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Will Minnesota United Need An Enclosed Stadium Alternative When Moving to MLS?

by on 5 April 2015

When Minnesota Vikings Spokesperson Lester Bagley was trying to sell the public and MLS on their enclosed stadium for a franchise in the Twin Cities, he was fond of repeating league commissioner Don Garber’s story of how cold it was in Minnesota on the weekend of the 2014 MLS Cup final.

“We were talking about how weather would affect some of the markets that we’re looking at,” said Garber at his annual State of the League address prior to the final. “It was minus zero in Minneapolis yesterday. Minus zero, in December. Imagine what it would be like in February.”

The MLS expansion committee ultimately chose Dr. Bill McGuire’s Minnesota United FC with an open air – soccer specific stadium plan over the Vikings indoor choice.  However, McGuire, Bagley and Garber were all correct. Most of the year soccer fans want to watch their sport played in a stadium true to the history of the game, on real grass. But there are definitely times of the year that an open air stadium in Minneapolis will not bring in the numbers of fans United’s front office will be happy with nor allow the quality of the match to be played in a way that is fair to the players, the sport, the league and its fans.

Major League Soccer’s regular season runs from mid March to October with playoffs running through November and the MLS Cup Final in December. If a team makes it into CONCACAF Champions League play, home and away matches can also take place in early March.

Looking through the list of MLS teams, Montreal has the most in common with Minneapolis in terms of similar winter weather. A look at the average high and low temperature in Mpls. for March is 41° and 23° F. Montreal is slightly colder at 36° and 19° F. November is a bit colder in the Twin Cities but only slightly. Minneapolis average high is 40° with 25° F the low. Montreal is 42° and 28° F.

So what have Montreal done to offset this issue? They regularly move early season matches from their regular venue, Saputo, to Olympic Stadium; a 60,000 seat indoor venue just meters from the Impact’s regular playing facility. Looking at the past several years since moving to MLS, the Impact usually schedule two to three early season matches in March and early April at Olympic Stadium. The rest of the schedule has been played at Saputo. The Impact have yet to be faced with postseason scheduling concerns.

So what are Minnesota United’s options for playing in an indoor facility safe from the elements? There would only be one: the Minnesota Vikings US Bank Stadium, scheduled to open in August of 2016.

When asked about playing at the new Vikings facility, Minnesota United president Nick Rogers said, “Depending on the conditions we’re facing outdoors it’s entirely possible. I would not rule that out. Our preference is always going to be to play outdoors on grass when we can, but this is a state where that is not always possible.”

But there could be issues with United playing matches at the new Vikings stadium. At least according to Michelle Kelm-Helgen who is chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) which was established by the legislature in 2012. The MSFA was charged with the design, construction and operation of the new multi-purpose stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

“It’s very clear, they would have to change the legislation in order for us to do that,” Kelm-Helgen said recently. “The way the legislation is written the Vikings are the only ones within the first five years of the stadium opening that can bring an MLS team into our stadium. After 2021 they could play in our stadium but not before then unless they changed the legislation.”

The issue lies with a statute that was added to the stadium legislation in 2012 that allowed the Vikings (what is basically) right of first refusal to bring a MLS team into the new venue within the first five years of the team stepping on the turf to play their first preseason game in August of 2016. The legislation written was always an agreement between the State of Minnesota, who is contributing $348 million to the $1.061 billion stadium, and the Vikings. Even though MLS is mentioned in the statute they were never involved in any manner with the deal. MLS had previously confirmed this.

Kelm-Helgen explained that the Vikings had expressed interest in wanting to bring an MLS team to Minnesota to use the stadium. “Originally the idea was that the Vikings were putting in over a half-million dollars and that was something the state granted them because of their investment,” she said.

Duane Benson is a former state senate minority leader and executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. Like Kelm-Helgen he sits on the board of the MSFA. Both say the subject of the Minnesota United playing at the new stadium has never come up before the board.

“For legislatures, for the Sports Facility Commission, this is a new twist,” Benson said. “We’re not really focused on it even though it’s in play. Because we are about half done with a billion dollar construction (project) – we’re doing all sorts of activities around that. I don’t think we’ve spent much time up to this point thinking about soccer, McGuire, the Wilfs or any of those other things. The most honest answer is, we just haven’t thought about it much.

But Kelm-Helgen did say that McGuire approached her in the summer of 2012 about bringing an MLS team into play at the new facility. At that time she explained there would need to be changes to the language of the legislation in order to do so. Rogers said he was not aware of the 2012 discussion and Kelm-Helgen said she’d never heard from McGuire since that initial conversation.

Benson also believes the language in the legislation would most likely need to change to allow the Loons to play in the new facility. But he also said he doesn’t see a reason why Minnesota United couldn’t play their in a limited capacity.

“Keep in mind this is as the governor calls it, the ‘People’s Stadium’,” said Benson who is also a former NFL player. “This won’t be much different than the Metrodome. We will have everything imaginable from high school football to dirt track races to spiritual conventions. It’s a multi-use facility for the entire metropolitan area. So you don’t have to stretch it too far to figure out that soccer fits in too. Based on the information we have now, I don’t know who isn’t in play, it would seem just about anybody.”

The state statute itself is a bit ambiguous and lends itself to the question of whether it would really need to go back to the Minnesota State Legislature. It reads:

Subd. 15.Major league soccer. The authority shall, for five years after the first NFL team home game is played in the stadium, grant the NFL team the exclusive right to establish major league soccer at the stadium. The authority and the NFL team may enter into an agreement providing the terms and conditions of such an arrangement, provided:
(1) if any of the NFL team owners whose family owns at least three percent of the NFL team purchases full or partial ownership in a major league soccer franchise, such franchise may play in the stadium under a use agreement with similar terms as are applicable to the NFL team which shall include rent based on market conditions but not less than a provision of payment of game-day costs and reasonable marginal costs incurred by the authority as a result of the major league soccer team; and
(2) capital improvements required by a major league soccer franchise must be financed by the owners of the major league soccer team, unless otherwise agreed to by the authority.

We consulted with both a member of the state legislative staff and FifityFive.One contributor Dave Laidig who is an attorney. Both parties found the language regarding the exclusive right to establish major league soccer at the stadium, questionable at best. They felt it to be ambiguous and certainly not offering the clarity that Kelm-Helgen may believe it offers in terms of games being played (as opposed to ownership of teams).

Laidig went further stating that there could be an argument made that Vikings ownership (or someone with 3% ownership of the Vikings) do not own a major league soccer team, the conditions for the Stadium Commission to enter into an exclusivity agreement are not met.  Consequently, the exclusivity grant is voided. If this interpretation was adopted, MNUFC would be able to freely negotiate with the MSFA to use the facility for as many open dates as desired.

There was also a feeling that with the language of the statute, The authority has all powers necessary or incidental thereto, one could presume this incidental power encompasses the ability to enforce its own interpretation of the statute.  “For comparison, this would be no different than an agency getting an instruction from a legislature and then figuring out the best way to put that instruction into practice,” said Laidig. “Courts may overturn these agency decisions from time to time; but reasonable attempts to follow the statutes are given deference.”  Consequently, whether the above interpretations make sense is ultimately the decision of the MSFA, which has already been given its instructions by the Legislature via statute.

Lastly, both parties felt that if McGuire was able to make a deal with the Vikings to play matches at the new stadium, the Vikings could do so either by not enforcing it, or by simply waiving their right in the contract language for that game agreement. And that would seem to be the best scenario for all parties. Minnesota United would have a bad weather alternative to play in and the State of Minnesota and the Vikings would both make revenue from the stadium rental as well as concession sales.

Vikings spokesperson Jeff Anderson was emailed which he returned stating, “I do not think it would be appropriate for me to either speculate on hypothetical scenarios or provide an interpretation of state legislation. I prefer to let Michele’s (Kelm-Helgen) understanding of the law suffice.

Matt Privratsky and Dave Laidig contributed to this report.

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