or severe weather conditions that would make playing or viewing the game dangerous or exceptionally difficult (examples would include thunderstorms, heavy rain, heavy snow, or dense fog). Under no other circumstances should the roof of a football stadium ever be closed.

(Are you reading this, Houston?)

2. Location. Is Blaine really the best place for a Vikings stadium? When the trend around the league and around the country when it comes to sports stadiums and arenas is to build downtown, do you really want to build in the northern edge of the Twin Cities?

3. Need. I'm not convinced that, with some renovations and some changes to the lease arrangement, the Metrodome can't work for football. The Vikings should pursue these cheaper alternatives before they start breaking ground on a project that could cost $1 billion or more before it's all done.

Even back when Cowboy owned the Vikings, I wasn't ever a believer in their stadium drive. I never thought they were doing a good job of educating the public on the need for a stadium or how it would be paid for, and I never thought they cared enough about the opinions of the voters (read: Viking fans). The team still hasn't demonstrated a real need for a new stadium, though I have to admit that the plan Zygi Wilf and friends have put forth is an intriguing one. The entire development plan is interesting, and it could be a real big lift to the Vikings' organization and to football in Minnesota.

Where does UMD fit in here?

40-year old rink (oldest in their league). One of the smallest rinks in their league in terms of seating capacity, and the smallest ice sheet in their league.

If you're not a hockey fan, I should remind you that the current DECC has to turn away numerous events every year because they don't have enough space, or because they are already booked for hockey or other events.

The UMD hockey program needs a new facility. The city and northeastern Minnesota could use a new facility for conventions, trade shows, and concerts. The new, expanded DECC plan seemed like a perfect fit for everyone.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said he supported the plan, but only if Duluth voters approved the necessary food-and-beverage tax increase to pay for the city's share of the arena cost.

So the issue went to the ballot box, and Duluth voters overwhelmingly passed the tax increase (61% yes).

The response of our local elected representatives when it came time to fight for the DECC's inclusion in the state bonding package?

*crickets chirping*

Nothing. Thanks for nothing, guys. Not only have our local elected representatives failed us miserably to this point, but I have yet to sense any support from those (Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum come to mind immediately) who said they supported the project.

Thanks for nothing, guys.

I don't know where the arena issue comes in here, but I know that many people have let us down by not giving us the necessary support, and now the project is in serious trouble. My personal (and admittedly biased) opinion is that this arena should be passed through during the current session. The city voters did their part, and now it's time for our elected officials to do theirs.

And if they don't, I will make sure to take a list of those who failed with me when I go to vote this fall. I hope you will, too.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Good stuff, Bruce.

I wrote about the Gopher stadium deal here: http://sportswritersjournal.blogspot.com/2006/04/theres-been-lot-of-excitement-in.html

You're right that they can't sell out the Metrodome. But if the Gophers are going to make the jump to being an elite program like they keep talking about, how are they going to do that in a bandbox named after a bank?

The stadium may be the right size for where they're at now, but now where they want to be.

I agree that they need to give Duluth a new arena. It's ridiculous that now they're squabbling over the money.