Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
DANA POINT, Calif. -- There is an empty hill about 50 miles from here. A real estate magnate wants to dig into the side of it and build an NFL-sized stadium for the nation's second-largest city. He's got a Web site and preliminary local approval and everything else. All he needs is a team.
Conveniently, there is a team that plays in an outdated stadium halfway across the country. Its lease there expires in two years. Only incremental progress has been made toward a new facility, and it's now clear there won't be a new stadium to move into when the lease expires in 2011.
It's only natural to connect the dots between Ed Roski's Los Angeles Stadium project and the Minnesota Vikings, who have lobbied unsuccessfully for 10 years to secure approval for a new stadium. Isn't it possible the Vikings will go the way of the old Minneapolis Lakers and move west? Or, at the very least, couldn't that possibility provide ample leverage to motivate Minnesota politicians to action?
The answer, based on the current buzz here at the NFL owners' meeting, is no. The Los Angeles option is such a low priority for the league that it's not even on the formal agenda for this annual session, despite the geographic proximity to a possible solution. The league appears skeptical of Roski's project, which would not begin until a team formally committed to moving, and this week commissioner Roger Goodell downplayed its existence while emphasizing the necessity for Minnesotans to work it out among themselves.
"We've got a number of issues we're addressing this week," Goodell said in explaining why an NFL return to Los Angeles isn't one of them. "You know the climate we're operating under here. It's clearly a challenge. And I think as it relates to L.A., and I've said it before: Until there is a solution that works for the community and works for the NFL, we're obviously not going to pursue that."
Roski has proposed to build an $800 million stadium in Industry, a Los Angeles suburb, entirely with private funds. He has said he would begin construction immediately upon agreement with a relocating team. In the interim, the team would lease the Rose Bowl.
There are several unanswered questions about this proposal, according to sports business consultant Marc Ganis. Among them is the financial feasibility of building a stadium for a team you wouldn't necessarily own: Would the profits be enough to cover everyone's expenses? The answer is not clear.
Roski has approached Vikings owner Zygi Wilf about his potential interest, the team acknowledged last summer, but Wilf declined his invitation to talk. Wilf said in 2005 that he would never move the franchise, but recently team officials have implied he could sell the team to someone who might.
The NFL also has attempted to turn up the heat on Minnesota officials, dispatching executive vice president Eric Grubman to St. Paul several times to explain the urgency of the lease situation and its future implications. The Vikings are arguably in the worst financial condition of any NFL team as a result of playing in the Metrodome, and the league has made clear that situation can't continue indefinitely. (See the chart to the right.)
Still, the NFL and Vikings have no suitable answer for the "or what?" question. If the state does not approve a stadium plan that calls for some $700 million of public money, what will happen? To date, Los Angeles provides no leverage as a legitimate possibility.
Perhaps that's why the Vikings have hunkered down recently with representatives of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, meeting three times in the past month. A national economic recession and a $5 billion state budget deficit ensure there won't be any serious talk of a stadium during the 2009 legislative session. So as of now, the Vikings have no other option but to continue working with Minnesota state officials.
Goodell seemed to hint at that conclusion Monday when asked if he could foresee the possibility of the Vikings remaining in Minnesota beyond the expiration of the lease if they have no prospects for leaving the Metrodome.
"I think everybody wants the Vikings to be in Minnesota," Goodell said. "The leadership in Minnesota and clearly the Vikings and the NFL. I'm hopeful they're going to be able to sit down and have some productive dialogue about how to do that. We recognize the challenges that they're going through in Minnesota and the priorities that they have, and I think we're sensitive to that. ... We recognize the governor recognizes the importance of that and I think that there is beginning to be some discussions, which I think is helpful."
Wilf gave a report to his fellow owners Monday on the situation. He declined comment, but the truth is there isn't much to talk about. You know that area between a rock and a hard place? That's where the Vikings find themselves as it relates to the stadium game.
"It's got to be a very frustrating situation for them," Ganis said. "They really don't have any leverage."
It would be folly to believe the NFL will allow the Vikings to play in the Metrodome for
ever, at least as it is currently configured. And at some point, Los Angeles might finally become a serious issue on the league's agenda. But for now, the league has little choice but to remain in an indefinite holding pattern.
"This economy is going to turn at some point in a positive way," Goodell said. "These aren't short-term decisions. These are long-term decisions. You want to be in markets that will support the teams and continue to provide benefits to the league in general. We're not going to make short-term decisions on that basis. Obviously, getting stadiums built is a challenging thing in this market. But again, it's a long-term thing."