Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck insists the team’s plunging attendance doesn’t concern him, but the announced crowd numbers this fall showed some of the steepest declines in the nation.
And the numbers counting actual fans in attendance are even worse.
According to that data, obtained this week by the Star Tribune, TCF Bank Stadium was less than half full for five of the team’s seven home games.
The Gophers’ average announced attendance was 37,914, their lowest since Jim Wacker’s first season as coach in 1992.
And that’s announced attendance, or tickets distributed, not the actual number of tickets scanned at the turnstiles. The official scanned ticket numbers show the Gophers’ actual average attendance was 22,656.
The Gophers announced a crowd of 41,291 for their opener against New Mexico State, for example, but the number of scanned tickets was 20,218. In four of the following home games, actual attendance was fewer than 23,000 in TCF Bank Stadium, which now has a capacity of 50,805.
Only three years ago, with a home schedule that included TCU, Nebraska and Wisconsin, the average announced attendance was 52,355, all but filling the stadium that whole season. So that average has dropped 14,440 since 2015.
Of the 65 Power Five teams, only one has suffered a bigger drop in that time — USC, with 20,784 fewer fans per game. The Trojans still have one home game left, with a big crowd expected for No. 3 Notre Dame. In terms of percentage, USC and the Gophers have had almost identical drops over that span: 27.6 percent.
“My focus is on the people who are actually there, that’s it,” Fleck said this week, as his team prepared for Saturday’s regular-season finale at Wisconsin. “I mean, you look across college football in general — whether it’s NFL, college — attendance is down as it is. For us, I know, when we build it, everybody will be there.”
Across the nation, college football attendance fell 3.2 percent last season, the second-biggest drop since the NCAA began compiling attendance data in 1948.
The Gophers actually reversed that trend last year, Fleck’s first at Minnesota. They drew an average announced attendance of 44,358, which was up 544 fans per game from the previous season under then-coach Tracy Claeys.
After a 5-7 finish in 2017, the Gophers are 5-6 heading to Wisconsin and 4-13 in Big Ten play in two years under Fleck. But he is determined to eventually fill those 50,000 seats.
“That’s why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it, and we’re not going to come off that plan. Period,” Fleck said. “It’s not like I’m sitting there changing and panicking and now I’m bringing in 20 [junior college] players for Year 3.”
Fleck also experienced an attendance drop in his second season at Western Michigan, as the Broncos drew an average of 15,625 per game, down from 17,347 his first year. That number climbed to 23,838 by Fleck’s fourth year, as the Broncos stayed undefeated before a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
“[Attendance] went way, way, way, way up,” Fleck said. “You’re selling out your last year, and ‘College GameDay’s’ there. I mean, things that people could never imagine happening.”
The Star Tribune’s request to interview athletic director Mark Coyle this week for this story was denied, but Coyle made his feelings known in late August, shortly before the season. At that point, Gophers ticket revenue had already fallen by $8 million, or 28 percent, in a three-year span with the primary declines coming in football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey.
“We need ticket sales to pick up for us,” Coyle said then. “Ticket sales is the lifeline of your program, and we need to pay attention.”
If the Gophers’ bottom line benefited in 2015 from a home football schedule with robust opponents, this year’s has been lean. The marquee home game this year came against Iowa, which drew an announced 48,199.
The last two home games came with kickoff temperatures of 21 degrees and 23 degrees, for Purdue and Northwestern, respectively. It rained for the Friday night game against Indiana on Oct. 26. The average announced attendance for those three final home games was 32,158.
And the university’s official scanned ticket numbers for those games — 20,357 (Indiana), 15,434 (Purdue) and 15,160 (Northwestern) — were even more alarming.
“I’m not concerned with that at all,” Fleck said of the overall attendance numbers. “I think we’ve got an incredible fan base, and we have a lot of people who love and care for us … and our student section and the band. I appreciate their loyalty, and those are the ones we’re going to focus on.”