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The app that we use to record the podcast cut out during the recording, twice. We therefore missed out on a half hour of this week’s episode. It was good, too. Sigh.

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It’s rare that we have actual information on the podcast, but our good friend Josh Fiedler came armed with three pages of notes about the 2014 Vikings, their draft and free agent needs, and what to look out for this offseason. Plus, he told one of the best stories we’ve ever heard about slow-pitch softball. Check this one out.

Minnesota sports are still depressing, but at least there’s Mo Williams. Our good friend Michael Rand joined us to talk about what’s new this week.

In the hopes of getting off the mark in 2015, here’s a link to our last podcast, which was posted ten days ago.

We’re recording Episode 88 tonight. I’m sure it’ll be much less positive.

In contrast to the Minnesota Vikings’ very public push for a Major League Soccer franchise, the group being led by Minnesota United FC owner Bill McGuire has conducted its bid for a franchise almost entirely out of the public view. Where United has tread softly, the Vikings have paraded; while McGuire and United team president Nick Rogers have offered little comment, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley and other Vikings officials have been frank.

While the Vikings unveiled renderings of a system to curtain off the new Downtown East stadium for soccer, even the merest suggestion of a stadium for the United bid met with uproar, at least in the Star Tribune comments section. Bagley, and the rest of the Vikings publicity team, aren’t shy about stating their team’s desire for MLS; meanwhile, Rogers was quoted in the City Pages suggesting that his team “wasn’t itching” to get a deal done.

We’ve seen pictures. We’ve heard stories. Because of this, it’s natural to feel that we know a lot more about the Vikings bid, led by team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, than we do about McGuire’s. But it’s worth remembering that there is more to a successful first-division soccer franchise than just a stadium. It’s also worth remembering that Major League Soccer is the only group that has a vote in this process, and that the league will consider much more than just stadiums in the process. And so, in some ways, it’s United’s bid we know the most about.

For one thing, we know a lot better how a United-led franchise would manage a soccer team. It’s one of the biggest open questions about the Vikings’ bid – would they do well as an MLS owner? It’s been a problem for a number of MLS teams recently, from the “worst owners in the league” in New England, to Seattle, where the Sounders ended their association with the Seahawks ten years earlier than scheduled. Last week, an article by Mike Kaszuba in the Star Tribune confirmed that the Wilfs passed on a chance to buy United, before McGuire purchased the team. While the Vikings’ decision may have been understandable – as Bagley has stated, the team was engaged fully in stadium design at the time – it also would have been a chance to learn the soccer business on the ground, managing the day-to-day operations of a team.

At the time, late in 2012, the three most recent MLS expansion franchises – Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal – were teams that had made the jump from the second division to the first. Stadium project or no, it’s impossible to believe that the Vikings didn’t at least consider that the best way to prove themselves to MLS was to own a second-division team. Even ignoring the NASL route, Atlanta – which will join MLS in 2017 under the aegis of the NFL Falcons – managed to both design a stadium and discuss soccer at the same time, which is why Falcons owner Arthur Blank already has an expansion franchise, with tens of thousands of season ticket deposits placed.

As I’ve said before, the Vikings deserve credit for their efforts to turn around public perceptions, and they’re making a strong push to convince both the league, and local soccer fans, that they’d do well owning a soccer team. But their past doesn’t speak well for them. And United doesn’t need a public-relations push to convince us of their credentials, given that they’ve now been proving things on the field and in the front office for two years.

While the Vikings have held press conferences and unveiled renderings, United has sold tickets, built relationships, and won soccer games. They were the NASL’s best team in 2014, finishing with a first-half title and the league’s best record overall. They regularly drew more than 5,000 fans all the way to Blaine for home games, far and away the best regular attendance for pro soccer in Minnesota since the days of the Minnesota Kicks at Met Stadium. Though some might have a perception they haven’t reached out to the local community, they have a partnership with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, one that’s close enough for Rogers to have been the keynote speaker at the group’s fall Recognition Banquet. They’ve developed international relationships, as well, one that led the team to do their preseason training in England, and later bring Swansea City of the English Premier League to town for a friendly match that drew nearly 10,000 people.

We don’t need United to show off a PowerPoint presentation to know about that part of their bid.

As for stadiums, it’s worth mentioning that financing aside, two key considerations make the Downtown East stadium less attractive. For one, the Vikings’ comments indicate that they would be aiming a field that’s the MLS-minimum 70 yards wide. Most soccer fans like the field to be as wide as possible, which allows for a more free-flowing matchup – part of the reason that FIFA mandates a field that’s at least 75 yards wide.

Second, the field surface is a key consideration in a league whose 2014 MVP, Robbie Keane, was quoted as saying, ” If this league wants to progress, turf has to go. It’s very simple. Very, very simple. It’s not good enough. In this day and age, playing on turf, it’s not good enough.” While ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told us that certain turf fields in the league have gotten better, we also know that recently-retired superstar Thierry Henry simply refused to play on the artificial fields – a silent endorsement of grass.

While the new Downtown East stadium would be able to accommodate a 75-yard-wide field for a FIFA event, thanks to the movable north stands, the turf makes it unlikely we’d see a FIFA event or a national team match for the foreseeable future. Recent experiments to lay sod fields over artificial turf have been almost uniformly disastrous, including the event at TCF Bank Stadium last summer; it’s unlikely that either US Soccer or FIFA would want to take a chance with the new stadium, not when there are so many proven alternatives available around the country.

There are many discussions to be had about stadium financing, of course, and the battles will continue to rage here and elsewhere. Given that, it’s no wonder that United has been keeping their stadium plans quiet. As for the remainder of their bid, though, it’s not a secret by any means. It’s not hiding. It’s there for everyone – including Major League Soccer – to see.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

This week on the Sportive, Stu and Brandon and I talked about the Vikings (better than we thought, worse than average), the Twins (worse than I think, better if I realize this) and the Wild (worse than they should be, worse for our lives).

Now, that sounds like it would take about twenty minutes, but the podcast is over an hour long. So you figure out what to expect from that.

NOTE: This appeared at RandBall, too, of course.

It’s the eighth birthday of RandBall! EIGHT! I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but when Michael started writing this blog, he was just fourteen years old. He has aged in blog years, and now, at age 52, spends his days complaining about millennials, watching the Big Ten Network, and telling people off on Twitter.

Yes, Mr. Rand is truly on the way to becoming Sid, just like we’ve long predicted. He’s already started recording his interviews on an ancient tape deck; soon, he’ll give up on the blog, and assign his Twitter to some intern, and start breaking some REAL news on Page 2, the way that Joseph Pultizer intended.

With that in mind, we should probably enjoy RandBall while it’s still around. Here’s an increasingly-unlikely list of things we have to look forward to in 2015, the blog’s ninth – NINTH! – year:

  1. The comments get turned off, temporarily
  2. Stu starts writing the blog every day
  3. RandBall starts appearing in print advertisements holding a basketball, just like old times
  4. Rocket starts writing a new hockey-themed post, only to be banned by Star Tribune higher-ups due to some unfortunate and ill-timed comments about somebody’s mom
  5. Yet another argument about buffalo wings escalates into Aaron Gleeman smashing a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot sauce over Michael’s head
  6. The comments get turned off, forever
  7. After RandBall’s fourteenth consecutive day writing about the Wolves during a Wild winning streak, a caffeine-crazed Michael Russo cross-checks Rand into the wall during a newspaper happy hour
  8. Rand quits the paper to pursue his dream job: the 1am-5am weekend slot on The Current
  9. A physical altercation ensues over who is really responsible for the enduring delightfulness of Nuclear Wessel
  10. RandBall draws an ESPN-style three-week social-media suspension for calling Brian Stensaas a completely unprintable slur, relating to a 1985 UND-Wisconsin donnybrook at the Dane County Coliseum
  11. The RandCast makes its return to the airwaves
  12. The blog pauses for a brief but heartfelt celebration, following the Twitter identification of the 500th person who looks a lot like RandBall
  13. Jeff Brady calls back
  14. John Sharkman starts writing the blog every day
  15. Aaron Rodgers flips Stu’s hat off his head, a la Matt Kalil
  16. RandBall quits to, quote, “Spend more time with my four enduring loves: My wife, my daughter, my pug, and of course my nearly-worn-out cassette compilation of LFTR PLLR B-sides”
  17. Michael finally gets his own KFAN show, tentatively titled “The Brett Favre / Johnny Manziel Old-Timey Radio Hour”
  18. RandBall adopts Dana Wessel’s hairstyle
  19. Michael goes on sabbatical after being knifed by Manny Lagos in a Blaine back alley
  20. Ken Chia starts wearing a cardigan and writing a blog, leading to an unfortunate, “Single White Female”-style incident in which he unsuccessfully attempts to replace Michael’s Page 2 column and headshot with his own
  21. The Great Baseball Road Trip visits no baseball games, instead choosing to spend four days sitting in a parked car in front of Dale Murphy’s house
  22. There is another Redactular, anywhere in the Twin Cities
  23. Clarence Swamptown starts writing the blog every day

It should be a great year! Happy birthday, RandBall! Here’s to years more of tremendous entertainment!


Reminisce! RandBall’s 1st Birthday | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | 5th | 6th | 7th

Forbes.com reported today that Major League baseball league-wide revenues jumped from $8 billion in 2013 to $9 billion in 2014, mostly due to the league’s new national TV contracts and to revenue from MLB Advanced Media, the league’s online streaming arm.

A look back: In 2001, revenue was $3.6 billion; adjusted for inflation, $4.66 billion in today’s dollars, according to Forbes. That year, three MLB teams had payrolls over $100 million; the Yankees led the way with just over $112 million. 16 more had more than $50 million in payroll that season. Since then, revenue has doubled, more or less. The Dodgers had a $235 million payroll last year, and the Yankees nearly cleared the bar to $200 million as well. 14 other teams had payrolls of at least $100 million.

$200 million is the new $100 million, when it comes to payroll. $100 million is the new $50 million.

Since Target Field opened in 2010, the median MLB payroll has gone from $85 million to $107 million – right in line with revenue, which just like the median payroll, has jumped 25% in that five-year span. During that same period, the Twins’ payroll has declined, from $98 million to $85million. Don’t let the Twins fool you; they will try to tell you that they’re spending plenty of money. They aren’t.

Remember this the next time Terry Ryan or Dave St. Peter talks about being “fiscally responsible.” Remember this the next time your neighbor complains about Joe Mauer’s contract being the problem with the Twins. Remember that MLB’s revenue explosion, and the great gobs of taxpayer money that funded Target Field, mean that the Twins are making more money now than they ever have before – indeed more money than they could ever have dreamed of.

They’re just pocketing it, instead of spending it on improving the team.

The Minnesota Vikings have long been accused of not taking soccer seriously. Though the team had the foresight to insert some questionable Major League Soccer-specific language in stadium-related legislation, until earlier this year, the franchise was simply intent on planning the gleaming new building – first getting it passed at the Legislature, then getting it designed and kicking off construction. By that point, they’d managed to infuriate a large number of local soccer supporters, mostly for what appeared to be a resolute desire to ignore questions and pleas from the ever-burgeoning cadre of fans, many of who had concerns that the stadium wouldn’t be fit for soccer.

With planning now mostly complete, and the new park shooting out of the ground, the Vikings are finally circling back to their stated MLS desires. To that end, last Tuesday evening the team hosted an event to bring together soccer and community leaders, giving the assemblage a chance to see the team’s new soccer-focused stadium renderings, and listen to ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman.

It’s all part of the team’s latest press for MLS, focused on righting the past’s perceived wrongs. The Vikings have tapped local PR and marketing firm One Simple Plan to help lead the push and the firm has run a number of events to try to connect with the area’s soccer fans – especially those who regularly gather to watch Premier League matches.

While Vikings VP of Public Affairs Lester Bagley is aware of the criticisms of the team, he asks for understanding, given the demands of the ever-rising stadium at the east end of downtown. Said Bagley, “I think some of the frustration came after the legislation passed, and we had to design and build a billion-dollar stadium, and we were spread thin and we did not have the bandwidth to put an organized effort together. Me personally, I thought after 12 years at the Capitol, that we were going to put it on cruise control and that we were going to build a great stadium and that the hard part was done. But [we found] out that it’s a major undertaking, it’s the biggest construction project in the history of Minnesota, and it’s complicated and our team is full-time on it. So that’s part of it too. I think some of the frustration we’ve heard in the community is, where were you [on soccer] when you passed the legislation?”

To that end, the team released renderings, showing a soccer-themed curtaining system that would drop vertical curtains to block off the stadium’s upper deck.  Vikings CFO Steve Poppen noted that this system will cost between 3 and 5 million dollars, much of that to add reinforcement to the roof to hold the curtain; obviously, the team would like an MLS decision to be made as soon as possible, so that they know if they can delete this feature from the stadium design if a team is awarded elsewhere.

For Poppen, the curtain is more proof that MLS has always been in the team’s plans. “We’ve been working hard from day one to design this for MLS,” he said. “The MLS has been part of our process from day one. I personally don’t believe that we’re late to the game on this. We’re trying to attract an expansion franchise to Minnesota, and we’ve been having discussions with MLS about it for years now.”

I had a chance to ask about field width, another concern that’s been on the minds of soccer lovers. FIFA’s recommendations state, “It is strongly recommended that new stadiums have a 105m x 68m playing field” – that’s about 115 yards by 74 yards. Most Major League Soccer fields are 74 or 75 yards wide, though both Houston’s field and the pitch that’s being shoehorned into Yankee Stadium for NYC FC next year are just 70 yards wide – the league’s minimum width.

Said Poppen, “The minimum for MLS is 70 [yards] wide. FIFA plays at 75. We have the ability to go out there. If you remember, the north side of the stadium retracts. As part of that development, we were able to design in that ability to expand the facility as well.”

This does, however, bring up the question: if the stadium was truly “soccer-specific,” a term the Vikings repeatedly used throughout the night, why is moving the stands to get to 75 yards wide even necessary? Why wouldn’t the field have been wide enough already? It’s a question that simply adds more fuel to the arguments that the Vikings do not understand soccer – a charge that’s been leveled at virtually every NFL owner that has dipped a toe into the MLS waters. Earlier this year, Boston Magazine famously accused New England Revolution and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft of being the worst owner in the league. While the Revolution reached this year’s MLS Cup Final, other NFL-affiliated teams, like Colorado and Dallas, have been mostly uninspiring through the years.

Tellingly, earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders – long twinned with the Seattle Seahawks, and fellow tenants of CenturyLink Field – ended their working relationship with the NFL team, ten years earlier than scheduled. While the team spun this as a move to refocus their organization on soccer, rumors were rampant that it was a move made to get away from an NFL team that did not care about the Sounders or the sport of soccer.

The Vikings, though, are still trying to win over soccer die-hards. They’ve promised plenty to fans in the new stadium – including offering to subsidize tailgating costs and bar tabs for supporters’ groups. They’re also promising to give fans input on the team’s name and badge design, something that other clubs in MLS have done as well. (“Vikings FC” is probably unlikely, I would think.)

Some fans have the perception that the Vikings don’t care about soccer, but they deserve credit – they may not have been experts in the sport, or in MLS, all along, but they are trying. They’re meeting with other MLS franchises. They’re bringing Twellman to town, to learn from him. They’re in contact with fans, they’re in contact with local soccer folks; at the moment, they’re certainly not ignoring the sport. They deserve a fair hearing – if for no other reason than they’re actually talking to people. Said former Kicks star Alan Merrick, who introduced Twellman at the event, of the competing bid from Minnesota United: “They haven’t reached out, as far as I can see, to anybody in the soccer world.” While United’s work is behind the scenes, the Vikings have been very public – in part, to try to right the perception from the past.

A number of local soccer stakeholders, from Minnesota Youth Soccer Association representatives to fans to those involved with local clubs, were in attendance on Monday. While the Vikings’ presentation can only have gone to convince people that there’s a chance that the Vikings could be successful where previous NFL / MLS partnerships have failed, most in attendance expressed a desire simply to see the area get Major League Soccer – regardless of the whether the team is owned by the Vikings or by Minnesota United FC. Apart from some very fervent fans of the Loons, “I just want an MLS team” seems to be the opinion of most local soccer fans.

And so: MLS has announced that an expansion decision is likely in the first half of 2015. All signs point to Minneapolis being a front-runner for a team in MLS. The Vikings may have been late in making their push for that franchise, but are coming on strong now. They would have to fight an uphill battle to make soccer workable in a stadium designed for an NFL team, and if they can make joint NFL/MLS ownership viable, they would be the first to do so. But ruling out the Vikings as potential owners, based solely on past perception, is foolish.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.

ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman doesn’t remember the days of the Minnesota Kicks, or being born in Minnesota in 1980 – but, after talking to his dad Tim’s teammates with the Kicks, he’s ready to count himself as a native. “Now that I’m in the world of soccer, I hear all of these ex-Kicks stories,” he said. “I feel like I lived here for 20 years of my life. I see the glow on my mom’s face when she talks about Minnesota and the time, the fun they had here. It’s amazing.”

With that in mind, there might have been no one better for the Minnesota Vikings to bring to town to enthuse about the possibility of the area getting MLS. Twellman was careful to note that he has no horse in the race between the Vikings bid and the competing bid that’s being led by the Minnesota United owners, but his enthusiasm for the league placing a franchise in Minnesota was palpable.

Said Twellman, “I’m asked constantly, if you had to expand Major League Soccer, where would you go? My first answer, for the last five years of my life, is Minneapolis. The knowledge and the enthusiasm of the fan base here is second to none. Soccer is a no-brainer here.”

The analyst, who recently signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to be the network’s lead analyst for soccer, was bullish on the potential for Minnesota in MLS during the span of his deal. “I fully expect Minnesota to be a part of that,” he said. “[The potential team] will challenge the Twins, the Wolves, and the Wild. This sport is here to say, and if Minnesota does this right, and treats it on the same level as the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, and Wild, and not as the ugly stepchild – and there’s many examples of it in the early days of the league – I can promise you that this will be one of the top five cities for Major League Soccer.”

Twellman also noted that there’s a good market for fans in Minnesota. “The truth is, there’s a hipster market in Minnesota,” he said. “Bikers, downtown – that’s where this needs to go. Soccer moms and club moms, they’re invited, but the supporter groups, that kind of stuff – that’s drinking beer and knowing how to tailgate. I’ve been to a University of Minnesota tailgate in my life. It’s one of the more fun tailgates I’ve ever been to. They know what they’re doing. Minnesota sports fans, they get it.”

With that in mind, though, Twellman also offered a pair of caveats, one that might apply to the Vikings-led bid, and one that might apply to the United-led bid. He admitted some trepidation on his part of seeing another MLS side that is owned by an NFL team – exemplified by the disaster in Boston, where the New England Revolution have long been considered second-rate, compared to the NFL, by their own ownership group. “It scares me, no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s got to be treated the same. Everyone says, why’d Seattle work? It’s because, on Opening Day, Pete Carroll and Sigi Schmid were on the same pecking order. The Sounders front office and the Seahawks front office were treated the same. Obafemi Martins is treated the same as Marshawn Lynch. That’s where it sends the message to the fans. As a fan, why do you want to be treated as an ugly stepchild, when you’re not? If you’re getting 20,000 people and ESPN’s paying $75 million a year for your broadcast, it’s got to be treated on the same level. I told them that today when I met with the Vikings. If you get it, you have to make sure it’s not the ugly stepchild, and from everything I’ve heard, it won’t be.”

Meanwhile, for United – which as yet has no approved or even public stadium plan – he offered some words of caution from recent league expansion experiences. “The struggles for stadiums in MLS – NYCFC, the debacle of what’s going on in Miami with the stadium – if Minnesota’s getting [a franchise], which I believe it is, the stadium’s first and foremost,” he said. “There are no ideas of stadiums. You need to have a stadium, it needs to be approved, it needs to be ready to rock, for a market like this to work.”

Ultimately, though, the former Revolution and US Men’s National team star can’t stop enthusing about the situation in Minnesota. “If you had told me ten years ago that there’d be two legitimate offers, two bids in Minnesota, I’d have told you that you were out of your mind,” he said. “I don’t technically need to sell MLS on Minnesota. The fact that there’s two bids with real money and stadiums – how many other markets have two real money groups going after the same thing?”

About that turf…

Artificial turf was in the news anyway, as LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane called for it to be outlawed for soccer on Monday, and with the Vikings unveiling renderings of how MLS might look on the artificial turf at their new stadium, the topic was naturally going to come up.

“I’m vocal about it. I hate turf. I hated playing on it,” said Twellman. “However, something’s changed over the past two years, because of what Portland’s brought in. You never hear a player complain about Portland. Whatever they’ve done there should be replicated, if the game of soccer is going to be played [on turf]. Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, they’ve both told me straight to my face that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that field. That’s turf.

“Now, Robbie Keane comes out today and says that turf should be outlawed in the game of soccer. That’s because [he’s referring to] Seattle. I’ve walked on that field. It’s one of the worst fields I’ve ever walked on. Seattle I like, they’ve got a great stadium, great ambience, great players; the game’s crap. The game’s crap, because if the turf’s crap, it kills the game. And that’s what Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are talking about. But Henry told a couple of people at ESPN that New England’s turf turned the corner. They replaced it six months ago with what Portland had. As vocal as I am about turf, I listen to players currently playing – because I’m done, my life’s over – and their experiences are a little bit different now.”

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.