Required donations for preferred seating are coming to Gophers basketball and hockey. Most fans haven't balked, but some grumble.
Gophers fans have grumbled over what University of Minnesota officials call "the next logical step" for athletic fundraising. But so far, they haven't put away their wallets.
The plan for a preferred seating system for men's hockey and men's basketball starts this fall and is requiring some season ticket-holders to make a monetary donation on top of the price of seats, which will bring in an expected $1.1 million in additional annual revenue. As U officials hoped, most fans are renewing their tickets and handing over the new required donations -- even if some are holding their noses while doing so.
It's too early, however, to call the program a success. The basketball ticket renewal period for Williams Arena seats is barely underway. The hockey deadline has passed, and fans renewed at roughly the same rate as last year. But it could be a short-term victory boosted by a Frozen Four berth, while some fans who renewed at Mariucci Arena are debating whether their loyalty will extend beyond the upcoming season -- after which the Gophers will trade in old WCHA rivalries to join the launch of hockey in the Big Ten Conference.
Ticket-holders in both sports are dismayed that the plan's structure requires them to move from familiar seats they have held for decades into new ones. And with ticket prices for Gophers events exceeding those of their competitors, other fans are saying the product is teetering on the precipice of being a poor investment.
Former 30-year hockey season ticket-holder Bob DeNardo decided to step away a year ago when the Gophers announced the plan.
"I figured I had other ways to spend my money and my time than to continually feed the need of the university," he said.
Added Dave Vail, another hockey season ticket-holder: "We're going to get to the breaking point soon."
Vail, like many other hockey fans, renewed anyway for the 2012-13 season and went through the process of giving up his old seats and selecting new ones according to a point system that rewards loyalty and financial commitment. In his new seats, he paid $100 more for the season than last year -- the lowest on a scale of required donations for season ticket-holders that range from $100 to $300 in hockey and up to $400 in basketball.
With the changes, Minnesota has by far the most expensive hockey ticket among Big Ten schools and -- barring any last-minute changes by other schools -- will sell a pricier basketball season ticket than several conference powerhouses.
Additionally, the changes come at an awkward time for Gophers basketball, which is already struggling to keep fans in the seats. Attendance has fallen at Williams Arena for consecutive seasons, most notably a significant drop to an average of 11,685 a game last year, down from 13,241 the previous season.
The extra revenue is earmarked for improvements to both programs, and early figures for the university are promising. Eighty-nine percent of hockey season tickets have been renewed so far, down only one percent from the previous year with time still left to nab the stragglers, while the priciest preferred section is sold out.
Cost of doing business
Before Minnesota's preferred ticket project, Northwestern was the only other Big Ten school that did not use a point system for seating in its basketball arena. Mariucci Arena was unusual in that a hockey ticket in the last row cost the same as one in the first.
"Not right," said Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi, who will be replaced by incoming AD Norwood Teague on June 18.
Instead of increasing ticket prices, Minnesota decided to require tiered donations from season ticket-holders, depending on the location of their seats. Fans could re-choose seats according to what they were willing to pay, but what they couldn't do was agree to keep their seats and pay the price. Every ticket-holder went into the re-seating system.
Maturi called it the "fairest way" and "the right thing to do," and athletics spokesman Garry Bowman lamented it would be too complicated to do it any other way.
It's not an uncommon method in college sports. Two seasons ago, Michigan State implemented a similar formula for men's basketball and plans to uproot and re-seat fans according to the point system every four years. It's an incentive to increase giving, MSU associate AD Paul Schager said. And that giving, Maturi said, will be pumped back into a department that perpetually seems a few dollars short.
"In this day and age, being a part of the Big Ten, you have to be competitive," basketball season ticket-holder Danny Zouber said. "If a recruit is not from around the Midwest and gets an offer from one of our programs ... one of the things that can sway [the recruit] is the facilities, so we need to constantly be at or above our competition."
Next season, 75 percent of season tickets for Gophers hockey will be charged an additional donation, and the priciest seats will be $45 per game with that money factored in. At Williams Arena, only 46 percent of season tickets (because of obstructed view issues) will carry an additional donation, with a high of $51 per game. The highest tier price is greater than those at Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, though the Wolverines' most expensive ticket will be about $55 by 2013-14.
Breaking up is hard to do
For several years, Scott Skueppers sat adjacent to "Bruce" at Mariucci Arena without ever speaking to him.
"Honestly, most of us were kind of afraid of him," Skueppers said with a laugh in reference to he and some of his college friends, who have had season tickets since 1990. "He was kind of an imposing kind of guy."
Now? Skueppers and Bruce share inside jokes, talk and gripe throughout the game and have become neighbors of a sort. Every new season is a reunion that echoes with questions reminiscent of those at family functions and college get-togethers.
"When you sit next to people that long and you see them pretty much every weekend of the winter for 10 or 12 years, you certainly get to know them," Skueppers said. "You watch their kids grow up. ... But with the re-seating, that changes things."
That loss is at the heart of many fans' frustrations.
"I understand the need to raise revenue and those kinds of things, but those kind of things sort of felt like a slap in the face for longtime season ticket-holders," said Shannon Bambery, a hockey season ticket-holder.
For now, Minnesota has not put anything in writing for the season-ticket changes beyond this season. Incoming AD Teague will be able to decide how to go forward.
"Re-seating is always a sensitive issue and one that athletic departments across the country have wrestled with for years," Teague said in an e-mail. "It is, however, a great revenue producer. I am always disappointed for the fans that feel underappreciated with a move such as this. It's a tough balance to strike."
Skueppers' group of friends will split three pairs of seats, scattered across sections 16 and 17, next season. He likes his new seat a little bit better, he says. Their longtime neighbors are all within the two sections, but their neighborhood, they say, has been dissolved.
"I'm sure at the end of the periods we'll meet up in the concourse and complain about the refs or complain about the players or the coaches," he said. "But it's not going to be as immediate as it used to be. It's not going to be the same."
When fans walk in Mariucci and Williams arenas next season, they will see where the money went, Maturi said.
"People are going to be saying 'Wow,'" he said.
The new revenue will help pay for new scoreboards, ribbon boards and sound systems for each arena -- improvements that will cost more than $8 million and could not be completed without the new initiative, Maturi said.
"My opinion is give it a chance," basketball season ticket-holder Scott King said. "All I hear is, 'We've got to have a practice facility, we've got to have this and that.' ... Well, the money's got to come from somewhere."
Schager said Michigan State is happy with its decision to move to the required donations system, one he says has brought in seven-digit revenues.
"We anticipated a lot of anxiety and a lot of pushback, and we didn't get that," Schager said. "People of Minnesota need to decide if they're going to support them, and that's ultimately the decision."
For now, the answer from fans is yes, even if it is sometimes a grumbling yes. But it's not unconditional. Fans want to see a return for their investment and loyalty.
"We all have a vision of when Williams Arena was rowdier and when it was the hottest ticket in town," Zouber said. "Obviously, it hasn't been that way in a while. I think we all long for the day -- and some people think it'll be next year -- when they're really winning again, and we're having sellouts again."
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