Rock and a Hard Place

In the aftermath of the dissolution of a business group that has left Mankato in limbo as the Vikings training site, Zygi Wilf faces something of a dilemma.

Two years into an agreement that Red McCombs signed with business leaders of the city of Mankato, Minn. as the Vikings training camp host, new owner Zygi Wilf faces a dilemma.

The agreement between McCombs and Mankato came with a proverbial gun to the head of the city. After drawing sincere interest from Sioux Falls, S.D., McCombs made weakly veiled threats that the Vikings would move their training camp out of state. In response, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty countered that, as difficult as it would be for the Vikings to get public money for a new stadium, if he was to move training camp outside the state, those odds would drop even more. In the end, McCombs got Mankato to step up and agree to a similar deal that was offered by officials from Sioux Falls and the Vikings signed on to remain in Mankato.

But there was a problem. The amount of money promised the Vikings didn't come close to making the annual training camp festivities profitable for the city, Minnesota State-Mankato or the business group that oversaw the hoopla surrounding the three weeks the Vikings and their fans descended on the city.

What the group learned the hard way was that, unlike fans who travel great distances to follow the Twins to spring training or even attend Twins games as part of a family weekend in the Twin Cities, most of the fans that would come down to watch practices or scrimmages came to town and left without spending all that much money, shopping at local businesses or making use of Mankato-area hotels. For football fans, trips to training camp were primarily one-day events that would have them hit town shortly before the practices began and leave town even quicker after they concluded.

It was with some hesitation this week that Sioux Falls officials said they were interested in luring the Vikings back for a second look at what the city can offer. Sioux Falls, along with Fargo, N.D., have both made offers to the Vikings in the past, but neither of them appears to have the logistics to make it work. If the Vikings were to choose either city, they would have a difficult time getting many of their own Minnesota-based fans to make the five-, six- or seven-hour drive to watch training camp. Even more troubling for Vikings officials would be the likely event that the team would have to fly to and from Fargo or Sioux Falls just to play their two home games in the preseason -- much less their road games during training camp.

The problem is further clouded by the threat Pawlenty made about the team training out of state and the gravity that decision could have on the team getting support for its stadium effort. With the Twins getting judicial relief this week to allow them out of their lease in the Metrodome after the 2006 MLB season, it's almost certain that the Minnesota Legislature will speed up the process of getting the Twins stadium deal done in this session or, at the latest, in 2007. Many insiders believe that before the state would even entertain the Vikings stadium proposal, closure would be required for both the Twins and the University of Minnesota.

What's the solution? It's tricky. Because of the demands for three practice fields that the Twins have made, Minnesota cities like Duluth and St. Cloud are almost out of the mix before any state bidding process could begin. The more likely solution is what the Mankato business group hinted at when it dissolved its partnership -- we want you to come back, but at a lesser cost to the city.

It can't be understated that Mankato hasn't said "get out" to the Vikings, but that the business group officially "dissolved" itself. It can re-form at any time under a different name and re-open discussions with the team -- at which point a new deal that is friendlier and more financially reasonable for the city and the local business leaders can be struck.

In the end, it's probably most likely that the Vikings will gather at the end of July to once again conduct their training camp in Mankato, for sure in 2006, probably in 2007 -- just without the sweetheart deal McCombs brokered at the end of a gun. With the combination of location and the Wilf family's hope of harboring good will among the business community in Minnesota, it's the decision that makes the most sense -- even if it costs the organization a little more than it would hope.

If the Vikings get their stadium done in Blaine, the entire point will likely become moot. The Vikings stadium and team facility will likely both be located at the same site, meaning whenever a deal is struck and a new stadium is built, all team operations will be housed on or near the stadium site -- making such future arguments a thing of the past. But until then, the Vikings may have to take one for the team and settle for the best in-state deal they can get.

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