ST. PAUL (AP) — 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The Wilfs have been pushing for a new stadium to replace the drab and outdated Metrodome ever since they arrived seven years ago.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.
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.