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Minnesota's pro sports teams optimistic about future
The Vikings are in training camp, the Twins are in a pennant race, and the Wild and Timberwolves are bullish on their upcoming seasons. But in a languid economy, some business people have wondered if the Twin Cities can financially support all four of its major pro sports teams. The Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce put that issue before a panel of top executives from each of those teams Wednesday. The chamber heard a group that sounded optimistic about the chances of each team meeting its needs in Minnesota.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In the past year, baseball's Twins and hockey's Wild have each been the darlings of Minnesota sports fans, with overachieving teams that came within shouting distance of playing for a championship. Football's Vikings say their rebuilding project is on track, as they take a three game winning streak into the new season. And basketball's Timberwolves have retooled their roster by surrounding Kevin Garnett with half a dozen high priced veterans.

But while there's lots to feel good about, each team also has a storm cloud on its horizon. For the Twins and Vikings it's actually the puffy, white Teflon cloud that covers their home stadium, the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome. Twins President Dave St. Peter says the team will draw two million fans to the Dome this year and is looking forward to the launch of its own cable television sports network in the fall. But St. Peter told the business luncheon the Twins' long-term viability depends on finding a new ballpark.

"Make no mistake, we are in significant financial difficulty with the payroll where it's at within our current facility. And only thanks to the commitment of our ownership are able to continue to do that," St. Peter said. St. Peter says the Twins can't generate the kind of money playing in Dome that other teams make in their newer ballparks. The Executive Vice-President of the Vikings, Mike Kelly, painted a similar picture.

"Because of revenue sharing in the National Football League, what is left to the teams for operating their own business is the revenue that you get only out of your building. So, it's very important for us and the long-term health of our organization to find a way to solve that problem," Kelly said.

After the Timberwolves made their eighth straight first-round exit from the National Basketball Association playoffs last spring, team owner Glen Taylor went on a spending spree -- loading up on veteran players who hope to help Kevin Garnett lead the team to a breakthrough season. Wolves' President Rob Moor says it's a long-term investment because in the short term there's no way the team will break even.

"I like to look at it as we're a non-profit company right now. What our goal is is we're building as much excitement around the team right now as we can with the goal that we can make a profit and actualize it in the future --- that we're going to create a team that as we can adjust the payroll in the next couple years, that's when we'll get the payback on the investment we're making right now," Moor said.

Moor says the Timberwolves would like to see improvements at their city-owned arena, Target Center. He says the team might invest its own money in those changes, since Minneapolis' financial situation does not allow for it.

The newest member of Minnesota's pro sports fraternity, the Wild, has led a charmed life through its first three seasons. They've sold every ticket to every game in their new Saint Paul arena, the Xcel Energy Center. And in their first trip to the post-season last spring they zoomed straight to the Conference Finals. With his team on solid financial ground, Wild CEO Jac Sperling hopes the Twin Cities' other pro teams can stabilize their ledgers. Sperling told the Chamber of Commerce the whole region would benefit if cities within the metro area competed less with one another.

"Sports facilities to me are a regional issue. It's a regional asset. When people decide whether to move their business here or stay here, they're viewing us as a community -- as the Twin Cities. And where the facility is located, whether it be in St. Paul or Minneapolis, business people are not all that concerned," Sperling said.

Even for the Wild, financial uncertainty looms.

The collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and its players union expires after the upcoming season and a lengthy strike or lock out is widely expected. Sperling could not comment on that issue because the NHL commissioner has forbidden team executives from talking about the labor negotiations.

Stadium debates have been ongoing in Minnesota for nearly a decade and that will not change soon. But for the moment, at least, team executives are taking an upbeat approach.

St. Peter says the Twins have learned some political lessons from their unsuccessful attempts to gain stadium funding. He and the Vikings' Kelly say the arrival of the Wild has also changed the stadium discussion, as business and political leaders have noticed the role of the new arena in rejuvenating St. Paul.

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