MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ The joke started as a one-liner in a 1970s chamber of commerce speech. Now the quip that the Twin Cities would be ``a cold Omaha'' without its pro sports teams doesn't seem quite so funny.

The Minnesota Twins say they can't survive in the Metrodome, and owner Carl Pohlad has a deal to sell his baseball team and let it move south. The Vikings say they can't make money in the stadium, either, and they're for sale.

While state legislators wrestle with how _ or whether _ to help pay for a new stadium or two, Minnesotans are left to wonder: If one or two of the state's three major pro teams leave, how much of the state's national stature would follow?

With no offense intended to the good folks of Nebraska's largest city, businessman and author Harvey Mackay, who coined the ``cold Omaha'' phrase that former Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey later borrowed, believes the Twin Cities could lose many of the benefits they have gained over three decades as a major sports area.

``I think it would be a very, very sad day for all Minnesotans, plus many people _ tens of thousands of people _ in the Upper Midwest,'' Mackay said. ``I think it's virtually impossible to have a vibrant business community without sports, including major league sports, and the arts.''

Despite that argument, reiterated by stadium proponents statewide, the resounding message from taxpayers seems to be: ``Don't let the door hit you on the backside on your way out.''

Just like residents of other states where teams are pushing for plush new stadiums, many Minnesotans are tired of billionaire owners and millionaire players.

``We would gladly go to the airport and wave goodbye,'' Margo Mueller of suburban New Brighton said of the chance of losing the Twins and Vikings.

It was just five or six years ago that the Twin Cities looked like a sports mecca, playing host to the Super Bowl, the World Series, golf's U.S. Open, the Stanley Cup and the Final Four. In addition to the Twins and Vikings, Minnesota also had the NBA Timberwolves and NHL North Stars at the time.

But the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, and the Timberwolves nearly left for New Orleans in 1994 until a publicly financed buyout of the Target Center kept them here.

Mackay _ who led the push for the Metrodome in the late '70s, was key in keeping the Timberwolves and has been called by Gov. Arne Carlson to help in the current stadium dilemma _ said people have short memories of the good times.

``I think the idea in business on many occasions is, `What are you doing for me today?''' Mackay said.

Negative images of pro sports _ enormous player salaries like the $126 million the Timberwolves will pay Kevin Garnett over six years, owners with egos, athletes in criminal trouble _ also have turned people off.

While it is unlikely that both the Twins and Vikings would leave, fans would have to find something else to do with their time, money and civic spirit.

Some say high school and college sports, as well as the independent minor league baseball St. Paul Saints, would take their place. Others say the state's 18 casinos would help fill the void.

And the NHL is expected to return in 2000.

Still, losing the Vikings or Twins would be an irrevocable loss to many.

``It basically puts me out of business and puts me out of a job,'' said Dave Strobel, surveying Twins and Vikings paraphernalia in the Minnesota Twins Pro Shop he manages in suburban Roseville.

Strobel admitted things don't look good for the Twins, who say they will leave if the Legislature doesn't approve a plan for a publicly subsidized stadium by Nov. 30. But he doesn't think both teams will leave.

Clark Griffith, son of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, is considering offering to buy the Twins to keep them in the state, perhaps before legislators reconvene a special session on the Twins stadium Thursday.

``I think we'll end up in a situation in which both teams stay here,'' said Griffith, a lawyer. ``They appeal to different elements of the sporting public.''

If they did leave, though, Griffith said it would not affect the economy measurably.

``If either or both do depart, the loss is to be measured emotionally and psychically only, and as a matter of perception,'' he said.

Mackay, however, said the economic impact would be great. He also said if the Twins and Vikings had not arrived in Minnesota in 1961, artistic treasures like the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Walker Art Center would not exist ``because you wouldn't have had a thriving community.''

Joanne Lundquist, a waitress at Barney's restaurant in International Falls, has traveled the 290 miles to attend a Vikings game. She said she'd hate to lose the Twins, but many in the far northern Minnesota city on the Canadian border watch baseball and football on TV.

What does Lundquist think they'd do if the teams left?

``I guess they'd have to pick out their next-favorite team to watch on TV.''

End Adv for weekend editions, Nov. 8-9