MINNEAPOLIS – The early fall Minneapolis chill in the air in did little to put the freeze on the irony of the Rams visit to play the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday.
In the game within the game that is the National Football League’s quest to get back to Los Angeles, the Vikings and Rams have a lot more in common than just a rich rivalry history dating back to the Purple People Eaters and Fearsome Foursome.
The Rams have assumed the the most recent position on the L.A. merry-go-round, joining the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders in a three-team, two-stadium push to Tinseltown that is equal parts bold ambition, desperation and high-stakes poker.
In other words, somewhat familiar ground to where the Vikings stood three years ago.
Back in 2012 it was the Vikings using Los Angeles as leverage – if not refuge – in a maddeningly frustrating fight to get a new stadium deal in Minneapolis.
Now that their long-range future in Minnesota is as certain as January snow in the Twin Cities, it’s easy to forget just how dire things were and how close the Vikings came to needing a new home.
Most likely Los Angeles, which was pushing through Tim Leiweke and AEG’s grand Farmers Field vision in hopes of luring the NFL back to downtown L.A.
It’s easy now to just dismiss it all as a perfectly orchestrated leverage play.
After all, next year the Vikings will move into their brand new downtown stadium three miles from their temporary home on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and all that talk of moving to Los Angeles has floated away like a barge down the nearby Mississippi River.
That doesn’t mean Los Angeles wasn’t emerging as a very real possibility for the Purple People Eaters.
In fact, had it not been for an 11th hour visit to Minnesota by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney III, the chairman of the NFL’s Stadium Committee, to convince state leaders to revive a dead-in-the-water stadium bill, Sunday’s Rams-Vikings game might actually have been played at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum rather than TFC Bank Stadium.
“I think (Vikings owner) Zygi (Wilf) would not have moved (them),” said an NFL executive involved in the negotiations. “But (he) might have sold it to people who would have tried to move them.”
Actually, that is exactly what might have happened according to Vikings vice president Lester Bagley, the point man in the team’s nearly 15-year battle to replace the old Metrodome.
“I don’t know that our owners had the stomach to move the team, but I do think there was some question about the state of Minnesota and if we couldn’t resolve this issue the team would have gone up for sale,” Bagley said. “That’s seemed to be the path we were on.”
Bagley confirmed there were multiple buyers interested in acquiring the Vikings if things didn’t work out in Minnesota, including some in Los Angeles.
“There was interest, no doubt about it,” Bagley said.
And wouldn’t that have altered the history of the NFL and Los Angeles forever?
The Rams might actually be taking seriously St. Louis efforts to help build them a new stadium – if not looking at Toronto or London to fulfill owner Stan Kroenke’s big-market aspirations – and the Chargers or Raiders might already be stadium mates with the Vikings at Farmers Field.
Instead, the commissioners visit to Minnesota convinced state leaders that L.A. was a very real possibility and if they didn’t act quickly they might just lose their beloved Vikings.
A few days later a dead stadium bill miraculously sprang back to life, and soon the Vikings and their passionate fan base were renewing their vows with a brand new stadium.
“Ultimately the bill passed after 12 years trying to get something done,” Bagley said. “And by the time it opens next season, it will have been a 16-year endeavor that a lot of people poured their hearts and souls into.”
With a big assist from Los Angeles.
By simply sitting vacant, the second-biggest market in the country helped push Minnesota business and political leaders into action.
“It was the dynamic of L.A. not having a team, our national and our very public story of no lease and a long-time effort to try to get this thing over the top,” Bagley said.
Which brings us back to whole irony thing.
By locking down their future in Minnesota, the Vikings kept open Los Angeles to others. And the longer L.A. remained vacant, the more Kroenke’s wheels turned.
A year later he bought 60 acres in Inglewood on the site of the old Hollywood Park Race Track. A year after that he gained control of the remaining 238 acres and announced plans for a privately funded $1.7 billion stadium as part of a mega entertainment, retail and residential development.
The Chargers and Raiders, both embroiled in long fights to secure new stadiums in San Diego and Oakland and desperate to create spots in Los Angeles in case local plans didn’t materialize, soon teamed up on a joint stadium project in Carson.
In the ensuing 10 months, the three teams, two stadium proposals and three home markets have have navigated there ways to a virtual stalemate.
The Chargers are not on board or confident with the Mission Valley stadium plan in San Diego, and fear aligning themselves with it will result in no stadium in San Diego and no spot in Los Angeles.
In Oakland, there is no plan on the table for the Raiders.
And the Rams desire to return to Los Angeles, coupled with their free agent status based on a breech of the original lease agreement upon moving to St. Louis 20 years ago, has left them uninterested in St. Louis efforts to help finance a new stadium.
All three teams are full steam ahead to Los Angeles.
Figuring out who relocates to L.A. and what stadium plan wins out is the task facing the NFL over the next six weeks.
A vote is expected by January.
“There don’t seem to be any easy answers,” said Bagley, who concedes the time seems ripe for one or two teams to make the move to L.A.
Thankfully for the Vikings, they are out of that game.
“In the end, in that last legislative session, a lot of things happened to coalesce everything,” Bagley said. “It was go time in our market. The business leadership, the political leadership, the labor leadership and our fans and the commissioner and Mr. Rooney, who came out to meet our legislative leaders and Governor to say we have to solve this problem. And we did.”
With a significant assist from Los Angeles.