Zygi, Vikings finally have a home of their own

Zygi and Mark Wilf approached the steps of the Minnesota state

Capitol building, and were immediately swarmed by high-fives and

cheers from Vikings fans.

The Vikings owners beamed as they celebrated finally landing

public funding for a new $975 million stadium that will keep the

team in Minnesota for another generation.

For two East Coast brothers whose purchase of the team in 2005

was viewed with skepticism and nervousness by a community that has

lost professional sports franchises before, the Wilfs sure have

come a long way – in the eyes of the fans and state lawmakers.

”We’re here to stay,” Zygi Wilf said Thursday night at a press

conference to celebrate the passage of a stadium bill.

The cheers from purple-clad fanatics in the back of Gov. Mark

Dayton’s reception room weren’t always so hearty.

The Wilfs have been pushing for a new stadium to replace the

drab and outdated Metrodome ever since they arrived seven years

ago. And no matter how many times they assured everyone they were

committed to staying in Minnesota, their lack of roots in the

meat-and-potatoes Midwest served to undercut their efforts.

Glitzy Los Angeles always loomed in the background, with fans

worrying that the nation’s second-largest city would steal the

Vikings away from mid-market Minnesota much like it stole the

Lakers back in 1960.

Legislative leaders chafed at giving public money to outside

businessmen and fans had difficulty fully embracing the new owners

of the most popular sports team in the state.

As the Wilfs ran into road block after road block, frustrations

ran high both inside and outside the organization. They were

continually told to wait their turn while other facilities were

built for the Twins and University of Minnesota football team, and

many thought they would have to threaten to move or sell the team

to get any traction with legislators who had grown weary of stadium

politics.

From the day they arrived in the Twin Cities, Zygi and Mark

steadfastly refused to play that card, perhaps compromising the

built-in leverage they had to pressure lawmakers in the

process.

”We knew from day one that we were going to fight to ensure

that this day would come,” Zygi Wilf said. ”Our commitment to

having Viking football here for generations was always the

overriding factor.”

For two guys from rough and tumble New Jersey, they sure know a

thing or two about ”Minnesota Nice.”

Rep. Morrie Lanning, a Republican who was the stadium’s chief

House advocate, said it was a wise strategy.

”They handled it exactly the right way and I think it would’ve

made matters worse, or more difficult, if they had actually

threatened, which they never did,” Lanning said.

In some ways, they never had to. Two groups working feverishly

to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles grabbed plenty of headlines

themselves, and the dots were easily connected when NFL

Commissioner Roger Goodell visited last month.

”We always understood that in talking with league officials and

knowing what’s happening around the country, that if we weren’t

able to do something here, there were going to be other people

looking to buy this team or move this team,” Lanning said.

”That’s a very real possibility that now is no longer going to be

happening.”

It came down to the wire. The Vikings’ lease at the Metrodome

expired last season and setback after setback threatened the

franchise’s 51-year history in Minnesota.

Separate deals with Anoka County in suburban Minneapolis and

Arden Hills in suburban St. Paul fell through in previous years,

and this legislative session went into overtime as supporters and

opponents vehemently argued their positions.

”I never had a doubt that we were going to build a stadium,”

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, a Republican, quipped. ”It

was just what year and which team is going to play in it.”

Even Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs and

stadium development, started to wonder if it was possible to make

it happen in Minnesota.

”Oh yeah. There was a lot of defeat and ups and downs and

points in this debate where it was `This might not be able to get

done.”’ Bagley said after the final vote came down in the Vikings’

favor.

The Wilfs had to pledge $50 million more to close the deal. The

Vikings and NFL will put $477 million toward the project, the state

has pledged $348 million and the City of Minneapolis will chip in

$150 million.

Now Vikings fans can exhale, secure that Minnesota will not join

the list of cities – Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, St. Louis,

Houston – that have lost NFL franchises and had to scramble to try

to get one back.

”We just secured the Minnesota Vikings for the whole next

generation,” said Vikings fan Steve Smith of Oronoco. ”The little

kids with the school buses coming by right now, they’re going to be

grown men the next time they have to deal with this. That would

make me proud.”

After the bill passed, the Vikings and the University of

Minnesota announced a preliminary agreement to allow the NFL team

to use TCF Bank Stadium while a new Vikings stadium is built on the

Metrodome site. The Vikings will pay the university a fixed fee of

$250,000 per game. The combined rent and expected concessions and

sponsorship revenue that the Vikings would share with the

university would amount to $300,000 per game, or $3 million per

season.

The new stadium should be ready for the 2016 season, and the two

brothers who were once outsiders will have a new home – in their

new home – for decades to come.

”This will be truly special,” Mark Wilf said. ”As hard as

we’ve worked for this day, we will commit going forward that this

will be first class and special, and something that all Minnesotans

can be truly proud of.”

Associated Press Writer Alexandra Tempus contributed to this

story.

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