Soccer as Political Football

As weird as it is to write, in just a couple of years, Minneapolis-Saint Paul will be home to one of the greatest collections of sports facilities on earth. That’s not hyperbole. With the completion of the Downtown East Stadium, MSP will boast separate facilities for professional and college football, hockey, and basketball teams, as well as major and minor league baseball. After the Target Center renovation, the oldest professional sports facility in the state will be the Xcel Energy Center which opened in 2000. Save for the latest Olympic cities, few other places can claim a similarly modern and lauded sports infrastructure.

That’s why it all seems a bit perverse to many people when talk emerges of yet another stadium, this time for a potential expansion Major League Soccer (MLS) team. This skepticism is well-earned. (Sample Strib comment: “Well, here it comes again. It won’t be long before we’re regaled with tales of businesses leaving town and we becoming a cold Omaha if we don’t build them a stadium.”) The bitter taste surrounding the Downtown East stadium deal is still palpable. The academic consensus that sports facilities provide little economic benefit is becoming more politically internalized.

This discussion is poised to metastasize extremely quickly over this winter. MLS has publicly stated its determination to expand to Minnesota, and the numbers support the interest. A decision on expansion will likely come in March or April of next year, though no official date has been established. Regardless of when the final word comes, a professional soccer team is a near inevitability for MSP. Even Sid Hartman says it.

The real question is: whose team? Two wealthy, well-connected groups from Minnesota met with MLS executives on November 20th. The difference maker will be their respective plans for a stadium, and that decision could have important implications for the city, the county, and the region.

VikingsMLS

The more well-known of the two bidders are the Minnesota Vikings and the Wilf family that owns the team. Their plan is to create a new expansion franchise that will play in the Downtown East stadium. On Tuesday, the 2nd of December, they unveiled a rendering that shows their plans for a soccer configuration. There is a long history of MLS teams playing in converted NFL stadiums. It’s not a glorious one. When the league started in 1996, much of the league played in American football stadiums and struggled to fill even a quarter of the seats. Soccer is a game that, more than any other, derives a lot from the fan-created atmosphere. MLS’ recovery from the brink of collapse to mainstream success has been strongly tied to a league-wide trend of moving out of shared facilities into smaller, team-owned “soccer specific stadiums” (SSS).

However, it’s not entirely certain that the problem was specifically the “NFL” part of the first generation stadiums. Three teams currently play in football stadiums and the differences between them are instructive. The New England Revolution—owned by the Kraft family, who also own the Patriots—have come under severe criticism for the poor atmosphere in Gillette Stadium stadium, but managed to draw large crowds at the close of the most recent season, in which they made it to the MLS Cup final. Nonetheless, they are actively looking to build a SSS in downtown Boston. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps share BC Place with the CFL’s BC Lions. That stadium employs a unique tarp system which blocks off the upper deck and makes the stadium experience feel more intimate for soccer, a strategy that the Vikings would also employ. The atmosphere in Vancouver is well regarded, and the club frequently sells out. Then there are the Seattle Sounders, who share their stadium, Century Link Field, with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Seattle is the rebuttal to those who argue that NFL stadiums cannot work for soccer. The Sounders regularly pack the lower bowl of the stadium, boasting crowds in excess of 30,000. For special rivalry matches, especially those against the hated Portland Timbers, the entire stadium is opened up and is always sold out. There are few who would argue that the soccer experience in Seattle is not among the absolute best in the country.

The key difference between the three football stadiums may be their proximity to downtown. While Gillette Stadium is a long drive outside of central Boston in Foxboro, Massachusetts, BC Place is on the downtown Vancouver peninsula, and Century Link Field is on the southern end of downtown Seattle. There, fans march to the match through the streets of downtown, singing and beating drums past coffee shops, apartments, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops. As an urban experience goes, it’s hard to top a peaceful soccer riot.

There is a growing consensus among soccer fans that the sport’s future is downtown. This follows the logic that the game’s most loyal fans are also those pouring back into urban areas across the country. CityLab recently wrote: “It’s likely that more young, dedicated soccer fans will flood America’s urban centers in the years to come—and it’s imperative that the MLS follows them there.” It’s seems clear that MLS has come to the same conclusion. One of the other contenders for MLS expansion is a bid in Miami led by global superstar David Beckham. Announced almost a year ago, Beckham’s group has been consistently stymied by Miami politicians and entrenched interests who have rejected multiple soccer specific stadium proposals (even privately funded ones), while MLS has continued to insist on a downtown location or nothing. Meanwhile, the league has announced a 2017 expansion to Atlanta, where the team will be owned by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and play in the new downtown Falcons stadium.

Still, it’s believed that given the choice, MLS would prefer to get a stadium that is both “soccer specific” and downtown (among the reasons, soccer players do not take kindly to football turf). That’s where Minnesota United FC comes in. The Loons currently play in the NASL, a division below MLS, and are owned by Dr. McGuire, the former CEO of United Health Group. He is believed to be joined in the bid by the Polhad family of the Twins, Glen Taylor of the Timberwolves and Star Tribune, and several other investors.

Exact details on the United group’s proposal are sketchy, as the team has said very little publicly. Much of the reporting before has come from unnamed sources and speculation. Still, there have been enough fragments of information to piece together a picture. The United plan is believed to involve building a stadium near the Minneapolis Farmers Market, directly next to the future Royalston Station of the Green Line SW extension. This location first surfaced publicly with a statement from the 2020 partners, a collection of downtown Minneapolis business leaders whose vision for the area included the stadium. Subsequent news reports confirmed the interest, and further reporting has targeted the property at 501 Royalston Avenue as the likely location.

farmersmarket

There are a number of reasons why this location would appeal to United, not the least of which is the next-door mass transit just a stop away and easy walking distance from the major hub at Target Field. The team is also believed to be planning a stadium design similar to Kansas City’s Sporting Park, which is drawing sellout crowds despite being far from downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Were it already constructed, it’s hard to see the Vikings option appealing much in comparison to the decision makers at MLS.

But those are the key words: “were it already constructed.” This X-factor is no small hurdle, and it accounts for nearly all the uncertainty and debate that surrounds the Minnesota-to-MLS question. The not-quite-proposed United stadium is the eponymous political football.

Less than a month ago, when both groups visited MLS headquarters to plead their case, the United group was accompanied by Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, a principal architect of the political process that got Target Field approved. In a recent KSTP feature, Opat said his support for the team was based on the McGuire group’s “long-standing commitment to soccer in Minnesota”, and took pains to downplay the idea that the county would play a heavy role in financing the stadium as it did with the Twins, and as the city of Minneapolis and the state did with the Downtown East Stadium.

That’s a paramount point, and it’s plausible. Soccer stadiums in the US have traditionally run between $90 million (Houston’s downtown BBVA Compass Stadium) and $400 million (Harrison, NJ’s Red Bull Arena). United’s rumored model, Sporting Park, cost $200 million. These numbers are a far cry from the cost of Target Field, nearly $600 million in 2014 dollars, or the Downtown East Stadium, which cost over a billion. Meanwhile, the McGuire group can boast a net worth that likely exceeds 5 billion dollars. Between the group, a $200 stadium could realistically be built without reaching into public coffers.

Minneapolis and state officials (as well as Star Tribune comment sections) have been adamant about not spending public funds on soccer. The Strib quoted Governor Dayton as saying, “If [a soccer stadium] requires a public subsidy, I think we should say no.” Some use even less qualifications in their opposition. In the same article, Mayor Hodges said, “the city does not need another stadium to host soccer. With the new [Vikings] stadium, Target Center and Target Field, Minneapolis already has all the venues it needs.”

One further concern from the city and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority has been the loss of revenue that would come from an MLS team playing elsewhere. While negotiating the stadium bill, the legislature included language giving the Vikings a five year right to operate an MLS team that would play in the Downtown East Stadium. This team would pay about $340,000 over the course of a season to rent the building. While the number seems small in relation to overall stadium costs, both the MSFA and local officials have voiced their opposition to a dedicated SSS on the grounds of lost revenue.

What might sway local stakeholders, who would certainly have to approve certain features of the United plan regardless of funding, is the potential economic benefit that the stadium would bring. But would it actually make a difference? Despite glowing projections, stadiums are almost never a good investment for a city. Even a privately funded stadium would not bring in tremendous development. The MLS season would likely contain 16-20 home games a year, plus friendly matches. That’s more than the paltry eight that make up the NFL season, but a far cry from the 81 home games that are played by baseball teams.

A better case surely lies along the lines of the City Lab article cited earlier. Polls have found that MLS’s popularity among young people rivals that of baseball. A soccer stadium would be a downtown amenity that would appeal directly to 18-30 year olds who are already moving back downtown. The decidedly unsexy part of town surrounding the farmers market to the west of Target Field would surely get a lift from a marquee tenant like MLS. The benefits of putting a second team in the Downtown East Stadium, at least from a “revitalize this part of town” perspective are nearly non-existent, since the building is already happening.

Then there’s the bizarre but intriguing idea of building an “organic digester” under the proposed stadium. As stadium building gambits would go, that would be a first.

The ultimate decision will come from MLS, who is also weighing an expansion bid from Sacramento, who hope to use their stadium to revitalize an area of their downtown. Speculative efforts from Las Vegas and San Antonio are also brewing, while Miami remains in a holding pattern. But it may be that MLS will lean heavily on the prospects of local stadium discussions in making their bid. It’s a discussion many in the Twin Cities thought they wouldn’t be having, at least until the Wild start threatening to move to Texas. But it’s come anyway, and once more offers equal helpings of opportunity and acrimony.

[Full disclosure: the writer is a fan and former intern at Minnesota United FC, one of the bidders, and has written in their support. This article aims to be a fair-minded, informational review of what has taken place so far and the urban consequences, not an argument in support of one side or the other.]

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31 Responses to Soccer as Political Football

  1. Brian Quarstad
    bq December 10, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    Great job, Alex, on the macro view for those trying to catch up on this very complicated but incredibly intriguing sports business story.

  2. Nathan Roisen
    nate December 10, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    It’s pretty straightforward, to me, from an urban standpoint.

    1) The Vikings stadium will be used for 10 or possibly 12 games a year. If you agree that an empty stadium is not a tremendous urban amenity, then an additional 20 events per year will help make the hulking building already under construction a more attractive neighbor.

    2) The unsexy part of town that the United group proposes putting a stadium on will become more attractive as empty lots in the core get built out, and LRT serves the area directly. There is a high opportunity cost in placing a stadium in an area that could be subject to high-density, mixed-use development in the near future.

    I don’t like the Wilfs, but I’d much rather the MLS franchise go into the Vikings stadium.

    • Steve December 10, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Yeah, as much as I hate the Wilfs there’s no rational argument for another stadium, unless it’s 100% privately funded.

      • Julie Kosbab December 10, 2014 at 11:58 am #

        Some would argue “even if,” as there are opportunity costs of using the land for a second stadium being used for limited dates, versus something with a higher use rate given the proximity to light rail.

      • Scott December 11, 2014 at 10:58 am #

        There are several rational reasons to not use the Vikings stadium regardless of ownership. The most important one being that the Vikings stadium is artificial turf, not grass. That makes little difference for a sport like the NFL where the ball is carried or in the air for the marjority of the game, but for soccer it makes a huge difference, to the point where it almost isn’t the same sport on turf. Artificial turf effects how the ball rolls, bounces, and how the ball acts when set pieces are taken. Prominent players in MLS frequently speak out against the use of turf: http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2014/12/02/robbie-keane-la-galaxy-outlaw-turf

        The poor handling of the Vikings stadium planning and funding is no reason to punish Soccer fans.

        But I agree that a new stadium can, and should be privately funded.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      “Could” is doing a lot of work in your second point. This area is separated from the rest of downtown by 394 and a rail right of way, bounded on the other side by 94, adjacent to the incinerator and at least one ring beyond the current outer edge of development.

      It could end up redeveloped nicely on its own. Or a new venue could be an investment that gets the ball rolling.

      If that happens without public money, it’s fine with me.

      • Matt Brillhart December 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

        I have to agree with Adam on that point. The proximity to LRT alone may not be enough to develop an area that is hemmed in by highways, stroads, homeless shelters, and the garbage burner. Not to mention that it’s all still zoned industrial and that is in fact the long-term vision for the site (North Loop Master Plan). This area is never going to look like the rest of the North Loop, despite having an LRT station nearby. Suggesting that the soccer stadium as an opportunity cost is a real stretch, IMO. Especially if it’s built privately…wouldn’t they be paying property taxes on it?

        Though if a soccer stadium does go into the Farmers Market area, I’d rather that it actually displace the farmers market itself, so it isn’t right up against the highway. Put the stadium directly against the ugly highway viaduct, so it isn’t towering over the farmers market or other developable land. That also frees up land directly adjacent to the LRT station for development, instead of having the soccer field right at the station.

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele December 10, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

          Yep. And it would also connect well to downtown by way of the possible massive redevelopment of multiple blocks near 12th and Hennepin, if that redevelopment is done in a way that restores a walkable and connected grid. https://streets.mn/2014/06/12/reconnecting-the-grid-royalston/

        • Julie Kosbab December 10, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

          Realistically, it’s a site that will qualify for federal cleanup funds (SuperFund? not sure) once a development partner is in place. There will need to be some capital improvements by the city no matter who builds or what they build. There will almost certainly be some tax breaks in place to encourage the development of whatever goes up.

          (My understanding is that they proposed taking the site off the SuperFund list. The recommendation was that “no further action is necessary to address environmental impacts at the site, unless use of the property changes.” Right now, it’s a parking crater, so presumably any build would invoke more environmental remediation.)

  3. Brian Hanf December 10, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    One other *Note on BC Place, CFL fileds are MUCH larger than NFL fields

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_American_and_Canadian_football#Playing_area

    Fitting a Soccer team in BC Place much easier. Size has been a concern.

  4. Brandon December 10, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Having a stadium in the Farmer’s Market would provide a great venue to move events like Soundset back downtown and a space for the Basilica Block Party to expand.

    • Steve December 10, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      So build a stadium for 20 events a year with the possibility of 2 more events using that space, or a stadium that’s already built for 8 events a year with the possibility of 20 more?

      Not exactly the right way to frame the argument.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller December 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

        10 events minimum in a typical year (2 preseason and 8 regular season).

        It doesn’t undermine your argument, but its helps to get the number right.

      • Drew December 10, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

        Unfortunately Steve, the Wilf Dome is has not had soccer in mind since the beginning. Now they are talking about having to move seating back to make room for a regulation FIFA field. That just goes to show their “from the beginning” planning for soccer.

        • Drew December 10, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

          And by moving back, I mean using the reduction mechanism they’ll be using for baseball. So they’ll be removing prime seats to make it fit in a funky shape.

  5. Joe December 10, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    $340,000 every year doesn’t seem like a small amount. Over 10 years that’d be 34 million, or 23% of the city of Minneapolis’ contribution to the stadium.

    • Drew December 10, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

      Joe, math is off. 3.4 Mill for 10 years. 😉

      • Joe December 10, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

        Haha. Apparently I should go into accounting.

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele December 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

          And that doesn’t include the net revenue off the fee… there are clearly marginal costs to provide a facility for a game that do not otherwise accrue.

  6. JoSa December 10, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    I really do not understand why Minnesota United can’t host games at TCF Bank Stadium. It is 2 light rail stops from downtown, easily accessible by public transit. It is an outdoor stadium, allowing for the use of real grass. A lot of students are nearby. It currently hosts less than 10 games a year. The McGuire group could easily pay to add a vancouver type tarp, and use decals to cover the U of M logos with Minnesota United colors. Doing anything else sounds insane. I am a big soccer fan, and I think this would be fun, but building more stadiums is stupid and having games in the Wilf stadium is hardly a great idea.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke December 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

      great question. rich men like building stadiums, i guess.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker December 10, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

      That’s a good question. As you may or may not know, his summer, TCF hosted two soccer matches on the same afternoon: an exhibition between two European clubs, and then a Minnesota United league match. It was well attended, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see something similar next summer.

      Several reasons jump out to me as to why the solution you propose is unlikely to be adopted, however.

      The first is that MLS has been extremely clear that they want their teams to play in stadiums controlled by the ownership. A situation in which an MLS team is a second tenant to the team for which the stadium was purpose built is not ideal from MLS’ perspective; that’s a big thing they have been trying to get away from for the last decade.

      The second is that, as those summer matches showed us, TCF is an imperfect venue for soccer. The field was too small, and the temporary grass that was brought in was lumpy, dead in patches, and there were noticeable seams. Groundskeeping for an entire season would be expensive. Then, when Gopher football started up again, the turf would need to be constantly removed and replaced. It suspect that it would simply be impossible to maintain a proper playing surface.

      The third is that the house reduction mechanism is actually a bit more complicated than it may look. I did not include this in the article, but the Vikings plan to spend $3-5 million on their’s, and want a quick decision from MLS so that they can seamlessly integrate it into the construction. It would be painful to attempt to add something similar to TCF.

      • Brian Quarstad
        bq December 11, 2014 at 9:29 am #

        I was told by someone from MN United that they have certainly looked at the TCF Bank Stadium but the cost was ridiculously expensive and running anything through the U was a bureaucratic nightmare. Case in point, when MN United negotiated to play a league game as the second of a double header after the Olympiakos vs Man City match this summer, the Dark Cloud supporters were not allowed to bring in drums, instruments or banners. Top that off they don’t get to control the concessions. So it’s really is a nonstarter.

        And as has been stated, you still have a team playing to crowds of 18 to 20K in an almost 50K stadium. That is a nonstarter with MLS.

        Then you have the fact that MLS does not want to be playing on turf fields with football lines cut in. MLS have found out that playing second fiddle to other sports in their stadiums unless done correctly absolutely kills attendance. Walking into a real SSS where the seating is tight to the field, the grass is green and real and there is a general ambiance in the stadium that screams futbol is a huge piece of getting people to continue to attend games by having that special game day experience. Not unlike when you go to a Twins game and walk to the edge of the seating and see the luscious green carpet of grass. It’s visual eye candy for a love of the game. I think back to a Twins game I attended this past summer. I hardly remember much about the game but I do remember the sights and smells.

        I’m guessing as part of the stadium plan in the North Loop which was encouraged by project 2010 and could also help United Properties to build the hotel they want to locate there, you would see enhancements to the Farmers Market. I’d love to see a farmers market similar to the one in KC that has restaurants, shops and fresh foods daily and draws crowds from downtown and or the North Loop at noon and after work.

        I truly believe a SSS in that area would be a catalyst for growth.

        • Julie Kosbab December 11, 2014 at 9:38 am #

          running anything through the U was a bureaucratic nightmare

          Nailed it right here. Everything else is window dressing.

          You can’t just say “hey, we want to play this pro game at your stadium!” with the U. It’s a complex, costly and horrible process.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller December 11, 2014 at 11:08 am #

        If it was to house MLS, I would think TCF would have to make a permanent switch to grass.

        I don’t know how feasible that is for a field that was not designed with supporting grass in mind.

        • Brian Quarstad
          bq December 12, 2014 at 8:39 am #

          Adam,

          As already stated, there is no way the U of M would agree to that.

          Also, I once did an interview with former U of M Athletic Director Joel Maturi where he stated that TCF Bank Stadium would NEVER have grass and didn’t understand why soccer wouldn’t want turf. I tried to explain the amount of injuries that happen to soccer players on turf and how being that the ball is on the surface all the time that the surface is critical and grass plays the best. I also explained that if they were interested in FIFA international games (US Men’s National Team) or Olympic matches at the stadium, which they were proposing when we were trying to get the Olympics in Chicago, that US Soccer has not played a US Mens National Team match on turf since the 90s. US soccer stated directly to me that they have no plans to do so either. Maturi stated, “Well, I just don’t understand that because football players would prefer to play on it.”
          Sighhhh….

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller December 12, 2014 at 10:23 am #

            Thankfully, Maturi is gone, but I’m not sure that changes your conclusion about the U agreeing to host MLS, or MLS wanting that.

  7. mplsjaromir December 15, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Get back to me when the MLS is more popular than the WNBA

    http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2013/11/11/Media/By-The-Numbers.aspx

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