SI Vault
 
Curtains?
Steve Rushin
December 22, 1997
In only five years the sports mecca of Minnesota has said goodbye to its NHL team and, by voting down proposals for new stadiums, has all but lost the Twins and begun to alienate the Vikings. The way the economics of sports works nowadays, this could happen to any city in America
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 22, 1997

Curtains?

In only five years the sports mecca of Minnesota has said goodbye to its NHL team and, by voting down proposals for new stadiums, has all but lost the Twins and begun to alienate the Vikings. The way the economics of sports works nowadays, this could happen to any city in America

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

He didn't claim that the Vikings are losing money—an impossibility, since the NFL's Croesus-level TV and merchandising revenues are shared equally by all teams. No, the Vikings simply make $7 million less than the average NFL franchise. Which raises the question: Doesn't somebody, by definition, have to make less than the average? Bill Lester, the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, chuckled softly when that question was put to him. "Roger Headrick wants a league like Lake Wobegon," said Lester, "where everybody is above average."

The University of Minnesota mascot is called Goldy Gopher, and the governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson, has been lampooned on local radio as Goldy Guv'nor for his unabashed sports boosterism. In November, Carlson flew around the state stumping for a new major league baseball stadium on a plane he called Gopher One. After one particularly dire day in the legislature, he called a press conference and looked grief-stricken. His name is carved festively from a single piece of driftwood that rests on his desk, but his words were grave: "I think there's a realization that, Oh my gosh, we could lose the Twins, we could lose the Vikings, and you know what? We may not get hockey."

There was a time not long ago when Minnesotans wouldn't have countenanced life without the big leagues. Hubert Humphrey, the man for whom the desolate Metrodome was named, once remarked that without professional sports the Twin Cities would be "a cold Omaha." Carlson prefers to demean Des Moines in such comparisons, but the message remains the same.

In November a commercial presenting a nightmare vision of downtown Minneapolis—frigid, bereft of life, the wind whistling over fading Twins radio broadcasts—aired incessantly on Twin Cities TV stations, accompanied by a single line of text: "Paid for by the Minnesota Twins." The ad appeared to serve no purpose, except as a raised middle finger to Minnesotans from a team on its way out of town, and even local sports officials weren't buying its hubristic premise. "The North Stars left town," says Lester, whose livelihood depends on keeping professional sports in Minnesota, "and as I recall, the sun came up the very next morning."

"If we want to say, 'This has all become too expensive, this isn't high on our priority list,' then let's just say that," says Taylor, who very much wants the Twins to stay. "Let's not get mad at the owner. Let's just say that we're going to put our money elsewhere and we think that, in doing this, we will remain a very fine state." That is, in essence, what the slate legislature said, even as the Twins tried with increasing desperation to cajole, browbeat and guilt-trip residents into thinking that Minnesota couldn't survive the club's departure.

The Twins' ceaseless television ad campaign reached its nadir when footage of a player visiting the bedside of a bald young cancer patient was accompanied by the following sober narration: "If the Twins leave Minnesota, an eight-year-old from Willmar will never get a visit from Marty Cordova." The screen faded to black, and up came the words, "Call your legislator."

Viewers reacted with horror, and the Twins pulled the ad. The featured child, it turned out, wasn't from the western Minnesota town of Willmar, wasn't even from the state—and had died months before the commercial was broadcast. Knowing that the public-relations battle had long been lost, the Twins issued a boilerplate statement that read, in part: "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused the family."

Exactly how things came to such a sorry pass, and so quickly, is difficult to say. Nobody wants the Twins to leave. Nor does anyone want to lose the Vikings—even if their first four home games this season were blacked out on local TV because they were not sold out. The Vikings are seen by millions of viewers each week that they appear on national television. The football team is one of the public faces of Minnesota, with an oddly international following: 36 fan clubs around the world, including one in Edinburgh.

On Oct. 28, at that Save the Twins rally, I stood with Kirby Puckett, the former Minnesota centerfielder who just six years earlier had almost single-handedly won Game 6 of the World Series. By then Puckett was the most popular citizen of Minnesota. "In '87 and '91 we were the best," said Puckett, a reluctant pitchman for Pohlad, who still pays him $500,000 a year. "It's like people are forgetting about that right now."

But another theory held that people were remembering, that this was a long-awaited day of reckoning. "It makes me sad," says Lester. "This community never got over the baseball strike. It really was like one spouse cheating on another. Our commission supports a new stadium effort, and our objective is to keep professional sports here, and professional sports really are one of those rare things that allow you to build community when we already have so many things that divide it.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6