Last month, the NFL faced something new in its rise to the Billionaire Boys Club. They ran into a situation in which outside government interfered with one of its decisions in which the NFL was clueless to its existence. It looks like it won't happen twice.
In late January, there was a political kerfuffle going on in St. Louis. I'm not too proud to say that I was in St. Louis at the time to attend the WWE Royal Rumble (long story) and, at that moment, it was the top story in town – not just a sports story. Something called the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission was firing its pea-shooter at the NFL in hopes of picking a fight with the league. It was a David vs. Goliath story that included plenty of huffin' and puffin' from Dave – the scrawny kid with a rock.
It was a group reminiscent of the Ramsey County Charter Commission back in the days before the Minnesota power butchers bagged and tagged, gutted and processed that proposal. Both groups prompted a response reserved for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – "who are those guys?" People were aware they existed, but dropping their name at a fine restaurant wouldn't get you a better table.
The SLCVC is a group of city bureaucrats that, as one of its functions, oversees the lease the Rams have with the Edward Jones Dome. At the time, they were able to halt the sale of tickets for the annual regular-season game in London's Wembley Stadium because it was promised eight regular-season home games of revenue from the Rams – no overseas games were in anyone's mind at the time the deal was signed. Eventually, the NFL, the Rams and the St. Louis CVC came to an amicable agreement in which everyone makes their money, but it set a precedent that had previously been unforeseen.
In a Star-Tribune story Thursday, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that language is to be included in a stadium deal that the Vikings be available to play up to four games "off-site" (away from their home market, regardless of stadium) for up to four regular-season and two exhibition games over the next 10 years.
That can be taken one of two ways. First, it could be viewed as an assurance that there won't be a repeat of the Rams-provided egg on the face brought onto the league by St. Louis. But, what may be more telling is the number of games.
There isn't an NFL team that wants to play the London game each year. Players and coaches are creatures of habit and the trip across the pond always has to coincide with their bye week and, given the uprooting of their teams and their families, the first three days of the "bye week" are spent recovering from jet lag. No team that gets the London game when the schedule comes out is happy about it. The Vikings could well become a candidate, but the inclusion of preseason games may have a deeper meaning.
If the current stadium proposal goes through, the Vikings would only have to play one year away from the Metrodome. The only site discussed was the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, a logistical nightmare since the Vikings have more season ticket holders than there are seats at The Bank, and the NFL has been quite adamant that it isn't a stadium capable of being an NFL venue. It's a beautiful college stadium for a lower-tier Big Ten school, but not the bright lights of the NFL.
My propensity to snip out a conspiracy has me thinking a little deeper than the TCF Bank stadium scenario.
The NFL wants the Vikings to get a new stadium to keep them in Minnesota, but they don't want to lose out on a full season of revenue that the league generates in its current 32 league-approved stadiums. Is it possible that the NFL will cash in its investment in one fell swoop?
When Soldier Field was renovated, the Bears played a year at the University of Illinois in Champaign. The Packers used to play four games a year at Lambeau Field and four games in Milwaukee. The post-Katrina Saints proved a team could spend an entire year as road warriors – even if they were technically the home team for half of those games. It's been done.
The one aspect of McCarthy's statement that went 3-D on the page for me was the inclusion of two preseason and four regular-season games over the 10-year period requested as part of the Vikings commitment to the new stadium. Translation? The Vikings could spend the one year they will vacate the Metrodome (presumably 2015 or 2016), being nomad ambassadors for the league. They could be the expansion road show – play a preseason game in Mexico City, be the London guinea pig in the regular season and serve as a pilot project for large U.S. cities that would be considered for expansion – Los Angeles, San Antonio, Honolulu, Montreal, Toronto, etc.
It would provide the Wilf family the money needed to bridge the gap during the transition period – all of those games would likely be sellouts because the cities in question would be looking to lure the NFL to their city and would have a groundswell of fan support to sell out all of the games. At the same time, there could be a stipulation that the divisional games (and one other) be played at The Bank to give the semblance of a home-field advantage.
The only teams that have played in the London series more than once are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, after this year, the New England Patriots. There is likely no way that the NFL would market the Vikings as a team to play abroad four times in the next 10 years. Perhaps they are laying the groundwork to reduce the amount of financial damage that will be done during the year the Vikings will be displaced from their home.
St. Louis taught the NFL something it didn't envision in January. The league has learned from that experience and the Vikings may be the test guinea pig to gauge interest in expanding the brand. You don't get many opportunities like the one the Vikings may have coming in three or four years. It's all speculation at this point, but from the NFL standpoint, why not take advantage of a potential bad situation and make it good?
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.