Flashback: Pawlenty and the stadium

Four years ago, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said there wasn't a sense of urgency with the Vikings stadium situation. There must not have been, because there is still no stadium deal for the team, but that sense of urgency has ramped up significantly since then.

I was recently reminded of an interview I did with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on the St. Cloud KFAN affiliate. It was a week before the 2006 election and Pawlenty was doing some 11th-hour stumping, which included consenting to an interview with a guy who is both politically incorrect and politically savvy. We spoke on Halloween afternoon 2006 and it didn't take long for the governor to learn that this particular interview was going to be a little scary.

To be honest, I was a little surprised he didn't simply stop the interview when, in the final week of the election, I asked him if, as a personal favor, he would publicly refer to DFL opponent Mike Hatch as a "left-wing turd." To his credit, Pawlenty responded that it "wouldn't be too gubernatorial." He had a point.

What makes looking at this interview with the benefit of almost four years of hindsight interesting – and something the next governor of Minnesota should be cognizant of – was a statement he made talking about the Vikings stadium situation.

At the time, Pawlenty was building a reputation of being a governor that wouldn't allow billionaire sports owners to feed from the public trough to get funding for a new stadium. Efforts by the Minnesota Twins, whose lease at the Metrodome expired five years earlier than the Vikings, included threatening to allow themselves to be contracted. Panic set in and Hennepin County stepped up.

I asked Pawlenty if he was against any public funding for a stadium. He said the problem as he viewed it from the perspective of the Legislature, was conflicting analysis on the benefit of professional sports and stadiums to the local economy, saying he was in favor of re-examining the question of value vs. cost.

"One proposal we had a few years ago and it got rejected and might be worth dusting off is if you look at the increased revenue from a new stadium – you can measure the amount of tax revenue (the Metrodome) generates now as opposed to a new stadium would generate – to see if you could get additional economic activity, that would be helpful," Pawlenty said. "The problem is that there are very, very smart people who look at the total economics of sports stadiums – I'm talking experts from Harvard and Yale and other respected places – and they reach very different conclusions about the overall values of these deals. The arguments basically boil down to that it is either new money or money that would be spent somewhere else – re-circulated money. Economists have debated whether there is much value to this."

Where the discussion has current relevance is that state leaders had been assured by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf that the Vikings would stay in Minnesota, but Pawlenty said the very real potential of losing professional baseball wouldn't stand – even if Hennepin County hadn't stepped up to take the lead in the discussion.

"As to the Twins, I didn't think it was good to lose to the Minnesota Twins from Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "I think it is important that we keep them here and I think there was a real danger that we would lose the Twins. As to the Vikings, they are under agreement to stay until at least 2011 and Zygi Wilf has said they will never move out of the state ever – or at least indefinitely. So there is less of a sense of an urgency for the Vikings. They're not going to stay in the Metrodome forever. Eventually, there's going to have to be some kind of proposal. But Zygi is looking at all these different options. He doesn't even have a proposal on the table. So it's hard to react to something that doesn't even exist. I don't like the idea of giving money to these industries. Hennepin County came up with a proposal that said no state money would be necessary. They would pay for it themselves. Rightly or wrongly, they thought it was good deal for Hennepin County and that was up to their county board."

I made a point to remind Pawlenty that Twins owner Carl Pohlad was willing to contract his own team. As I not-so-eloquently put it, "He was willing to put the gas-pipe in the window." If there was ever a gun to the head of the state with a pro sports team, it was the Twins. Minnesota had lost the Lakers and the North Stars and Pohlad was willing to take a significant cash payment from the other owners to cease operations. He claimed a new stadium would generate its own revenue, both in the stadium and in the surrounding Minneapolis neighborhood. Sellout crowds at Target Field are a testament to that.

With the Twins, it was simply about money and Pawlenty was candid enough to admit it.

"As to the Twins, which is different from the Vikings, their lease had expired and a court had said they could not only leave the Metrodome, but the state basically," Pawlenty said. "Carl Pohlad is in the twilight years of his life and his sons don't really have an interest in baseball or keeping the team. Professional baseball said the Twins had a real risk of moving or being contracted. There was a real sense or urgency with the Twins that doesn't exist with the Vikings."

Four years later, not only does the urgency exist, but the Vikings have experienced years of being pushed aside while deals for the Twins and the Gophers on new stadiums have been completed. Unlike the Twins, the Vikings will never be contracted, much less abstain from the vote to save their franchise. Whether it remains in Minnesota or moves to somewhere like Los Angeles, the franchise will continue to exist. The NFL is the No. 1 sport on the planet for a reason. Baseball fans in Baltimore know that the odds of the Orioles ever knocking the Yankees or Red Sox off their perch is all but impossible due to the economics of baseball. In the NFL, you have a level playing field and the best organizations make the trades, free-agent signings and draft to build champions.

The Twins succeeded despite not spending money. The Wilfs have spent millions to not only develop a roster from within, but to bring in players like Steve Hutchinson, Jared Allen and Brett Favre to make the Vikings a winner. While Pawlenty won't be around in Minnesota politics when the 2011 showdown on the Vikings stadium commences, we can all learn from the story of how the Twins were saved – and how much the baseball viewing experience has improved since they were allowed to leave the dump that is the Metrodome.

As popular as the Twins might be, the passion fans have for the Vikings trumps that completely. The 2009 season showed that. Pawlenty said he couldn't envision Minnesota with the Twins. Will the next governor have that same opinion of the Vikings? They are a part of the fabric of Minnesota and, thanks to the popularity of the NFL, they won't contract. They'll simply move where someone is willing to provide them with a competitive stadium to create revenue streams.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of 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.

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