Step 3: Fix the Cinderblock Palace

As the 2011-12 Timberwolves season was winding down last spring, negotiations over funding for a new Vikings stadium were growing more serious and specific at the Minnesota Legislature. It presented an opportunity for Taylor to achieve the third part of his strategy for making the Wolves presentable for sale.

0912_glen_pic5.jpgUpscale amenities will be more ubiquitous in a renovated Target Center.

The founding owners of the Timberwolves, Marvin Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, financed the construction of the Target Center themselves in 1987. But seven years later, “Marv and Harv” sailed into financial straits and needed to sell the team. With prospective buyers variously threatening to move the franchise to New Orleans, San Diego, or Nashville, the Legislature and the Minneapolis City Council agreed to make a public purchase of the arena, provided the new owner kept the team in the building. The City of Minneapolis became the responsible government entity for the maintenance of and improvements to the building, a task that became increasingly expensive even as the city repeatedly lost state aid.

By last spring, the deteriorating state of the Target Center was a source of angst for both the city and Timberwolves. With the Legislature requiring the cooperation and approval of the Minneapolis City Council for a component of the financing for the Vikings stadium, there was leverage. To persuade legislators, the Wolves helped lead about 70 politicians on tours of the facility. They saw an antiquated building where the bleachers are stored outside in the elements because there isn’t any other place to put them. They saw a single loading dock, which means that when staging elaborate events such as Aerosmith (21 trucks) or Cirque du Soleil (30 trucks), drivers are on the clock circling their rigs until it is their turn to unload, adding enormous costs and affecting the arena’s competitiveness. They saw a building with just one working elevator to serve a capacity crowd of 19,000 people.

In the final Senate floor debate, the Target Center portion of the legislation was twice excised from the bill, then reinserted. All agree that the most influential lobbying was from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barb Johnson, who firmly stated that the city would not green-light a Vikings stadium proposal unless improvements to both Target Center and the Minneapolis Convention Center were financed. But it surely didn’t hurt that Wolves Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Ted Johnson, who coordinated the Wolves’ lobbying at the Capitol, is a former DFL operative, and, more significantly, that Taylor is a former state senator, minority leader, and prominent contributor to the Republican Party.

In the end, the bill allows Minneapolis to use $60 million to $70 million of its entertainment tax revenue for economic development, which includes Target Center. The public investment will have a significant private-sector match from the team and AEG, which manages Target Center, according to Johnson; negotiations on the terms and amount of the contribution are due to conclude in mid-fall.

Rybak’s office was quick to point out that the Orlando Magic, which came into the NBA the same year as the Wolves, recently razed their original arena and built a new one for about $400 million. The hope, or perhaps the hype, is that the Target Center will be upgraded so that it looks nearly brand-new at just a third of that cost.

Rybak likens the process to “fixing up a house, in that you do the important things that people don’t see, which in this case are the loading docks and the sound system.” Adding elevators and adaptive reuse of the square footage taken up by unused stairwells will dramatically improve food service and foot traffic, and upgrading the training and locker rooms will boost morale and help player recruitment.

But as the Wolves’ chief marketing officer, Ted Johnson is most excited about how the renovations could improve the game experience for basketball fans. It begins with the face of the building, scrapping its fortress-like façade in favor of a glass atrium, which could be further enlivened with a digital mesh coating that would transform it into a huge screen to advertise the team and its sponsors.

Johnson says state-of-the-art arena design has changed greatly in 20 years: “When Target Center was first built, only about 2 percent of the seating in the arena was what we call premium seating. Today, for most sporting facilities, it is 20 percent.” What’s more, demand for premium seating is constantly evolving. The inflexible infrastructure and large-group scale of traditional suites has made them passé, so some will be demolished in favor of arrangements that can accommodate smaller groups and are themselves not so bound to brick-and-mortar that they can’t make way for the next innovation.

The team expects to expand its corporate revenue base with three levels of premium service beyond what Johnson calls “the hyper-exclusive club” for those courtside. Johnson says the renovation will allow the team to provide “a more exclusive club experience” that emulates how Target Field and other modern facilities treat fan royalty: “driveway-to-driveway service with a full dinner package and other special amenities.”

0912_glen_pic6.jpgRendering of a renovated Target Center.

Post-renovation, average fans will find broader concourses with better lighting, easier access to concessions and the team store, and more and better restrooms. And guys in the nosebleed sections can wander over to a bar overlooking the court at a corner of the upper level. New types and styles of seating will proliferate, providing more choices. “We thought very hard about how to improve the experience for every one of our fans,” Johnson says.

It sounds wonderfully ambitious, but until the city, building manager AEG, and the Wolves come to an agreement on how private dollars will be allocated, all plans remain mere theory. One complication is that AEG is more than halfway through its 30-year contract, and is believed to prefer a new 30-year deal in exchange for funding building improvements; lacking that, the potential return on investment for AEG is reduced. If the process delivers less than $135 million or negotiations drag on, the behind-the-scenes upgrades the mayor is focused on will likely happen first, as public dollars are not contingent on the private ones.

Triangle of Authority

The Vikings stadium bill passed about two weeks after the close of the 2011-12 season. But most of the Wolves-related headlines concerned Kahn’s persistent attempts to upgrade the talent on the roster. Behind the scenes, as promised, Adelman was providing input and helping with the decisions.

“Most of the moves David is making are heavily influenced by what Rick has asked of us. But when it comes to finances, David will tell Rick no,” Taylor reveals. “At the end of the year, Rick gives me a report of what he thinks of each player. He tells me it’s the same one he gave David and that David knows he is giving it to me. Then he goes through the list. He says, ‘This is the first one I want gone’—that was [underachieving veteran center] Darko [Milicic]. ‘This is the second one I want gone. This is what I think of this player.’

“We were going to build slowly with a young coach [Rambis] and young players. It was a good plan, but there was a misstep. Now we have a seasoned coach who has said ‘This is my last job.’ He is going to push faster because he wants to win sooner. But his [style of communication] is one I understand and can relate to.”

A lot of positive things have happened to the Timberwolves franchise in the past 18 months, and Taylor has a credible and satisfactory exit strategy to show for it. But the seemingly rosy future of the franchise is not without some genuine risks and downsides. After years of dolor and cynicism, Wolves’ fans may actually be too complacent about the team’s playoff prospects this coming season, especially if Rubio’s knee is slow to recover in the first month or two of action. It’s likely, whatever the improvements within Target Center, that it will still be found wanting compared with Target Field, the X, and the new Vikings stadium. And though the NBA’s new revenue-sharing plan will help mitigate losses, celebrating its largesse will be a sign of continued poor play.

But for now, it’d be parsimonious not to allow Taylor the comforting vision of his walk into the sunset. “It appears that some of the things we have done are finally coming together,” he says. “I don’t need to have it all finished, with us on top, but if I can leave a franchise our fans are excited about, and that an owner can have fun with without losing money, then I’d feel I’d accomplished about everything I could.”

Britt Robson has covered Timberwolves basketball since 1990. He currently covers the NBA for Sportsillustrated.com.

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