Minn. Financial Titans Clash over New Professional Soccer Franchise

Updated: 06/11/2014 7:34 AM KSTP.com By: Jay Kolls

Two big names in the business world have clashed over bringing a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise to Minneapolis. 

Vikings Owner Zygi Wilf and former UnitedHealth CEO Dr. Bill McGuire are now competing to bring an MLS franchise here, after what sources tell us was a less-than-amicable breakdown in negotiations between the two men.

McGuire owns the North American Soccer League Minnesota United FC, which plays at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Wilf owns the Vikings and has exclusive rights to bring an MLS franchise into the new Vikings stadium for five years. Sources say he and McGuire could not agree on revenue sharing and that talks broke off.

Sources say McGuire then teamed up with the Pohlad family, which owns the Minnesota Twins, to put together a bid for an MLS franchise against Wilf's proposal. 

According to sources, McGuire's group would like to build an outdoor soccer stadium right next to Target Field at a location known as the Farmers Market site. There is no price tag on the cost of the stadium yet, but sources say it might be designed similar to the MLS stadium in Kansas City and seat between 15,000 and 20,000 people.

Wilf's exclusive rights to the MLS franchise exist only for the new Vikings stadium location. If McGuire builds an outdoor stadium, Wilf would not be able to stop an MLS franchise from moving into the new stadium.

Minnesota soccer fans actually formed a group a few years ago called MLS4MN, which has been pushing for the MLS to put a franchise in their state. But most of those fans don't want that potential team playing in the new Vikings stadium.

"Football stadiums as hosts of MLS games tend to have problems, and there's also an aura of NFL owners having difficulty being successful in MLS. It's not insurmountable, but that's something that we'd be concerned about," MLS4MN member David Laidig said.

Most soccer fans are concerned the cavernous new stadium would leave more than 40,000 seats empty during MLS games -- not exactly the atmosphere they're looking for. They would strongly prefer a new, outdoor, soccer-specific stadium to provide the best fan experience.

There's also the issue of whether an MLS team could survive in Minnesota, regardless of where it played. Denver is the only smaller media market with teams in all five of the largest professional leagues -- and Denver doesn't have a collegiate athletic draw like the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers.

Laidig argues the U.S. soccer season only significantly overlaps with Major League Baseball's season.

But John Spry, a finance professor at the University of St. Thomas, said sports and entertainment dollars are already stretched thin in the Twin Cities. He also said the economic impact of an MLS team is likely much smaller than you might think.

"The economic magnitude of the revenue of a Major League Soccer team in your city is less than opening a new Target store," Spry said.

MLS teams only play 17 regular season home games each year, and average single-game attendance is about 18,500 fans. That means attendance for an MLS team's entire season is equivalent to about four-and-a-half NFL games.

For those wary of even preliminary talk of yet another taxpayer-financed stadium, there seems to be very little appetite among politicians for more public money going toward a new soccer stadium. Also, MLS stadiums cost a fraction of what NFL stadiums do. Soccer-specific stadiums have recently been built in the U.S. for less than $100 million.

The owners of the Vikings are holding a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, where they'll announce a partnership with a soccer marketing giant. That company will help them pursue their bid for the MLS, but there's no exact timeline on talks with the MLS moving forward at this time.