WASHINGTON It is never an incidental transaction when an NFL franchise changes hands, never a trivial matter when a person of substance, such as new Minnesota Vikings boss Zygmunt Wilf, pledges the exclusive fraternity of league owners.
And so on Wednesday afternoon, when the league announced that Wilf's purchase of the Vikings for $600 million was unanimously approved after he and former owner Red McCombs had tied up some loose ends, there certainly was cause for celebration. Especially given the uncertainty of the past few years under McCombs, who apparently viewed the Minnesota franchise as just another commodity that he acquired on the cheap and then "flipped," in real estate parlance, for a tidy profit.
Make no mistake: Wilf, kind of a cross physically between the late Groucho Marx and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, seems to have the right pedigree. Coupled with his financial wherewithal is a longtime passion for the game. That's good because, even in an era when NFL franchises have evolved from the mom-and-pop-store existence into big businesses, you'd better love the deep pass as much as deep pockets.
"To me," said Wilf, a longtime New York Giants fan and season-ticket holder, "this is not a matter of economics. It's a matter of passion."
Still, even as commissioner Paul Tagliabue welcomed Wilf into his world, and there were smiles all around (quite justifiably), this is probably not the way the NFL really wanted the sale of the Vikings to play out. Of course, few league lieutenants will concede the point but, if they'd had their druthers, it would have been Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, and not Wilf, standing at the podium Wednesday afternoon.
Fowler is black, and for all the inclusiveness that Tagliabue has wrought in one of the more underrated accomplishments of his stewardship, the NFL still doesn't have a black majority owner. There were, for sure, a lot of people rooting for Fowler to rectify that shortfall.
The mysterious Fowler, whose pursuit of the Vikings was marked by a lack of information, candor and, apparently, liquid assets, will be a shareholder in the ownership group that he helped assemble. That's certainly a plus. But the NFL has, in the past, had minorities as stockholders. Former standout NFL safety Deron Cherry, who owned a small stake in the Jacksonville Jaguars, comes to mind.
But there is a monumental difference between owning, say, 5 percent or even 10 or 20 percent of a team, and being the out-front guy fielding the tough questions tossed at Wilf. Fowler has gone, in a very short time, from being the face of Vikings ownership to a guy who might have a tiny head shot in the team's media guide.
And that doesn't translate into progress.
Funny thing about how the NFL operates. After the news conference in which McCombs announced his pending deal with Fowler, league staffers urged some media outlets to call people like Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore, the NFL's first black general manager, to cite his reaction to Fowler's candidacy. More recently, when Fowler's dollar deficiencies had become apparent, and after the ownership group was reshuffled to elevate Wilf to the top spot on the totem pole, the league-speak was that NFL officials hadn't necessarily championed Fowler because of his race.
Maybe that's the case but, truth be told, both league officials and individual club owners desperately wanted the Fowler deal to be consummated. That the purchase could not be completed by Fowler should not and does not diminish the fact that the Minnesota franchise is now more stable, albeit without a deal for a new stadium in place. But the failure of Fowler to pull off the purchase does mean the lack of minority ownership remains an issue in the league.
Think about how Wednesday's news conference here, and the implications of it, would have played out nationally had it been Fowler who was introduced as the Vikings owner or managing partner. Take it to the bank, it would have made front-page headlines in all the national newspapers, been a key story on all the network evening newscasts. Heck, consider how much attention was directed toward Tuesday's announcement that Sheila Johnson, a black woman, had purchased 5 to 10 percent of the WNBA's Washington Mystics and would serve as its team president.
Fowler getting the Vikings would have been exponentially more significant, and on any number of fronts. Instead, outside of the Twin Cities, the purchase of the Vikings by Wilf will merit about two sentences in the "sports briefs" section of most papers. Had it been Fowler who closed the deal, the news conference room at the hotel where the owners were huddling this week would have been jammed. Instead, there were plenty of good seats available for the Wilf announcement.
One saving grace for the league: Fowler's lack of liquidity surfaced long before he had a chance to complete the deal.
"It's best for the league, best for Reggie Fowler, best, let's be honest, for any minority who wants to buy a team in the future, that this stuff was discovered beforehand," one prominent league owner said. "Had he closed that deal, and then everyone found out he didn't have the kind of money it takes to operate in this league, it would have been a lot worse, believe me. Personally, I liked [Fowler], and he probably would have been a good owner, because you could tell his heart was in it big-time. But I guess he just didn't have the juice to pull it off."
Wilf did have the wherewithal and, during his short introduction Wednesday, he used the term "world-class" no fewer than six times to define his hopes for the Vikings on and off the field. He described himself as "a little nervous but very excited," and claimed he will keep the Vikings in Minnesota "forever."
Forever, of course, is a very long time. Let's hope it's sometime shy of forever before the league has its first black owner.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.