No matter what the measure of time, there is little denying the Minnesota Vikings have been lobbying for a new stadium for a long time. Some would argue part of the reason they finally got it approved was that they wore down the legislators. The more accurate assessment is that was a total team effort – and that team extended well beyond the walls of Winter Park.
They finally had a governor willing to champion the cause. Jesse Ventura, the abrasive wrestler/radio host/governor, had no appetite for destruction of the Metrodome. His successor in the Minnesota mansion, Tim Pawlenty, liked to play both sides, saying time and again that he was a big Vikings fan but didn't want anything to do with subsidizing a stadium. Finally, the combination of the team's lease expiring at the Metrodome and a supportive governor were part of the right elixir. Truth be told, Gov. Mark Dayton went beyond being a willing listener. He championed the cause, made it a priority and called out those who played his adversary in the campaign.
If owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, along with Lester Bagley, the team's vice president of public affairs and stadium development, were the coaching staff, Dayton was the quarterback, leading the charge in his political field. It became an interesting dynamic of bipartisan support. Many democrats supported it for the labor movement and the 7,000-some jobs that will be created. Some Republicans likely supported it because it was big business. No matter the reasons, there were supporters and detractors on both sides of the aisle.
Vikings fans had a grand old time making fun of the most vocal detractors, like House Speaker Kurt Zellers for tripping over his words and unable to articulate a consistent, reasonable stance. The peanut gallery especially loved his statement that he hoped the stadium bill would pass but he wouldn't support it. That was just part of the political process that showed Minnesotans and outsiders just how confused and conflicted the subject was, and it wasn't limited to the opposition. Even some supporters were opposed to subsidizing private enterprise.
But the Vikings showed they go beyond reason. Reasonable people don't usually paint their faces, put on horns and fake braids. Many Vikings fans do. Reasonable people don't usually spend a few hundred dollars eight weekends a year traveling to the Twin Cities from out of state, especially during the winter. Many Vikings fans from the Dakotas, Iowa, Canada and, yes, even Wisconsin do. Reasonable people don't usually take a weeklong camping trip in the parking lot of a state capitol. Superfan Larry Spooner did.
Through the highly charged, emotional debate, Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf wisely let the politicians go through their grandstanding speeches without comment. Behind the scenes, the process was being watched closely by fans who likely gave Turner Public Television its highest rating. Just outside the doors of the House and Senate floor, Vikings fans cheered and sang fight songs during a rally that included several players, Bagley and Dayton.
The Wilfs stayed away. It had to be a planned tactic. Their appearance likely would increase the references to "billionaire owners" and "$300 suits." In the minds of some Minnesota politicians, apparently being successful and operating profitable businesses makes a businessman a protagonist in politics.
But when everything was said and done, it was the Wilfs that emerged as heroes. There were tense moments, to be sure. The House at one point completely altered the funding mechanism to user fees and the final House bill called for another $105 million commitment from the Vikings.
As the story goes, the Vikings were willing to put in another $25 million (the Senate's version), but when asked to raise their investment another $50 million beyond the previously negotiated deal with the bill's authors and Dayton, the Wilfs were taking a hard look at it. According to what Bagley told 1500 ESPN, they finally looked at the support the fans gave them at the legislature and decided to do it.
Make no mistake: The Vikings will profit handsomely from having a new stadium (Forbes is already forecasting a $1 billion value by the team the stadium opens). But so will plenty of other people. Constructions workers will be put back to work, surrounding development will burgeon and the state itself will see will the continued benefits of the estimated $26 million in income and sales taxes the Vikings contribute annually.
While the fans are being credited with tipping the scales for several politicians – numerous references were made by legislators at how their e-mail boxes were flooded with support – the team's biggest fan, Zygi Wilf himself, has emerged as a cult hero among the hardcore.
To wit, just a few of the comments posted on stadium stories on this site:
The Wilf brothers are all right guys! Go Vikings, Minnesota Vikings!!!" – Montana Fan
Usually, owners are one of the groups in the line of fire with a frustrated fan base. Last week, however, the owners and fans of the Vikings looked at each other in amazement. The fans let their voices be heard on the stadium issue, and the owners took note as they made a bigger investment in a stadium as fans of the sport themselves.
Now the fun part begins. Fans will be able to see how creative the Wilfs are at another passion – development. What exactly will this "world-class facility" look like? Will WilfWorld have all the latest and greatest technology to increase the fan experience? What will tailgating look like in five years? Will a retractable roof be part of the equation and opened for September sunshine and December snow?
All of those questions are being anticipated by those who can hardly wait for their billion-dollar present. But Zygi Wilf gave the one answer that mattered most on Friday.
"We're here to stay, guys," he said.
For that, he and his fellow owners are being hailed as the coolest kids in town.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.