May 25, 2005
New Jersey real estate magnate Zygmunt Wilf will be the next owner of the Minnesota Vikings. NFL owners voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the transfer of ownership from Red McCombs to Wilf and his group of investors. The group will buy the team for $600 million.
Washington D.C. — The approval of the sale comes three months after Red McCombs signed a purchase agreement with Reggie Fowler.
At the time, both Fowler and McCombs predicted that the NFL owners would find the deal financially sound and grant their blessings. However, Fowler apparently couldn't come up with enough cash for the deal. Zygi Wilf could.
After signing the papers, Wilf reiterated his promise to keep the Vikings in Minnesota.
"To me, this is not a matter of economics. This is a matter of passion. I've always been a strong NFC fan," said Wilf, a lifelong supporter of the New York Giants. "We will be in the Minneapolis area forever. Look, I'm not changing that at all. We will do our best to make sure that we get the best venue and right location."
Wilf, 55, is the son of Holocaust survivors whose family business, Garden Commercial Properties, is among the largest owners of shopping centers in North America. It owns nearly 21 million square feet of retail space throughout the U.S.
"He's smart. He works hard and he has good partners in many instances," says Alan Hammer, a New Jersey-based lawyer who has represented people who have bought property from or sold property to Wilf's firm.
Hammer says he's known Wilf for many years. He says Wilf keeps a low profile, but is a prominent member of the state's real estate community. When asked what he thinks Vikings fans should know about Wilf, Hammer is succinct.
"I think he'll probably make a fine owner of the football team," says Hammer.
Wilf is buying a team that recently traded away arguably the best wide receiver in the game, Randy Moss, and lost one its star running backs for the entire season in Onterrio Smith, after he violated the league's drug policy. But Wilf's biggest challenge, by far, will be to secure funding for a new stadium.
Wilf told reporters in Washington D.C. that he would prefer an open-air stadium rather than a domed stadium.
"I'm a strong believer in an open venue. From the standpoint of the franchise, I think that it is a good advantage to have some of the other teams come up to our nice, warm Minnesota winters," he said facetiously, "so they can enjoy playing football up where it hurts -- a la Green Bay."
"When you pay the amount he paid ... for the team, a new stadium is absolutely essential if you can make it work economically," says Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart.
Erhart is a proponent of a $1.6 billion, 740-acre development in Blaine that would include a Vikings stadium.
The county wants taxpayers to help fund the project. That will require the permission of state lawmakers and it's not likely that the Legislature will address the proposal in this year's special session.
Erhart has had several meetings with Wilf, and intends to meet with him in a few days when Wilf comes to Blaine to talk with area landowners. Erhart says the state and county should play a role in retaining the team.
"He has said that he's going to keep the team here and have a presence here in Minnesota, and I believe him. I'm sure he's sincere in that," says Erhart. "We in Anoka County have looked at the financial picture of pro sports -- particularly football -- and done a great deal of study on it. And it is not feasible to think we are going to have a Vikings football team here if we don't build a new stadium."
New stadium or not, the Vikings lease in the Metrodome doesn't expire until 2011. So Vikings fans will likely have at least several more years to get used to the new owner. Vikings fan Tom Clifford didn't have an immediate reaction to the changeover.
"I haven't done any research on this Zygmunt Wolf - Wilf? How do you say his name?" says Clifford.
Clifford says the owner of the team doesn't matter as much to fans as do the players on the field. And he says he likes how the team is looking so far. Clifford says the Vikings are on the right track by acquiring several top defensive players in the off season.
Clifford is also the manager of a downtown Minneapolis sports bar, and he says everyone there is anxious to see how the team does this year.
"I've worked here for 10 years ... and when the Vikings are doing well, we do well. So we're looking forward to a big year from them," says Clifford.
Wilf said he will eventually establish a residence in Minnesota, but he does not plan to move there permanently. He said he was still "trying to catch up to speed" on the Vikings operations and was vague when asked whether he would be a high-profile or hands-on owner.
"I don't know about high-profile, but I hope to be an effective leader," he said.
Wilf will officially take ownership of the team in June.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)