In the week before the Gophers football team played Wisconsin, the head of the Capital One Bowl in Orlando told his staff to make sure someone was going to Minneapolis for what figured to be the Gophers’ biggest game of the year.
But when the Gophers lost to the Badgers, then lost again to Michigan State, the Capital One Bowl moved on. With Big Ten champion Michigan State playing in the Rose Bowl and Ohio State also getting a BCS invitation in the Orange Bowl, the Capital One, the bowl with the second Big Ten choice after the Rose, selected Wisconsin.
With the next Big Ten choice, the Outback Bowl chose Iowa. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl then chose Michigan, even though the Wolverines had a worse overall record than the Gophers. Adding insult to injury, the Gator Bowl took Nebraska even though the Gophers beat the Cornhuskers in October.
Four bowl games, all bound to select a Big Ten team, passed on the Gophers, who have an 8-4 record but also a historically poor reputation of drawing fans to bowl games.
Making matters worse, Michigan was chosen ahead of the Gophers in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl even though the Tempe, Ariz., bowl’s sponsor is headquartered in St. Louis Park and a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant sits across the street from TCF Bank Stadium. The company “would be very careful about showing any bias,” said Angela Mineo, a spokeswoman for Buffalo Wild Wings, “[as] much as they probably love the Gophers.”
The Gophers instead for the second year in a row fell to the Texas Bowl. Tickets for the game — where the Gophers play Syracuse in Houston’s Reliant Stadium — were selling for $1 on a national ticket website Monday, four days before the game.
For their part, the Gophers are making the best of things.
“We are extremely excited to be invited to the Texas Bowl,” said Chris Werle, a school spokesman. “Playing in a prestigious bowl game is good for the program, and the ability to have our game televised nationwide with no competing games is great for our student-athletes, alumni and fans.”
For more than four decades, the Gophers have been stuck in the same cycle: Mediocre teams saddled with at best mediocre bowl games that draw a tepid response from fans.
Last year’s loss to Texas Tech in what was then known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl drew a little more than 50,000 fans, though most were cheering for Texas Tech. The Gophers sold only 3,163 tickets for the game through the university, far short of its 12,000-ticket allotment.
Still, the game was just the third time the Gophers had played in a bowl game in the past 25 years that drew more than 50,000 fans.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go to develop a profile where bowls are going to be confident that our fans are going to show up,” said David Benedict, the Gophers deputy athletic director.
The Gophers routinely have been passed over in the bowl selection process. In 2006, Iowa was selected over them to play in the Alamo Bowl, even though both teams had 6-6 records and the Gophers had defeated an Iowa team that lost five of its final six games.
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl spokeswoman Kristen Pflipsen said many factors — not just Michigan’s record — went into selecting the Wolverines over the Gophers this year. Michigan never had played in the bowl before, she said, and research showed that 4,500 Michigan alumni lived in the Phoenix area.
The Gophers appeared in the game in 2006, 2008 and 2009, when it was called the Insight Bowl.
Pflipsen also said the Gophers’ ability to draw fans — or lack of it — “wasn’t always a negative for Minnesota.” For Saturday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, said Pflipsen, Michigan and Kansas State are being asked to sell 10,500 tickets each.
“It’s not a science,” she said of the selection process. “Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota were all on our radar, [but] it wasn’t Minnesota vs. Michigan, necessarily.
“We have a spirited debate.”
Despite beating Nebraska, the Gophers watched as the Cornhuskers were selected to the more lucrative and prestigious Gator Bowl. Despite a history of bringing many fans to bowl games, Nebraska is struggling to get fans interested in the Jacksonville, Fla., game after an 8-4 season and questions revolving around coach Bo Pelini.
“I think some people want to see this season in the rearview mirror,” said Scott Glenn of Executive Travel in Lincoln. Glenn, a Nebraska football player in the 1970s, said he canceled a charter flight for the Gator Bowl because of a lack of demand. “We weren’t surprised at all. The last three games, [with] the Michigan State loss, [and] we lost to Iowa at home” were disappointing.
Glenn said the economics of bowl games — especially for the many less desirable bowls — make it difficult to generate interest. Fans can watch the games at home on large-screen TVs, and charter packages typically charge far more for tickets than fans can pay elsewhere. Plus, he said, the Huskers had in recent years played several bowl games in Florida.
“Everybody [was hoping] to go to Phoenix,” he said.
Tough for bowls
Adding to the dissatisfaction is a new survey by New Jersey-based Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, which showed that many college football season-ticket holders are unhappy with affordability and the gameday experience.
“We’re all competing in the entertainment industry,” said Haynes Hendrickson of Turnkey, which lists the NFL, the NBA and Madison Square Garden among its clients.
And Hendrickson said that philosophy extends to bowl games. Hendrickson said bowl selection officials have told him that, after considering other factors, “at the end of the day they also pick on gut. Who’s going to help us sell? Who’s going to travel?
“It’s not always, ‘Boy, this is a better team,’ ” Hendrickson added. “It’s still a business.”
Capital One Bowl spokesman Matt Repchak said Minnesota “caught us by surprise” by being 8-2 with games remaining against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Had the Gophers won either game, said Repchak, a 9-3 Gophers team would have received “extra consideration” for the Jan. 1 bowl.
“Minnesota hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to be in consideration late in the year,” he said.
Jamey Rootes, the president of Lone Star Sports and Entertainment, which manages the Texas Bowl, said he was not surprised the Gophers still were available when his bowl made its selection. The Texas Bowl is owned by ESPN, and Rootes said the sports cable network was “directly involved” in selecting the Gophers and Syracuse.
Rootes said he also was not surprised that the Gator Bowl, for example, selected Nebraska ahead of Minnesota.
“If you’ve been in this business long enough, nothing shocks you,” said Rootes, who is also president of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
As for the Gophers, he added: “It feels like the program is headed in a great direction” and that with “signature wins” over Nebraska and Penn State the Gophers are “doing things that the program hasn’t done in a long time.”