Zygi Wilf – Minnesota Vikings Owner

I originally wrote this for last week’s issue of Politics in Minnesota: The Weekly Report:

It is amazing that the Minnesota Vikings new owner, Zygi Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer, has yet to take a false step on the path to a new football stadium.

The contrasts probably helped him right off the bat. He bought the team from a blustery Texas billionaire whose penny-pinching ways kept the team weak on defense and his threats to move made it absolutely clear that the Vikings were a financial investment first and foremost and a passion a distant second. And then there was Reggie Fowler‘s resume malfunction. By contrast, Wilf looked like a white knight come to save the day.

As the first black owner of an National Football League franchise, Fowler’s story would have been compelling. But as the son of Holocaust survivors, Zygi Wilf’s personal story is just as compelling, in a Horatio Alger, Only In America kind of way.

From the moment he took the reigns, Wilf has said and done the right things.

Shortly after purchasing the team, he bought a full page in the newspaper (superimposed with the Lombardi trophy; nice touch) for an open letter to fans pledging to keep the team in Minnesota and continue in the Vikings’ winning tradition. Everything he’s said since suggests he’s passionate about wanting the team to win.

Financially, he has walked the talk since buying the team by doling out his own cash on such things as fixing the air conditioning and refurbishing the Vikings ship at Winter Park, buying out tickets to training camp in Mankato this summer so that the fans wouldn’t have to pay to see the team practice, and renegotiating Daunte Culpepper‘s contract so the Vikings would have a happy quarterback leading them this season.

But most importantly, he will put up $240 million of his own money for a new stadium and that far exceeds what Red McCombs was willing to shell out.

It’s easy to be skeptical when people they say they consider their company, "not just a business, but a family." It’s so cliche. But when Wilf says it, he is convincing because it appears that is his family’s MO for all the businesses they’ve run. The Vikings are no different: His brother Mark Wilf is the team president and his cousin Leonard Wilf is the team’s vice chair. All that is merely interesting until you couple it with Wilf’s stated desire that the team be an intergenerational family business that he won’t sell; then it lends credibility to his promise to keep the team in Minnesota.

By saying the Vikings would honor their Metrodome lease, Wilf stands in contrast to previous owner Red McCombs, who was always applying pressure at the Capitol. His insistence on an open-air stadium embraces the glory years of the 70s-era Vikings who went to four Super Bowls, evoking fond memories from 40-plus Minnesotans, including those at the Capitol.

It helps that he appears to be a die-hard football fan. Jay Weiner‘s fascinating story about the sale of the Vikings in last Sunday’s Star Tribune reveals that when it became apparent that Fowler didn’t have the resources to close the deal, Wilf took the lead, saying:

I’ll step up, Wilf remembers telling Fowler. I’ll do it. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve accomplished a lot. I’m competitive. It’s time to do something that I really love.

Finally, most people rich enough to buy an National Football League franchise and put up $240 million for a stadium have more likely than not had some experience dealing with government. But Wilf may be especially suited to succeed where others have failed. As a commercial real estate developer, he’s had specific experience dealing with local governments and local communities’ reactions to those developments. That experience might explain his deft political touch.

That experience, his ability to sell not just a stadium, but a massive commercial development, and his demonstrated public relations finesse, should take him a long way toward finding the Vikings a new home in Blaine.