Three years after opening a new football stadium, the University of Minnesota is scrambling to get students -- and fans in general -- interested in going to the games.
Student season-ticket sales have steadily dropped from 10,000 in the first year at the 50,800-seat TCF Bank Stadium, to 7,800 the second year to less than 6,000 last year. Now, with the team's first home game on Sept. 8 less than a month away, roughly 2,000 student season tickets have been sold for the $288 million on-campus stadium that was seen as a key to rekindling passion and attendance after almost three decades in the Metrodome.
"We lose a lot, so there's not really a reason to go to a game," Jessica Shudy, a sophomore from Minneapolis, said as she sat in the school's student union. She said she thinks she went to three games a year ago -- she can't recall, exactly -- and is not sure she will go to any this year. "It was pretty bad," she said of watching the team last year. Among her friends, she added, the football team is "not really a big thing."
With student support for football at other Big Ten schools forming a stark contrast, the trend in Minnesota is troubling. The University of Michigan has sold 21,715 student season tickets so far this year, and the University of Wisconsin sold its 13,119 student season-ticket allotment in just 30 minutes.
Gophers officials insist they are holding onto fans, and that 90 percent of all season ticket holders at TCF Bank Stadium have re-upped for this year. But average football attendance at the new stadium has declined from nearly 51,000 fans a game in the first year of 2009 to 47,714 fans a year ago.
"We've dipped a bit," Norwood Teague, Minnesota's new athletic director, acknowledged in a speech on campus last week.
With Teague wanting a major upgrade in athletic facilities at the Twin Cities campus, the revenue loss associated with the lack of fans in the stands for football looms as a potential roadblock. Even as Teague talked last week of building new facilities for several sports -- "we are behind" compared to other schools, he said during a lunchtime speech -- a man in the audience stood up and told him it was "disappointing" to see the "student section half-filled" for football games.
School officials, with Teague looking over their shoulder, are racing to reverse the trend.
Reaching out to students
A new marketing plan will include a video of quarterback MarQueis Gray that will be e-mailed to the school's 40,000 students, and linebacker Keanon Cooper stood at a season-ticket signup table on campus on several occasions during the summer. The message to students will come in a variety of others ways -- from inserting fliers in napkin holders in school dining halls, making pleas to parents and having Teague ride through campus in a golf cart giving away free tickets.
The school, however, has already tried to entice students with free tickets, and last year Gophers football coach Jerry Kill also rode through campus in a golf cart with tickets.
Kyle Severson, a junior, said he bought a student season ticket during his freshman year, but he decided not to last year to save money -- student season tickets for seven home games this year are $84. He said he again plans to skip buying season tickets this year. "It'd be helpful if they won more often," said Severson, as he sat reading a book outside on campus.
But a winning football team, he added, is "not all that makes up a good school. It's not necessary to make it a good school."
The appears to be more passion for football on other Big Ten campuses. Even at Indiana, which like Minnesota last claimed a share of a Big Ten football title in 1967, the school has so far sold 12,315 student season tickets for 2012. Indiana's football stadium, with 52,929 seats, is roughly the size of TCF Bank Stadium.
Ohio State, which is not bowl-eligible this year because of penalties for NCAA infractions, has sold more than 26,000 full and partial student season tickets. At Iowa, students have so far bought 9,700 season tickets and Mike Osmundson, Hawkeyes assistant ticket manager, said he is confident the 10,500 student season-ticket allotment will be gone when classes start next week.
"For the past five or six years, we've sold out of our student tickets, and we anticipate getting there" again, Osmundson said.
Still expecting a bump
Jason LaFrenz, the Gophers assistant athletic director, said the school still hopes to sell 8,000 student season tickets this year, believing the current total will rise when students return to class.
"Other than that first year in TCF Bank Stadium, we've traditionally sold the majority of our students tickets in the 10 days before the first home game," he said. "That's when we sell all of our tickets."
Bob Hughes, president of the University of Minnesota's Goal Line football booster club, said the school has yet to recover from the loss of student support that came from playing nearly three decades at the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.
"This whole generation of students now at the University of Minnesota, they didn't grow up with that college [on-campus] football experience," he said. "We lost a lot with the Metrodome."
But Hughes, despite the sagging numbers, is optimistic. "I easily see seven victories this year," he said. "I've never been so excited in my life."
Teague said he is confident the season-ticket sale tide can be turned, and that the problems will not impact his push for updated athletic facilities. "Part of it is winning," Teague said of what will get more fans at the games. "But I do think that you have to have quite a bit of promotional strategy.
"We're doing a lot. We just got to keep doing it, and stay persistent."
Melissa Cassel, a sophomore at the school, is an example of the ambivalence the school is fighting. Cassel said she went to "quite a few" games as a freshman, and this year will be at some games as part of a group fundraising effort. But she doubted she would be buying tickets because "it's expensive, and I'm really not much of a football fan."
She appears to have plenty of company in that regard.