SBJ/May 29 - June 4, 2006/This Weeks News

With ballpark OK’d, Twins see promising numbers

After more than a decade operating on the fringes of Major League Baseball’s economy, the Minnesota Twins are thrilled at the prospect of becoming simply average.

A new stadium will position the Twins
for higher payrolls and naming-rights revenue.
The Twins, in the early morning hours of May 21, ended more than 10 years of political frustration by gaining Minnesota Legislature approval for a $522 million, open-air ballpark, most of which will be paid for by a Hennepin County sales tax increase.

The 42,000-seat ballpark, set to open in 2010 in downtown Minneapolis, will provide at least $40 million in new local revenue per year, club officials said, and will position the franchise to fund payrolls in the middle of baseball’s pack.

The Twins began this season with a $63 million payroll, ranking them No. 19 among the 30 MLB clubs. A lack of enhanced revenue streams at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome pushed the Twins to the edge of extinction in late 2001 and created monetary struggles every year since then.

“Our goal has been to be able to afford a payroll that meets the league average and sustain that,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter. “We were at that level in 1991, when we won the World Series, and we can now do that again.”

With the NFL Vikings controlling Metrodome luxury seating, the Twins will be relative newcomers to the category in the new ballpark. Plans call for 60 luxury suites and 4,000 club seats in the facility. The Metrodome, which opened in 1982, has no club seats, and the Twins cannot sell any annual leases to the 100 suites there.

The Twins also will be able to sell the naming rights to the new facility and could garner $4 million to $5 million a year from that. Aiding the naming effort is the state Legislature tabling a similar stadium funding effort from the Vikings until next year.

“A lot of these elements are still being determined, but we now have the opportunity to put together a real long-range plan,” St. Peter said. “We really haven’t been able to do that in the Metrodome. And there’s no question getting out in front of the Vikings will help with the naming rights.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was expected to sign the bill before last Friday’s Twins game. While the Legislature tabled the Vikings’ stadium proposal, it did approve a plan for a $248 million on-campus stadium for the University of Minnesota football team, which now shares the Metrodome with the Twins and Vikings.

In recent months, Twins executives have said the increased spending on players will not commence until the ballpark opens, which angered impatient fans. Now, St. Peter is only saying “no decisions have been made.”

Much of the long political battle over a Twins venue stemmed from billionaire team owner Carl Pohlad simply extending a request for public funding in a state where residents overwhelmingly oppose the concept. Victory ultimately was gained due to several factors: a $130 million contribution to the effort from the Twins, the limiting of the sales tax increase to Hennepin County instead of the entire Twin Cities area or state, a growing threat of the team leaving town, and ballpark supporters simply outlasting their fatigued opponents in energy and lobbying for the cause.

“This situation was so disappointing for so long, but it’s given all of us a real lesson in patience,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who in 2002 called the first of the Twins’ three-straight division titles an “aberration.” “It’s just a great story. You can’t ever give up, and we now have a franchise we don’t have to worry about anymore.”

Ground will not be broken on the new Twins home until next spring. Up first are an environmental study of the venue site and the selection of architects and contractors. The club would like to model the ballpark in part after the Minnesota Wild’s much-heralded Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

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