For Minnesota and the Vikings, an Open-Air Stadium Just Makes Sense

Walter KleinvogelContributor IFebruary 12, 2011

For the Minnesota football purist, it would be a dream come true.  The Minnesota Vikings, outside again.  Snow.  Steam.  Grass stains.  An opportunity to recapture an identity the team has lacked since 1982.  A chance for a team which, going into the 2010 season, had lost 18 of its last 21 games played outdoors on grass in cold weather, to "toughen up."

But what about the bottom line?

Team owner Zygi Wilf has expressed his preference for an open-air stadium since purchasing the team in 2005.  The state and local politicos have had other ideas, stressing the need for a roofed venue able to host winter events.  A "people's stadium," in the words of Ted Mondale.  Visions of Super Bowls, Final Fours, winter concerts and monster truck rallies dance in their heads.  A veritable tsunami of dollars overflowing the state as the entire world turns its attention to Minnesota's new "multi-purpose facility."

And it's a lot of hogwash.

The price of an open-air stadium has been estimated at $700 million, of which the Vikings have expressed a willingness to pay one-third.  As the team does not require a roof and its owner would prefer not to have one, they have no interest in contributing toward its cost.  Recent figures put the price of a fixed roof near $200 million.

Two hundred million dollars.  Nearly the entire cost of the University of Minnesota's new football stadium.

If you're eager to know what kind of winter events a "people's stadium" could expect to host, a quick glance at the Metrodome's schedule will give you an idea.  You'll find "Rollerdome" and jogging sprinkled with the occasional garden show, which could have been housed just as easily at the Convention Center only a few blocks away.

The prospective for newer stadiums is similarly unimpressive.  Lucas Oil Stadium's schedule is a hodgepodge of flower shows, high school proms and funeral directors' conventions.

Where are the winter concerts?  Nowhere.  The vast majority of modern concert tours prefer venues in the range of 20,000 seats.  The rare act that can sell out a 70,000-seat arena will invariably tour the upper Midwest during the summer months in order to hit the region's sweetest plum, Chicago, and its open-air venues.

There are only a handful of events afforded by a closed stadium which actually bring outside dollars into the economy.  Most significantly, Super Bowls and Final Fours.  When the effects of these events are examined by independent economists, the conclusion is always the same: the financial impact of "mega events" is grossly exaggerated.

Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross, questioned the responsibility of Miami's recent proposal to add a roof to Sun Life Stadium in hopes of attracting more Super Bowls.  "The Super Bowl is worth $30 million to $90 million," he said.  “You could host a Super Bowl every year for the next 20 and be lucky to recoup your costs.”

Houston hosted Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 at their brand new, retractable roof stadium.  Event boosters promised "economic impact" exceeding $330 million.  However, when all was said and done, Houston's controller counted a total net profit of $913,397.

Even if we give the NFL the benefit of the doubt and assume that their impact numbers account for leakage and expenditures, it must still be remembered that "economic impact" or "sales impact" has about as much significance as a truckload of money driving across the state without stopping.  It's the tax impact generated by those sales that balances the community's expenditure.  If we assume a $400 million (inflated) economic impact and an average tax rate of 10 percent, the take would only be $40 million.  One-fifth of a roof's cost.  That's before subtracting expenses.

The supposed economic impact of a Final Four is far less than that of a Super Bowl.  Event boosters tend to assume an average impact of about $30 million.  While the real number is likely even less, the modesty of the Final Four's marketeers is refreshing compared to the Super Bowl's hyperbolists.  Using that $30 million figure and assuming the same 10 percent tax on sales, we get a take of $3 million.

The Twin Cities, for all they offer, are not a desirable February vacation destination.  It would be unreasonable to assume that a new stadium would host more than one (promised) Super Bowl in its lifetime.  A facility might also expect to host a pair of Final Fours over the next 30 years, just as the Metrodome did.  The combined overall tax impact on the state and local coffers, even using inflated numbers, might be something like $50 million.  The real figure might be as low as $3 million.

Remember, a roof costs about $200 million.  How many garden shows and Monster Jams would a facility need to host in order to make up the remaining $150-197 million to break even?

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission (MSFC), in their Feb. 2, 2009, presentation to Minnesota House Local Government Division, indicated that the total tax revenue generated by the Metrodome in its near 30 years had totaled $245.6 million.  Of that total, the largest portion, $126.2 million, was generated directly by the Minnesota Vikings.  The remaining $119.4 million includes all tax revenues generated by hosting the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Gophers football (presumably the second and third-most productive tenants).  The tax revenue generated by rare concerts, one Super Bowl and two Final Fours were ultimately little more than a drop in the bucket.

It would be senseless to tack a $200 million "roof over nothing" onto an already overpriced stadium project.  The events a lid could attract would never come close to covering its cost.  Besides, as any purist can attest, the football experience would be marred by the addition of a roof, and teams playing under roofs are generally less competitive down the stretch.

Now, consider that upkeep on open-air stadiums is substantially less expensive than on roofed facilities.

Consider also that the Vikings are likely to demand modernization of their facility in another 20 to 30 years, and while roofless stadiums can be expanded and renovated, roofed stadiums generally need to be replaced completely.

If the politicos want a roofed stadium for the kind of (non) events the Metrodome typically hosts, they should be reminded that the Metrodome is still standing, is still suitable for anything but NFL football and is about to have its roof replaced by its insurers.  If they suggest that the Metrodome's non-Viking events aren't significant enough to support the building's upkeep, they must also not be significant enough to justify a $200 million roof on a new stadium.

Let's use that Arden Hills site.  Let's build an inexpensive (relatively) open-air stadium with modern amenities and classic styling—like the Twins and Gophers have.  Let's think about the events that can be hosted by an outdoor facility, like summer concerts, NHL Winter Classics and Big Ten Championships.  Let's find creative uses for the stadium, like Foxborough's open-air Gillette Stadium, which is in use 360 days of the year.

Let's do it right this time.  Let's get the real Vikings back.

Let it snow.