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Vikings fans may face seat licenses

Richard Meryhew, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

Faced with the need to make a nearly half-billion dollar contribution to build their new downtown football stadium, the Minnesota Vikings may tap their most loyal fans to help foot the bill.

Team officials recently e-mailed surveys to season-ticket holders to gauge their willingness to pay thousands of dollars more for a personal seat license or “stadium builders license” to secure the right to the best seats.

The fee, which would probably be a one-time payment, would be paid on top of the cost of a season ticket. Revenues generated by the licenses would go toward the Vikings’ share of the $975 million stadium construction cost.

Although the Vikings say no decision has been made, some fans are already upset.

“It’s disgusting,” said Stephanie Schleuder, who figures a fee could cost her as much as $20,000 to keep two 50-yard-line seats. “If they weren’t getting any public financing, if they were doing this on their own, they would have a right to do whatever they want. How dare they further gouge the average fan for additional money.”

The state and city of Minneapolis are contributing $498 million to stadium construction, with the Vikings picking up the remainder, to be financed through an NFL loan, stadium naming rights, other sponsorships and possibly, seat licensing fees.

Vikings vice president Lester Bagley said the team’s survey is part of a “broader market study” involving stadium amenities and products. He said it was sent to season-ticket holders, sponsors and fans who bought premium or club seats or suites in an attempt to evaluate the market.

He said the Vikings have made “no decision” on whether to sell licenses and have established no “price points” on license costs.

But, he added, with $477 million owed, the team is looking at “all avenues” for construction financing.

“We are evaluating the option and taking a hard look at it,” Bagley said. He declined to make the survey available, saying it was proprietary.

A money maker

Charging extra for premium seating is nothing new in the sports world — or the Twin Cities market.

Several NFL teams with new stadiums, including Dallas, San Francisco and both New York teams, have turned to seat licensing as a way to generate millions of dollars in new revenue.

Generally, money from those licenses, which typically sell for several thousand dollars on average, goes directly to stadium construction. How much is raised depends on how many seats are designated for licensing and how much ticket holders are charged. Those numbers and sums vary by team and market, but on average, several league sources have reported, NFL teams have raised $50 million or more in revenue.

The University of Minnesota established an “assured seating” plan for the Gopher basketball program in the 1990s, setting aside prime seats for those willing to donate $500 to $750 per seat above the actual ticket price. The school’s football program also established a preferred seating plan when TCF Bank Stadium opened several years ago.

When Target Field was built, the Twins sold premium seats in their second-deck Legends Club. For a one-time fee of up to $2,000 a seat, the seat holder “retained that seat,” said Kevin Smith, executive director of public affairs for the team. “That’s your property, you can do with those what you wish.”

Smith said the revenue generated was “plowed right back into amenities during and after construction” of the stadium.

At the time the Vikings stadium legislation was debated last winter and spring, team officials discussed seat licensing, but did not commit to it.

Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which is working with the Vikings to oversee the stadium development, said that according to the legislation that was approved, seat license revenue would be counted as part of the team’s contribution to construction costs.

“Clearly, there have been no decisions made,” Kelm-Helgen said. “But it’ll be interesting to see what comes back in the survey.”

‘Doesn’t seem right’

As of Friday, Bagley said the team’s ticket office had received little direct feedback from season-ticket holders.

But Schleuder, the longtime fan and former volleyball coach at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College, said she may give up the two seats her family has held since the team began play in 1961 rather than pay thousands of dollars in extra fees.

“How many average citizens who own season tickets can afford a fee like that?” she said. “What’s going to happen is, it’s going to be all these wealthy business people who snap those up and the average fan is out of luck. And that just doesn’t seem right o me.”

Schleuder said the survey made reference to seat licensing fees at other new NFL stadiums that ranged from $20,000 to $80,000. Nowhere in the Vikings survey did the team state a firm fee, she said, but “it’s obvious that they were trying to figure out how much people are willing to pay.” Her 50-yard-line seats, which she took over from her father when he could no longer attend the games, already cost $175 each per game.

Schleuder said she was so upset after responding to the survey that she wrote Gov. Mark Dayton, who championed the project he labeled “The People’s Stadium.” She also wrote to Ted Mondale, executive director of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, and Kelm-Helgen.

Bagley, meanwhile, stressed nothing has been decided.

He said the fees, if charged, would likely be substantially less than those set for some other NFL stadiums.

“You can’t look at Dallas and San Francisco and think this market generates anything near that,” he said. “This is a small, Midwestern market.

“Again,” he said, “we’re not announcing a program, we’re doing a survey. We do surveys all the time.”

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