An announced crowd of 37,355 watched St. Thomas defeat St. John’s 20-17 in a football game Saturday at Target Field that destroyed the previous Division III high-water attendance mark by almost 20,000 fans.
The game came together thanks to a perfect storm, so to speak, of circumstances. When the Twins’ 2017 schedule was being put together in the summer of 2016, MLB had them on a 10-game road trip at the end of September that freed up Target Field. That schedule gap aligned with the already-scheduled St. John’s vs. St. Thomas game and came on a weekend when the Gophers football team had a bye.
Given those parameters, the nature of the rivalry between the schools — ratcheted back up in recent years by the resurgence of St. Thomas — and the curiosity of the first-ever football game at Target Field, organizers were optimistic they could draw a big crowd. But 37,000-plus?
“When the game was conceptualized and talked about originally, we were pretty confident we could push toward 25,000,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter. “But I don’t think any of us believed we’d push beyond 35,000.”
Dan McKane, the MIAC’s executive director, was even more blunt when asked about the crowd that watched his conference’s most notable football rivalry. “I didn’t think we’d get anything close to (37,000) when it was first announced.”
But they did, and given the success of the day from the standpoint of logistics, finances and most importantly crowd enthusiasm — “I have not heard a single negative thing about the game yet,” McKane said Monday — the logical question becomes: When are they going to do this again?
In regards to football at Target Field, we already know the date of the next scheduled game: North Dakota State and its rabid fan base from Fargo will host Butler at Target Field in the Bison’s season opener in two years on Aug. 31, 2019.
St. Peter said Monday he has had conversations with several other regional schools about possibly playing football at Target Field.
“I think we’ve always felt like football could be part of our long-term future,” St. Peter said of Target Field. “I don’t know if it’s an every year type of proposition — maybe every other year or five years. It does require the right schools and right regional brands. NDSU is a natural.”
St. Thomas vs. St. John’s, though, is as close to ideal as you can get. Both schools have large Twin Cities-based followings, and plenty of long-distance alums traveled back to see Saturday’s game.
But if you do a game like this too often, the novelty wears off. Both schools also want to exploit their own home field advantages most years (Saturday’s game was technically a St. Thomas home game).
“We put so much money and time into our facilities that schools don’t want to lose a home game and home field advantage,” McKane said. “That’s something they want to take in account.”
St. Peter, meanwhile, said Target Field would never host a football game in October. That takes 2018 and 2019 out of the equation for Tommies/Johnnies at Target Field since the rivals are scheduled to meet in October both of those years.
September isn’t ideal, either, because it requires a long Twins road trip and repairing the field before the Twins return to play. The Twins, in fact, lobbied to have their 2017 schedule changed when they saw their marathon late-season road trip. When MLB couldn’t accommodate that request, they pivoted to football, St. Peter said.
“In some ways, our assessment won’t be complete until we play baseball Friday night,” St. Peter said. “Larry Divito (the Twins’ head groundskeeper) believes we came through it fairly well. … We’ll bring in a minimal amount of sod for replacement, but much less than what you would after a concert.”
Ideally, St. Peter said, a rematch between the teams would happen in November — after the end of MLB’s postseason when the field wouldn’t be used for anything else for months.
The MIAC football schedule is complete through 2027, and if we peek ahead we see St. Thomas and St. John’s face each other in November each season from 2020-2023. The 2021 and 2023 games are St. Thomas home games.
“There’s a chance it could work for us in 2021 or 2023 — a rematch, so to speak,” St. Peter said.
St. Peter and McKane were both at Saturday’s game. St. Peter called the atmosphere “awesome,” while McKane said the MIAC was “very pleased” with everything.
Given the overwhelming response combined with the way the schedule breaks in the future, it seems logical to at least pencil in a rematch sometime in the early 2020s — this time in November, when fans would probably need a gallon of hot chocolate instead of a gallon of water as they did during Saturday’s steamy game.
“I think certainly it’s something we’ll talk about down the road,” McKane said. “The novelty of this was so huge and that’s part of what made it a huge success. But I think there will be other opportunities.”