When the Gophers conclude their football season Saturday, school officials will turn their attention to the task of selling season tickets for 2012. Their success, they freely admit, will hinge on their ability to sell that elusive and hard-to-define commodity: hope.

Pretty much like they sold it to this year's fans, and the year before and the year before that ...

"We've done that for a long time," athletic director Joel Maturi said. "I can hardly wait until we sell wins. But that's just the reality of where we are right now."

Selling hope for 2011 came with the advantage of a new coach, Jerry Kill, and a home schedule that included regional rivals North Dakota State in nonconference play and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska in the Big Ten. All four of those schools brought thousands of fans to TCF Bank Stadium -- most of them picking up tickets being offered up by home fans -- and Wisconsin and Nebraska had almost as many fans in the stadium as the Gophers did.

And still, the Gophers have had the lowest average attendance of their three-year stay at TCF, 48,741, including a stadium-low 46,543 against Iowa. Next year, hope must stand on its own, because there isn't a regional rival on the home schedule.

After getting a look at the team he inherited from Tim Brewster, Kill predicts he will need three to five years to build a competitive program. So, it's all about hope.

There is no more ardent believer in Kill than longtime booster and Twin Cities businessman Harvey Mackay. But Mackay, the author of several bestselling books on business, describes the challenge of marketing 2012 tickets in a tough economy as "uphill, into the wind," adding, "I am a realist."

Michael Nowakowski of Ticket King predicted next year's schedule will be "a hard sell of us and for the Gophers." In the next three seasons, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska appear on the home schedule only once each, all in 2013.

The university sold a total of 37,125 season tickets in 2011, and the challenge for 2012 has already prompted a series of athletic department meetings. Football ticket revenue, including preferred and premium seating, for the 2010 season -- the most recent financial figures available -- was $18.7 million, which accounted for almost a quarter of the university's $78.9 million athletic budget in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Football, and to a lesser extent men's basketball and hockey, support an athletic department that has 25 sports teams. Maturi said a drop in football revenue "would be a significant hit, because we're not operating with a reserve. We pretty much spend every dollar we take in."

The base

Almost half of the football ticket revenue in 2010 came from preferred and premium seating. Preferred seating tickets -- where fans pay above the face value of the ticket for the best seats -- are sold on a yearly basis. Preferred seating income in 2010 was $4.4 million.

Premium seating, including suites and loge boxes, are sold on contracts that range from three to seven years. A critical challenge next season: 199 of the 515 premium seating accounts were sold as three-year contracts at the opening of TCF Bank Stadium, meaning they are up for renewal at the end of this season. Those accounts represent roughly $2.3 million in revenue.

The university sold 28 of 37 available suites on a season basis in 2011 -- the others were sold on a game-by-game basis -- and eight season suites, priced at $45,500, are up for renewal.

This season's drop in attendance at three-year-old TCF Bank Stadium despite the arrival of a new coach and an attractive schedule raises this question: What is the core Gophers fan level?

History indicates it is somewhere between 43,000 and 45,000 fans -- or about 5,000 below this season's average. Since 1970, the median average season attendance is 43,813, while the average is 44,750.

Consider the effect on ticket revenue if the attendance at the stadium fell to the 40-year average of 44,750, a drop of 9 percent from the 2010-11 average attendance of 49,513. A corresponding 9 percent loss in revenue would equate to a $1.8 million.

But an actual loss in revenue could be larger, Maturi acknowledged, because of the 40 percent of premium accounts up for renewal.

The 2011 attendance is cause for concern for many. Regent Dean Johnson called it "disconcerting" to see the large number of opposing fans and said "overall, long-term, one has to be concerned."

Michael Stratton, a local ticket broker, said that even with this year's attractive schedule there was very little demand for tickets in the secondary market, the market where already-purchased tickets are resold.

"The secondary market for college football just isn't very good here," he said. "Of course, the main reason is they have a terrible program, and it's been that way for years."

Any drop in football revenue next year would come at an inopportune time, because of an expected increase of at least $400,000 to the athletic budget for the NCAA's new stipend payment athletes scheduled to start in 2012-13.

Add it all up, and nonrevenue coaches should be on edge, Gophers baseball coach John Anderson said.

"You can't be a good, or competitive, athletic program without a good football program," said Anderson, who's been on campus 37 years. "I'm concerned, when you look out [during the Wisconsin game] and see all the red in the stands, and then you look at the schedule next year [without the regional rivals]. I've always believed you get a two-year honeymoon with new facilities, and that's starting to wear off.

"There are a number of factors lining up and staring us in the face that it would make it very difficult to sleep at night if you had to make the decisions."

Balancing act

Maturi maintains he doesn't believe nonrevenue sports are in immediate danger of being eliminated if football revenue drops, although he acknowledges it's possible budgets for programs will be cut. He bases his personal hope on Kill successfully selling his message to fans, plus several new revenue streams in 2012-13:

• Premium seating in men's basketball and hockey is scheduled to start next year, although that money had been earmarked for improvements within Williams and Mariucci arenas.

• The Big Ten championship football game should bring in about $1.5 million, and the addition of Nebraska should create additional revenue from the Big Ten Network.

There's also still hope that the Legislature will reverse course and vote in the next session to allow alcohol in premium seating areas. The loss of alcohol forced the university to offer 10 percent annual discounts on premium seating contracts, and the yearly revenue loss because of the alcohol ban has been estimated at $1.3 million.

Of all the football challenges, Maturi said getting students to attend games remains his No. 1 priority. The Legislature mandates 10,000 tickets be set aside for football student tickets, and season tickets this year were just 5,568.

"It's huge, it's huge, it's huge," Maturi said of the lack of students at games. "Even though there's not the revenue there [compared to general seating], that's where I want us to really concentrate our efforts, because I believe they, and the band, define college sports."

Maturi said he has already contemplated several potential cuts in programs, if it comes to that.

"There are very few things you can control," he said. "About the only thing you can control are nonconference schedules. ... You can control where they go, and the mode of transportation that they use, and we may have to do more busing."

How long can the university survive by selling hope? Even Maturi acknowledges the Gophers have tested the patience of their fan base.

He remembers the lesson he learned Oct. 10, 2003, when 62,374 fans -- "the only game since I've been here, except the TCF opener, that we sold out a game with Minnesota fans" -- saw a 6-0 Gophers team blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to lose 38-35 to Michigan at the Metrodome. The next week, the Gophers, still in contention for a major bowl, played host to No. 15 Michigan State, and only 38,778 fans bothered coming.

"Minnesota fans are tired of getting disappointed," he said. "The hope is built, built, and then we don't quite get over the step, and we need to get over the step. I truly believe Jerry Kill is going to get us over that step."

He is, in fact, banking on it.