The fledgling nonprofit Minnesota Sports and Events (MNSE) has survived the past two years with support from private donors as it hosted the 2022 Women's Final Four, bid on the 2024 U.S. Olympic swimming trials and prepped for the 2026 Special Olympics.
But MNSE leaders say it's decision time for Minnesota leaders because the nonprofit needs financial support from the state or it will be unable to attract the type of destination sporting events held here in recent years.
"Without some sort of funding mechanism, we are going to have to pick up our toys and go home," MNSE President Wendy Blackshaw said.
The organization is preparing to host the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament that starts March 1 while anxiously awaiting word on whether it will get the 2024 Olympic trials for USA Gymnastics. The group also hopes to bid on the 2025-26 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
If the state doesn't win those events, it would add to a string of recently failed bids that went to cities offering to help with public cash upfront.
MNSE lost its bid to host the 2024 Olympic swimming trials to Indianapolis, a city with an established sports corporation with assets of about $12 million, according to nonprofit reports.
Last fall, Minnesota was a finalist in the bidding to bring the NCAA Men's Final Four back to U.S. Bank Stadium for any of four years beginning in 2027, but it was a no-go. The winning cities were Detroit, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Arlington, Texas — all places that can provide public cash.
"Our city has so much to offer compared to the other cities that will be hosting a men's Final Four but without public funding, we cannot compete," Blackshaw said.
For the 2018 Super Bowl, organizers raised about $50 million in private donations. The 2019 Men's Final Four — a smaller, shorter event — was privately funded by corporate donors.
Blackshaw said out-of-state event organizers no longer want to rely on pledges of corporate fundraising by host cities. They want public money — and the state support it signals — in the bank. MNSE is seeking a one-time state grant of $50 million, she said.
The pandemic heightened competition and put states without public funding at a greater disadvantage, Blackshaw said. After being shut down for nearly two years, amateur sports organizations are hungry for cash.
States like Indiana and Texas have long used public money to attract events. Michigan and Ohio recently established committees and provided public money. The Ohio Sports Event Grant Program received $10 million in state funding in 2022.
MNSE is a nonprofit and its budget isn't public, but Blackshaw said annual operating revenue is just under $500,000. The funding comes from the Bloomington, Minneapolis and St. Paul convention bureaus, corporations and the state's pro sports teams.
"Considering the comparatively modest budget, we have built a reputation nationally as one of the best cities to execute these large scale events," she said.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, agreed that Minnesota is a sports fan's dream. "We have such a variety of sports, venue infrastructure and a strong fan base to support events," he said in a statement.
But Johnson said spending on events must be balanced with tax relief. "Until we start giving our state's $17.6 billion surplus back to Minnesota families, any proposal to spend their hard-earned tax dollars will not be moving forward with bipartisan support," Johnson said.
In DFL Gov. Tim Walz's budget proposal released last month, he signaled he's open to helping. He proposed spending $6 million over the next two years "to support large-scale sporting events and other major events."
With five major urban centers throughout the state, Minnesota can become a "go-to destination" for more events like the Special Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Universal Exposition, according to his budget document.
"These kinds of events can be a significant catalyst for change, elevating the host's global stature and accelerating its economic, political and social development," the document read. "It provides a common focal point for people to rally around and fosters collaboration among the public sector, private sector and community."
David Ybarra, president of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association and an MNSE board member, said there is a tangible return on investment for the state money, providing opportunities for workers to prepare venues and spruce up businesses for out-of-town visitors.
"Not to mention that our members are really proud of the facilities," he said. "They built all the sports venues around town. We've got great facilities, and why not show them off as best you can?"
Another board member, Jill Renslow, is chief of business development at the Mall of America. The Bloomington megamall hosted major ancillary events during the Super Bowl and the Final Fours.
"We see the impact, not only on shopping and dining, but at the hotels," she said. Visitors "come in for these events and then they come back and they bring their families. ... It's tourism at its finest."
Well-executed events also help restore the Twin Cities reputation as a family vacation spot and for business travelers. "We have to rebuild," Renslow said.
But she said the corporate community can't do it alone. "We get fatigued with getting asked. You want to support them but our budget only goes so far," she said.
If the state does not support the effort, Blackshaw said Minnesotans will have to adjust expectations. "We might decide as a community this is not important to us," Blackshaw said, adding that events would be significantly smaller.