Thursday, January 22, 2009

Damn Vikings: Just pawn in game of life

Some people, bless them, can siphon out the emotion from rationalism when talks sprouts up of a major pro sports team lighting out for another city.

There is no scrambling away from the Minnesota Vikings/L.A. stadium talk. A not uncommon reaction over the past couple days, if you read the comments on the articles, is that it's a done deal, barring Vikes owner Zygi Wilf opting to pay the shot for a stadium in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region (and who gets rich spending his own money instead of OPM?). The Vikings will become the L.A. Stallions by 2012, surer than their namesakes did not have horns on their helmets. The mock-up for the stadium developer Ben Roski Jr. wants to build in Industry, Calif., even shows purple seats. That's about as subtle as Vikings coach Brad Childress' playcalling on some days. Adrian Peterson off left tackle, again?!

Introducing some bits of background seems to the best way to work through the fear. It's a good primer for what Toronto could be going through in the next 5-10 years with a certain baseball team. Granted, MLB hasn't gone 14 years without having a team in the second-largest U.S. city.

Minnesota politicians and voters have been on this merry-go-round for more than a decade over public funding for pro sports playgrounds, long before Lehman Brothers. Secondly, the standard reflex to moralize about governments subsidizing the sports industry is not as sound as most of us might believe, although you can't convince many people of such. Thirdly, it can argued that if one's favourite team relocates to another city, what it's to a fan of the team who has never visited that state?

Taking each point one by one:
  1. Please keep in mind that Minnesota is one state that would draw a line in the sand (obvious Coen brothers reference intended) over spending on sports.

    This is the state which recently sent Al Franken, who's a wee bit left of centre by American standards, to the U.S. Senate. It goes beyond having an electorate which is a bit more lefty than other states.

    Steve Rushin, writing in Sports Illustrated eleven years ago, when it seemed like baseball's Twins were a goner and the Vikings' stadium snafu was in its embryonic stages, said Minnesota is "a proud and peculiar and perhaps enlightened state."

    Sports fans, especially the younger genarations, have grown comfortably numb with the notion of sky-high salaries and stadiums which cost a half-billion dollars. It would take something on the order of, wait for it, a global economic meltdown to change that mentality. Minnesotans, to use Rushin's sum-up, are different:
    "Minnesota, as I have written before in these pages, is the Don't Show Me State. The Norwest Center in downtown Minneapolis was designed to be a few feet shorter than the state's tallest building, the nearby IDS Center. Minnesota has 12,034 lakes, but it rounded the number down to 10,000 for the inscription on its license plates. In 1899 a Minnesota resident, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," which aptly describes what Minnesotans find objectionable about so many exotic (which is to say non-Minnesotan) cultures."
    How Canadian of them.

  2. It's an academic argument when unemployment in the U.S. is inching toward 8%, but while opposing public spending on sports stadium is a good convenient stance since it makes you feel socially consciousness, it is contestable. The Sports Law Professor, a few months ago, laid out an 11-part argument for why governments spending on new stadia is not objectionable.

    Team owners trot out self-serving nonsense when they're trolling for a new pleasure palace. It's easy enough to ignore. Fans get priced out, which sucks. There's usually some scandal over backroom shenanigans which usually results in some middle managers resigning or being sacked (see the VANOC debacle or the new Yankee Stadium). However, as TSLP put it, "Cities bid against cities, so presumptively the price/subsidy is a competitive one."

    It's beyond the pale if the Yankees reap the rewards of some fudged land assessments. It's apples-to-pears to make comparsions with the International Olympic Cartel. Once the Games are awarded, there is no competition. The hosts pay the shot, no matter what.

    The fact of the matter is that forking over the money is a necessary evil. The big ball-and-stick leagues see it as a way to limit competition. Bill James, about 20 years ago, wrote an essay arguing that North America could support at least 200 major-league baseball teams. There is probably enough talent to support half as many pro football teams. There is enough talent for about 60 NHL teams, which might mean Hamilton or Winnipeg would finally get a team.

    However, in reality, the public sets the bar with the NFL. Every few years, there is talk of a spring football league in the U.S., one that would trade on deeply held college rivalries. A team in Birmingham, for instance, would be stocked with former Alabama and Auburn players and so on.

    It would never work since fans are interested in watching athletes of that calibre when they are 18-22 years old. It's kind of the same as how no one wants to watch a 50-year-old Fonzie try to pick up girls. No one wants to see a 30-year-old Eric Crouch running the option. The leagues' TV partners also want teams in major cities and fans are conditioned to go along. People are already ticked off enough about a Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl or the Tampa Bay Rays being in the World Series. The big small towns already have college basketball and football to themselves, anyways.

  3. Then there is the emotional argument. Did it matter in the first place that the Vikings played in Minneapolis-St. Paul?

    It mattered more that they had Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss and that there were a historic, albeit hard-luck franchise. It was bandwagon to get on, the same as anyone else's fandom. A certain fatalism has become attached to rooting for the Vikes, but that's just me eggheading it up.

    In his book God Save The Fan, Will Leitch dedicated a chapter to his lifelong support of the St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Cardinals. His argument was that he is the loyal one for sticking by a team through relocation, saying, "they're just a corporation, but they're my corporation." He's been rewarded with his team making a Super Bowl appearance.

    In other words, if the Vikings moved and kept the nickname and colours, there would be no reason not to keep supporting them.
It's debatable how deep Wilf and the state ledge in Minny are into this game. Twenty-eleven, which is when the Vikings' lease on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome ("It's a shame they named this place after a nice guy like HHH" -- Billy Martin), is coming up fast.

One sustaining hope is that the Vikings could play at the Minnesota Gophers stadium for two or three seasons while the 'Dome is converted to an outdoor stadium. The Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks, temporarily played at college stadiums. It would be a compromise, but it might be too penny-ante if Wilf wants to be in among the Top 5 NFL teams in revenue.

Vikings Loving L.A.? (Andrew Brandt, National Football Post)

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