On Nov. 3, Sara Sanken and her husband, Tim, walked through the gates at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., with their 18-year-old son and one of his good friends, settling in their seats for their second Vikings road game of the year after purchasing tickets for $300 apiece on NFL Ticket Exchange. They struck up a conversation with a man who had been attending Chiefs games for years, and was there that day with his wife and grandson.
“He looked around and said, ‘I’ve never seen so many visiting fans at these games. You guys did an amazing job,’ ” Sara Sanken said.
In the venue that Guinness World Records recognizes as the NFL’s loudest, Vikings fans made so much noise that the Chiefs’ gameday operations crew turned up the Tomahawk Chop song to drown out the Vikings’ Skol chant in the fourth quarter, even with the Chiefs facing a third-and-11 on offense.
The next Sunday, Vikings fans made up a sizable contingent of the 91,188 who watched Minnesota’s 28-24 victory over the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
And in a video unveiling of the Vikings’ schedule in April, play-by-play announcer Paul Allen invited the fan base to “paint the town purple” for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers in their temporary home.
The Vikings’ final regular-season road game — and the Chargers’ penultimate game at Dignity Health Sports Park — will be speckled with purple as Vikings fans continue to contribute to the changing composition of crowds at NFL games. Thanks to the growth of online ticket exchanges like StubHub and SeatGeek (as well as the NFL’s own ticket resale business through Ticketmaster), fans are increasingly venturing to see their favorite teams in other cities, nudging some NFL venues closer to something resembling a bipartisan environment.
According to StubHub, which began a partnership as the NFL’s “authorized ticket resale marketplace” in 2018, it sells 21% of all its NFL tickets to buyers from outside the state of the game, up from 18% in 2015. Minnesota residents have purchased 9% of all tickets sold for Vikings away games this season, nearly double what they purchased five years ago.
For the Vikings-Chiefs game, SeatGeek said it sold 13% of its tickets to Minnesota residents, with another 3% going to buyers in Iowa and 1% each going to buyers in North and South Dakota. The company also said it has sold 10% of its tickets for the Vikings-Chargers game to Minnesotans, with another 3% to the Dakotas and 1% to Iowans.
And while the Vikings have one of the NFL’s hardiest traveling fan bases — they have the sixth-highest demand in the NFL among road teams this season, a SeatGeek spokesperson said — their home games at U.S. Bank Stadium have taken on a different hue, as well. StubHub said non-Minnesotans account for 60% of its ticket sales for Vikings home games this season (the NFL’s 12th-highest out-of-state sales rate) and 21% of its NFL tickets are sold to buyers from outside the state of a game.
The Vikings’ Nov. 17 home game against Denver — which came a week after those trips to K.C. and Dallas — played out before a vocal contingent of visiting Broncos fans. A SeatGeek spokesperson said Colorado and Nebraska residents each accounted for 4% of its ticket sales for the game, with another 5% coming from North Dakota, 4% coming from South Dakota and 4% from Iowa.
Traveling road shows
Games like the Vikings at Chiefs or Broncos at Vikings appear to be something of a perfect storm — the kind that offer reasonable traveling distances for visiting fans and a chance to see an infrequent opponent with a top drawing card like 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes, whose presence seemed to be a significant attraction for Vikings fans before the Chiefs quarterback missed the game because of a sprained knee.
Other fan bases take advantage of proximity, too; Dallas-area residents purchased 21% of the tickets for the Cowboys’ Sept. 29 game in New Orleans, according to SeatGeek, and Patriots fans have long been known to take over MetLife Stadium when their team travels to face the Jets.
But with digital ticketing processes increasingly demystified as secondary markets end their second decade and a virtual travel agent available at the touch of a screen, fans might have an easier time catching road games than ever. The shift comes as a variety of factors continue to chip away at, or at least change, the notion of home-field advantage; NFL teams are winning 46.7% of the time on the road this year, the second-highest rate since the league went to 32 teams in 2002.
Oddsmakers have been gradually devaluing home-field advantage since the 1990s, according to Sharp Football Stats, as teams get smarter about travel and sleep schedules, practice with crowd noise and master radio communication from a coach’s headset to a quarterback’s helmet.
For fans, the notion of catching the home team away from home isn’t as foreign as it once was. And for players, the idea of silencing road crowds is a bit more nuanced than it used to be.
“Sunday was unique,” Cousins said after the 26-23 loss to the Chiefs. “I hadn’t seen something like that. When you’re having a really good fan base in the Kansas City Chiefs, having to drown out the Skol chant when our defense is out there and their offense is on the field, and they’re having to get loud, just to try to drown out the Skol chant, I haven’t seen that before.”
With a handful of exceptions, Vikings fans who show up for road games can be broken into two large camps: those who’ve built quick getaways around games and those staying connected to their team even though they live elsewhere.
Andrew Brown moved to Southern California for college in 2005 and still lives in the area working as a freelance TV editor. His family has held Vikings season tickets since the mid-1960s, and he took them over in 2012; Brown said he still flies back for a handful of Vikings games every year, but he estimates he’s gone to more than 10 road games, including Kansas City and Seattle this year.
His first date with his wife, Leah, was at the Vikings’ first game at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016. They were married in May, and they’ll welcome more than a dozen family and friends to Sunday’s game after Brown snapped up 16 tickets at roughly $170 apiece.
On the way to the Chiefs game, Brown found himself sitting next to “Modern Family” actor Eric Stonestreet, who’d flown home to catch a Kansas State game. When Brown caught a ball from Stefon Diggs in Kansas City during the receiver’s weekly pregame exchange with fans, Brown said he “felt like I was 8 years old again.”
“I’m 33 years old, catching a ball from someone [seven] years younger,” he said. “Sometimes you feel kind of stupid, but at the same time, it’s fun.”
Bloomington resident Brett Shay, who works in sales for Arrow Electronics, annually enlists a ticket broker to find seats for eight or 10 from Augsburg for the Vikings’ game at Lambeau Field. In November, the group expanded to 17 and rented an RV to lead the caravan down to Kansas City, where they feasted on barbecue for hours before heading to the seats they’d purchased for $190 apiece on the secondary market.
It’s not a cheap pursuit. According to an informal Star Tribune survey of more than 250 people who attended Vikings road games, fans paid an average of $251 per ticket (excluding those who had been given tickets to a game), and spent another $743, on average, on travel costs.
But some workarounds do exist for those on a budget: Apple Valley native Mike Hutton gambled on standing room-only seats at AT&T Stadium for $35 apiece on StubHub with a group of 15 or so friends last month. The Cowboys’ three-deep galleries of standing-room spots made sight lines difficult, but Hutton and his twin brother, Nick, found flights to Dallas for $200 apiece and soaked up the pregame entertainment scene in 70-degree weather.
Diligent ticket shoppers can also benefit from a keen sense of timing, just like with booking flights. When Minneapolis native Kristofer Mitchell — who did his graduate school thesis at Concordia (St. Paul) on the steep costs of attending NFL games — saw Mahomes was hurt, he logged onto NFL Ticket Exchange and pounced on seats at the 50-yard line in Arrowhead’s upper deck that had dropped by $50.
Many fans who’ve taken to the road have turned the Vikings into their vacations — Sara Sanken said her husband doesn’t like to travel enough to take longer trips but has warmed to her idea of seeing a game in every NFL stadium, especially when it only involves a night or two away from home. And to those who buy digital tickets regularly, there’s little fear left in the idea of purchasing them sight unseen for a game in another town.
Shay bought tickets through StubHub for the Vikings’ 2017 game at Carolina as part of a birthday trip, and found when he got to the stadium his seats had been sold multiple times by a fraudulent ticket seller. His group missed most of the first quarter while waiting at a customer service tent but wound up with lower-level seats on the 30-yard line and a $500 credit.
“It was slightly inconvenient,” Shay said. “But they did very well by us, at least.”
‘Fans don’t play’
On Sunday, the Vikings will conclude their road schedule in a stadium that’s welcomed visiting teams almost to a fault; the Chargers rankled some of their players in an Oct. 14 game against Pittsburgh by playing Styx’s “Renegade,” which has become a Steelers anthem, during the fourth quarter.
“We’re playing at home; we’re not traveling,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We’ve been on the road a lot, so we feel good about playing in our home stadium. I know that California’s a destination place. A lot of people when they want to watch their team, they’re going to come to California. So that’s just part of it. But fans don’t play. We’re going to play the Vikings on the football field, and that’s really all that matters.”
Cousins cautioned this week against assuming a divided crowd means a neutral environment.
“If you’re not playing well, it’ll feel like a tough environment on the road,” he said. “If you are playing well, even the most packed away stadiums can feel like a friendly environment.”
After the Vikings lost to the Chiefs by a field goal, Cousins said he wished he could say the Vikings’ crowd that day made the difference — “and it very well could have,” he added. “We didn’t win the game, so it doesn’t accentuate it as much as you would like.”
The support the Vikings have felt on the road this season, though, still means a great deal to Cousins.
“You start to think about the 32 teams in the league, and you realize how fortunate you are to play for the Vikings,” he said in November. “When you come home and you play in our stadium, you realize that; not every home team has an environment like we have. But then, when you go on the road and you realize, ‘Wow, we’re one of only a handful of teams that has a fan base like this, that travels like this, that will be in just about any stadium in the league,’ that’s really special. You feel very fortunate to be in an organization like that.”