A Star Tribune Editorial Board member who taught a fall class at the University of Minnesota not long after TCF Bank Stadium opened — bringing Big Ten football back to campus — asked his students whether they had attended or planned to attend a Gophers game in the new outdoor venue.
A couple had season tickets that fall, but the rest of the class of 16 students mentioned several reasons why they found what they considered to be better ways to spend their time on game days. One or two grumbled about the team’s losing ways. “Besides,” said one, “we can watch the games on TV and not worry about the weather.”
The arms race for new stadiums, big TV contracts and modern amenities such as the U’s $166 million Athletes Village make it appear that all is well on the business side of Division I college sports. That’s not the case. More schools, including the U, are having trouble putting fans in the stands.
Total ticket revenue from all Gophers sports fell by $8 million, or 28 percent, to $20.5 million from 2014 to 2017, Star Tribune sports reporter Rachel Blount reported Monday. The U’s three top-producing revenue sports — football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey — accounted for most of that decline.
Around the country, average attendance at Division I college football games fell 3.2 percent last season. Average basketball attendance rose, reversing a 10-year decline, but at 4,807 it stood well below the 2007 average of 5,548. The drop in football attendance was the second-largest since the NCAA starting keeping track in 1948, Blount reported.
Why the trouble at the turnstiles? Many reasons are cited nationally: almost blanket TV coverage in high definition; unfriendly and unpredictable schedules tailored for TV; less interest among cash-strapped students; off-the-field controversies and criminal issues. The U has its own set of problems, including head-to-head competition with all five pro sports, campus traffic gridlock and, it must be admitted, too much losing among the big three men’s sports.
Athletic Director Mark Coyle and his team are pursuing a number of promising new sales strategies, including more proactively going after new customers such as corporations and groups and offering better pricing on football and hockey tickets. But they are facing strong headwinds and a jaded fan base.
That brings us to 6 p.m. Thursday, when Gophers football kicks off the 2018 season at TCF. Based on the numbers Blount reported — 37,000 tickets distributed as of late last week — there could be 13,000 or so empty seats. And cold weather will not be a legitimate excuse for staying away.
This is head coach P.J. Fleck’s second season at the U. He’s attempting to match the turnaround he orchestrated at Western Michigan, where his teams went 1-11, 8-5, 8-5 and 13-1. He’ll be relying on a young team, including many Minnesotans who hope to be part of a resurgence in their home state.
The university has made a large investment in coaching salaries and facilities. Gophers fans can be part of the solution by buying tickets, getting the maroon and gold out of the closet and coming back to campus on game days. High definition is great, but nothing beats being part of a home crowd, surrounded by the sights and sounds of college football.
It’s understandable that many fans are skeptical. It’s true that winning will cure a lot of what ails the football program, as well as men’s basketball and hockey. But the support of alumni, students and sports fans from across the state is critical in the early stages of the revival, too, and that begins with showing up.