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All Options on Table for the Wilfs?

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October 28, 2020

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NFL insiders might be speculating on whether the Minnesota Vikings ownership group is interested in selling the franchise.  Zygi Wilf led a group that purchased the club in 2005 for a reported $600 million and earlier this year Forbes valued the franchise at $2.7 billion.

Even adjusted for inflation, the difference in those two figures represents a nifty gain. Other numbers the Wilf family and their partners are looking at today aren’t so rosy.  With COVID-19 blocking ticket sales and other in-stadium revenues, this is a fiscal year unlike any other for NFL owners.  Just lost ticket revenue at US Bank Stadium is likely north of $750 million for the Vikings this season, and there is no guarantee fans will be admitted for home games in 2021.

There is also disgruntlement from season ticket and single game purchasers. A 1-5 start to the season is a shock for a fan base more accustomed to double digit wins each year. Those fans have quickly found perceived villains in both the front office and on the field (players and coaches).

Ticket buyers may also be struggling with their own financial challenges, leaving them with less discretionary income for now and the foreseeable future. There are customers, too, that dislike the prominence of social justice and politics by NFL ownership, management and players.  Regardless of who is right or wrong, the perspective of critics is that they want to watch football without other commentary.

NFL TV viewership is down this fall, consistent with a decline of other televised sports—led by surprising and disappointing numbers from NBA games and historically low World Series ratings.  Going forward, if NFL TV viewership doesn’t improve, that will hamper financial negotiations by the league with the networks as both sides contemplate new contracts.

The Wilfs are diversified in their financial holdings but much of their wealth has been made in real estate, including New York and New Jersey.  Commercial real estate has its issues with movie theatres and shopping malls closing and more companies allowing employees to work at home rather than occupying office buildings.  Residents are moving out of New York City and other locales they consider undesirable. How the Wilfs are impacted is unknown but it’s fair to speculate they are crunching numbers to keep up with developments and anticipate the future.

There is a cost savings direction for their football team with the unloading of pricey stars Stefon Diggs and Yannick Ngakoue.  Rumors this week, if true, indicate a possible “fire sale,” with team leaders and impact players Harrison Smith, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen possibly being shopped in advance of the league trade deadline November 3.

The Wilfs love football and have been committed in spending money on salaries, facilities and philanthropy in Minnesota.  Their long stated goal is to produce a Super Bowl team for the city and state.  But the team’s 1-5 record this fall, and priority in collecting draft choices with the Diggs and Ngakoue trades, more than hints this team is rebuilding and further from a Super Bowl now than in several years.

Mike Zimmer

In these times of health, economic and political challenges for the country, do the Wilfs want to go through an on-the-field rebuild?  If they do, will ownership continue to be satisfied with longtime GM Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, the head coach since 2014?  The Wilfs are known for their loyalty to employees and they don’t make knee-jerk moves, but they are also successful business operators.

They know this is a turbulent period both literally and figuratively, including because the club’s passionate fan base is dissatisfied.  But it’s also true NFL franchises can turn around pretty quick (see the Tampa Bay Bucs)—with on-field performances able to flip within a couple of seasons.  And until 2020, no major American sport has been so consistently profitable for owners as the NFL.

What are the Wilfs thinking?  In their view, is the Gjallarhorn half full, or half empty?

Worth Noting

It will be interesting to see what kind of money MLB free agents can negotiate during this offseason.  Sportico interviewed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred who said in a story Monday his 30 teams amassed $8.3 billion in debt from financial lenders and lost $2.8 to $3 billion in operational expenses this year.  Manfred is cautious about what baseball will look like in 2021.

The COVID-impacted and shortened 2020 season dictated no fans in attendance at stadiums.  Franchises like the Twins lost hundreds of millions in missing ticket and other ballpark revenues.

With Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan out long term with an injury, and backups Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf rumored to be sidelined with COVID for three weeks, the Gophers, despite their opening loss to Michigan, could soon be labeled as favorites to win the Big Ten’s West Division.  Sleeper pick (favored here) is Nebraska.

Ticket King owner Mike Nowakowski told Sports Headliners yesterday his company has sold a couple dozen tickets for the September 4, 2021 Gopher football opener against Ohio State in Minneapolis.  “We’re seeing some action on the game already,” he said.

Ticket King prices range from $125 to $300 for the game that will be Ohio State’s first appearance in Minneapolis since 2014.  The Buckeyes could be defending NCAA champions when they come to town.

Nowakowski has sold about three dozen tickets for the April 8 Twins opener at Target Field against the Seattle Mariners.  Ticket King pricing ranges from $70 to $800 (Champions Club).

Big Ten men’s hockey teams will each play four nonconference games against Arizona State.  The Sun Devils AD is Ray Anderson, former agent to Vikings coach Denny Green and a friend of new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren who was Chief Operating Officer of the Vikings.

Arizona State is ranked No. 15 in the USCHO.com national preseason poll, with Minnesota No. 14. Top ranked Big Ten schools are No. 9 Penn State and No. 10 Ohio State.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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