Colts owner talks Vikings stadium financing

Before the Minnesota Vikings hosted the Indianapolis Colts at the Metrodome last Sunday, Colts owner Jim Irsay was talking about the need to replace the Metrodome and how a new stadium came to fruition in his town.

Vikings officials met with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay late last week, but it was Irsay who was doing most of the speaking at last Sunday's game at the Metrodome against the Minnesota Vikings.

Irsay was speaking over the blaring sound system at the Metrodome while calling the building antiquated. The Vikings are trying to secure public financing to help in building a new stadium. On Thursday, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, delayed selecting an architectural firm for a new design until next Friday, but Irsay had plenty to say about the Vikings' situation.

"There is no question how antiquated this building (the Metrodome) is. It's a relic from the past. There is no chance of viability staying in this facility," Irsay said. "Our old stadium (the RCA Dome) was way better than this thing. The RCA Dome, if you'd go visit it now, you'd see how much better it is than this stadium right now and it still wasn't adequate. Of course, it was the smallest stadium in the league, period."

The Vikings had Irsay talk about the partnership of private money – $100 million from the Colts – and public financing – $575 million, mostly from the county, that made Lucas Oil Stadium a reality.

The Colts used to join the Vikings near the bottom of Forbes' annual rankings of NFL franchise values. The Vikings remain in dead last, worth an estimated $839 million, after the Wilfs paid $600 million for the franchise in 2005. The next closest team is the Oakland Raiders, valued at $861 million, while the Dallas Cowboys lead the rankings with a $1.612 billion valuation. The Colts now rank eighth, worth an estimated $1.076 billion since moving into their new stadium.

The Vikings are also dead last in gross revenue, the only team in the league to gross less than $200 million. More than half of that is paid out in player salaries alone by Zygi Wilf and the other Vikings owners.

"They are committed to do it the right way," Irsay said of the Wilfs. "They are committed to spending money and putting a team on the field that people can be proud of. That's a huge plus that this community has because I know as owners that they're committed."

The Vikings pay about $6.5 million a year for their Metrodome lease. That's about half the operating cost of the Dome, according to Bill Lester, the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Dome. Lester said the Metrodome, which was used for events 344 days in 2007, wouldn't be able to exist without the Vikings, especially now that the Twins and Gophers are getting new stadiums.

"There are a lot of problems here. The old lease is outrageous," Irsay said. "There are people getting paid here who are long gone (a reference to former Vikings general manager Mike Lynn). Ten percent ticket tax is way over the edge. Even with our new stadium, we have six percent, but 10 percent is pretty much unheard of."

The public contribution of $575 million for Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is comprised of a 3 percent county hotel tax increase, 2 percent county rental car tax increase, a 1 percent county admissions tax increase, a 1 percent increase in the six-county restaurant tax and the sales of Colts license plates.

Irsay said the Colts didn't sell any seat licenses and kept it affordable for the fans with $24 tickets still available and a season ticket costing as little as $240. "You can't even see the Rolling Stones or Kenny Chesney for $240, one night. We made it affordable for some of our fans still," he said.

He said he would have loved to build a stadium with all of his own money and keep all of the revenues, but he said the numbers for markets of Indianapolis' size – he included Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Minnesota in that category – simply wouldn't allow it.

"The Wilfs cannot put $600 million into a stadium. That's never going to happen. No business man, no person, would ever do that in a market like this. You'd never make it back in five lifetimes," Irsay said.

Irsay said the Giants and Jets, who are also getting a new stadium, will out-gross the Colts by $2.5 billion at a minimum during the terms of their respective leases.

"From my perspective, I'd rather say I'll build it on my own, give me the debt, give me that sort of income because I know for my franchise for the long term some day, once I get things paid off I'm going to be making a large sum of money. But that just doesn't happen in this situation. I know in Indianapolis, from the money I spent to build that team up, from $130 million out of my pocket, from the $100 million for the stadium, I will be lucky to pay off that $230 million over the term of our lease."

Stadiums in Cincinnati and Tampa are 100 percent publicly financed, Irsay said.

The Vikings have said they would be willing to contribute about $250 million to the project, whether or not it has a retractable roof, which would bring the total cost to about $950 million. It would cost about $200 million less without a retractable roof, but that would limit the overall use of the facility, one of the advantages of the Metrodome to the community at large.

While the Vikings have proposed funding options for a new stadium in the past, they are letting the local politicians suggest how they think it should be handled if they will engage in those discussions during the 2009 Legislative session. In past sessions, the proposals never advanced very far – the economy, the I-35W bridge collapse and other stadium deals seemed to push the Vikings' stadium discussion to the backburner.

However, Irsay said with a lease that expires in 2011, there is a sense of urgency.

"It is urgent. I know the legislative session in 2009, I think that's critical. The lease is up in 2011. They simply can't remain here in this facility. It's simply not possible," he said. "I think there is urgency, but I think people need to talk about solutions and getting it done. … In any negotiation, it's about leverage and that's a good thing. I think the Wilfs have tremendous leverage with the lease expiring. I didn't have that kind of leverage in Indianapolis. But that's a good thing because it needs to get done here. The Vikings, Minnesota, this is a great traditional place for football and NFL history."

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