The National Football League faced an array of problems this year. Widespread player protests of the national anthem, coupled with concerns about the toll the game takes on athletes’ health, helped to reduce TV audiences for the second straight season. But the Super Bowl party beginning in Minneapolis demonstrates that even one of the country’s most left-leaning cities is not immune to the NFL’s continuing allure.
Fans of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will travel to the frigid northern city this week because the NFL granted a Super Bowl to Minnesota as a reward for stepping up with more than half a billion dollars in subsidies for the home-state Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016. For a city whose mayor recently described it as a “shining beacon of progressive light and accomplishment,” this is some feat, and a reminder that the NFL, whatever its troubles, maintains a firm hold on the taxpayer’s purse in many places.
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer, began pushing for a new stadium soon after purchasing the team in 2005. His supplications became more earnest after the roof of the Vikings’ old home, the Metrodome, collapsed in December 2010. Wilf originally proposed contributing just one quarter of the new stadium’s $1 billion cost, a spectacularly low-ball offer in an era when backlash against stadium subsidies for professional teams increasingly force owners to pony up a bigger share of construction costs. Wilf claimed that he couldn’t afford more, but he wouldn’t release the financial details of his real estate empire. A Minnesota state investigation, undertaken after a New Jersey judge ruled that the Wilf family had defrauded real estate partners in a local project and had to pay them $84.5 million, determined that the family could afford to pay up to $500 million for the stadium.
Even after Wilf upped his offer, the road to the stadium deal was paved with controversy. Minnesota financed a portion of its share of the costs by introducing a state-licensed electronic-gambling game to generate construction revenues, but the game proved a clunker with local residents; to fill the financing hole, Minnesota drew on revenues from its tobacco tax and increased corporate taxes. Then Wilf announced that he’d help finance his part of the deal by charging season ticketholders a seat license fee—prompting a threat from Minnesota governor Mark Dayton to pull government financing. Dayton soon changed his tune, explaining that sports financing has its own ineffable logic. “I’m not one to defend the economics of professional sports,” he said. “Any deal you make in that world doesn’t make sense from the way the rest of us look at it.”
Though it lent its balance sheet to the deal, the city of Minneapolis, according to critics—including one former city councilman—has been “hosed” by the Vikings. The city officially contributed $150 million to stadium construction, but these observers contend that that figure doesn’t include expensive infrastructure improvements that Minneapolis was forced to make. As part of the stadium package, Minneapolis also agreed to send $7.5 million a year in operating subsidies to the authority running the facility, which amounts to $225 million over the course of the deal. City taxpayers also apparently remain on the hook for any shortfalls in the revenues that back the bonds used to build the surrounding infrastructure. Residents understand little of this financing because, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted, the stadium deal “was as transparent as the Berlin wall.”
Of course, the stadium has been a boon for the Vikings ownership. The Vikings are worth an estimated $2.4 billion, and the new stadium has increased the net worth of Wilf’s business empire by $200 million, according to estimates.
What all of this is worth to Minneapolis is another matter. The city’s host committee estimates that the Super Bowl will generate $338 million in economic activity, but some economists say that that figure is wildly inflated. The city is projecting, for instance, that some 1 million people will show up for Super Bowl-related events—but it turns out that only about 125,000 of them will be from out of town. The rest are locals who will take the opportunity to spend time (and maybe dollars) on Super Bowl events that they might otherwise be spending somewhere else in greater Minneapolis. This doesn’t represent genuine “new” spending, in other words, and it won’t begin to offset the more than half a billion dollars that the public has shelled out for U.S. Bank Stadium.
Local criticism of the deal might have been muted had the Vikings become the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl hosted in their own stadium. That dream ended when the Eagles knocked them off in the NFC conference championship game. Now Minneapolis must suffer the indignity of welcoming the league’s most thuggish fans, as the Eagles arrive to compete for the biggest prize in American sports. Locals can only hope that Tom Brady and the Pats knock off Philly. Even that happy conclusion will be cold comfort for the financial sacking Minneapolis has endured at the hands of the NFL and the Vikings.