The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority officially gave the all-clear to the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday afternoon, saying a review of the Wilf family's finances showed the team's owners won't have any trouble paying for their $477 million share of the team's new stadium, even after a New Jersey judge orders the family to pay damages in a 21-year-old lawsuit.
The Vikings, who had broken off talks on lease and developments while the review was going on, responded with a cheery statement, saying the stadium will open in 2016 as scheduled and professing their eagerness to continue working "collaboratively" with the stadium authority. The rhetoric had changed from where it was a couple weeks ago, but in reality, the facts surrounding the situation never changed.
The MSFA's review of the Wilfs' finances always seemed more like a political play than an actual stab at financial oversight; the state and the stadium authority should have had access to the owners' books -- and knowledge of the lawsuit -- before it approved the stadium last spring. The NFL knew about the lawsuit when it awarded the team to the Wilfs in 2005. And perhaps most importantly, the majority of the Vikings' funding for the stadium was never going to come from the Wilfs' pockets anyway.
The Vikings will get a $200 million loan from the NFL, which they can pay back through club seat revenue that usually goes to visiting teams. They can use revenues from personal seat licenses or sponsorship rights -- money they're not currently getting -- toward their contribution. The team's revenues should skyrocket in the new stadium, and so too will the value of the Wilfs' investment.
Judge Deanna Wilson will award damages in the lawsuit later this month, and the plaintiffs -- business partners whom Wilson ruled the Wilfs defrauded -- had requested $51 million, in addition to attorney's fees of approximately $16 million. The Vikings' payroll will run almost double that total this season, and based on the figures the Green Bay Packers reported earlier this year, NFL teams aren't struggling to make a profit.
Essentially, for the financial review to have carried any weight, the MSFA would have needed to discover that a) the stadium money will come from sources other than the Wilfs' net worth or b) that the Wilfs will still be rich after they pay whatever damages they're ordered to pay. Those facts should have been plainly established long ago. It's fair to be alarmed by what Wilson found in the lawsuit, or to get a bad taste from the nature of public-private partnerships in stadium deals, but to think the MSFA needed to sign off on the Wilfs' solvency, at this point in the game, is a bit Pollyannish.
There will still be a photo op this fall with men in suits putting shovels in the ground, though that might happen in November, not October now. The Metrodome will likely, and blessedly, still be razed after this season, and the stadium will still be on track to open in three years. That was the plan before Wilson's ruling, and it's the plan now, except the people in charge of the MSFA might be able to sleep a little better at night. It was unlikely anything more substantive than that was going to come out of the review, anyway.