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Monday, April 15, 2013
Vikings stadium: Doubting a retractable roof

By Kevin Seifert

The Minnesota Vikings are due to deliver a preliminary stadium design in about a month, and the best guess is that will include a fixed, non-retractable roof -- a decision that would end years of discussion about the fundamental nature of how football is played and watched in Minnesota.

Nothing has been finalized, but my sense is that the cost of a fully retractable roof -- between $25 million and $50 million depending on technology, plus annual operation and maintenance costs -- will be deemed too high for a part-time feature. A relatively tight $975 million budget and ongoing revenue struggles qualify as secondary reasons why the Vikings might be headed toward shelving the idea.

Instead, current thinking suggests the stadium will be outfitted with some form of a "retractable window" to allow for fresh air and a view of downtown Minneapolis. Preliminary plans have called for extensive use of glass and other transparent technology to help provide an "outdoor feel" even with a fixed roof. There is hope that the window and glass will be enough to satisfy the MLS, the professional soccer league traditionally prefers outdoor venues and could place a team in the new stadium.

The wild card is owner Zygi Wilf, who has repeatedly expressed interest in a retractable roof for nostalgic and competitive reasons. The stadium bill allows for a retractable roof if savings can be found elsewhere, but that seems unlikely. Otherwise, Wilf and his partners would have to pay for it privately and separately from their current $477 million commitment to the project.

Wilf could certainly wake up one morning and decide to pony up, but surely he recognizes how much of a luxury a retractable roof would be no matter who is paying for it. Even if he paid for it, Wilf would face criticism from lawmakers and taxpayers who would want that money applied to the public's share of the project rather than a luxury item. Because when you look at other such structures around the NFL, you see they have all been built with good intentions but are typically closed more often than they are open during the course of the season.

Even the Arizona Cardinals, located in a region where Minnesotans flee for the winter, have closed the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium on two-thirds the building's regular-season games (37 of 56). Unless the Vikings are committed to keeping the roof open for all eight regular-season home contests, an absurd suggestion considering the arrival of sub-freezing temperatures as early as October, there would be many games where Wilf's multi-million roof is useless.

This issue had the potential to change the way football is played and viewed in Minnesota, and not necessarily in a good way. The Vikings have been an indoor team for 31 years and have been built accordingly, having won 65 percent of their games at the Metrodome. Building a cold-weather team represents a significant philosophical change over time. Frankly, so would be buying season tickets to sit in an outdoor setting -- Minnesota style -- in November, December and January.

My friend and colleague Mike Sando compares this discussion to a sun roof in a new car. It sounds good and looks cool, but it ends up being closed more often than you originally planned.

Opening a stadium roof to the Minnesota winter, at the presumed disadvantage of the visiting team, sounds like a good idea. But when you consider it from a practical standpoint, weighing the cost against use, you realize it isn't a great value. At a sensitive economic and political time in Minnesota, the guess is the Vikings will punt. Glass, a window and some occasional fresh air might have to do.