Earlier this month, “Today Show” host Matt Lauer asked his NBC audience, “You want a feel-good story for a Friday morning? This is a really good one.”
He introduced the video of Gophers coach P.J. Fleck awarding backup kicker Justin Junemann a scholarship with help from Kyle Tanner, a bone marrow disease patient whom Junemann had visited in the hospital repeatedly.
“I love that coach,” Lauer told co-host Savannah Guthrie. “Me, too,” she said.
Between that viral video, numerous interviews and the four-part “Being P.J. Fleck” airing on three cable networks this month, the new Gophers coach continues to draw national publicity for a program long overlooked. Analysts predict the coast-to-coast exposure eventually could pay big dividends for the university.
But so far, the Fleck hype has yet to fill the maroon-and-gold coffers.
The Gophers have distributed fewer than 40,000 tickets for their Aug. 31 opener against Buffalo, a spokesman confirmed Friday, and that’s counting 5,000 freebies they annually give freshmen for the first game. Two years after playing a full season to near-capacity crowds at TCF Bank Stadium, the athletic department is still struggling to refill the 9-year-old facility’s 50,805 seats.
Fans are taking a wait-and-see approach with Fleck. Since the Gophers hired him away from Western Michigan on Jan. 6, their number of new season tickets sold is 1,430.
Athletic director Mark Coyle still sees that for what it is: growth. The Gophers sold just 660 new season tickets last year.
“If you look across the country, a lot of programs are struggling to sell new season tickets, and we have a 115 percent increase,” Coyle said. “So I’m very pleased with that.”
More growth is needed to match the last crowd to watch a coach in his first Gophers home opener. Last August, 44,582 fans saw Tracy Claeys’ Gophers beat Oregon State.
Claeys’ team finished 9-4, marking just the second time Minnesota had won more than eight games in the modern era. But a nondescript home schedule coupled with hefty price increases led to an attendance drop-off.
There were no sellouts last season, and the Gophers failed to draw more than 45,000 for any game except Iowa. They were 7-3 heading into their home finale against Northwestern and drew just 38,162 fans on a pleasant late-November day.
Coyle scrapped another price increase for this year, which had been scheduled under former AD Norwood Teague. After making the coaching change from Claeys to Fleck, Coyle explained that it was time to “shake the tree.”
The leaves won’t change colors for weeks, but summer headwinds have been strong. The 36-year-old Fleck has done interviews with ESPN, USA Today, CBSSports.com, Sirius XM, “The Jim Rome Show,” and radio stations from Miami to Portland, Ore.
“We hired the youngest, hottest coach in America; the attention and requests for his time haven’t stopped since he got here,” said Paul Rovnak, Gophers communications director.
Fox 9 on Friday announced it’s launching “The P.J. Fleck Show,” a live 30-minute segment each Wednesday night. Last year, the Gophers produced their own weekly show with Claeys, airing it on Facebook Live.
Despite their improved on-field performance last year, the Gophers drew little media attention from outside Minnesota, even from the Big Ten Network. BTN’s lead anchor, Dave Revsine, said the Fleck hire raised Minnesota’s profile.
“I guess my fear,” Revsine said, “is that [Fleck] gets looked at as kind of a carnival barker, and that almost detracts from people’s understanding of what a great coach he is, or at least he was in his last stop.”
Fleck went 1-11 his first season at Western Michigan and 13-1 three years later. Last November, ESPN’s “College GameDay” set up shop in Kalamazoo, Mich., something that has never happened at Minnesota.
“People think I’m a self-promoter or full of hot air,” Fleck said. “I’m just energetic and passionate. And in terms of the promoter, isn’t every coach? Isn’t that what we want for our state, to be a national program?
“But if you haven’t had that in 50 years, you don’t know what that’s like and you don’t know what that can do when you become a national brand.”
Fleck notes that he didn’t pitch the “Being P.J. Fleck” series; the producers approached him. According to ESPN Communications, the first two episodes drew 69,000 and 54,000 viewers, respectively. Including reruns, the show will air 100 times on ESPNU, ESPN2 and Big Ten Network.
Chicago-based Navigate Research estimated that the Junemann scholarship video alone reached more than 1 billion potential viewers, based on the various news outlets that picked it up, including NBC, ESPN and the “ABC Evening News.” Navigate estimates the video’s “media equivalency value” at about $4 million, under the formula that every thousand potential impressions are worth $2.85.
“Does [Fleck’s national presence] matter? Yes, it does matter,” said AJ Maestas, Navigate’s president. “Minnesota’s not on the radar for a lot of kids nationally. If people aren’t aware of you, they can’t possibly consider buying your product.”
Coyle said he didn’t have exact numbers yet, but sales of Gophers T-shirts with Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra have been brisk. Coyle said it’s also hard to put an exact number on the impact Fleck’s hire has made on fundraising.
The Gophers hope to see spikes in numbers all around — how much will hinge on how well Fleck’s team handles Buffalo, Oregon State and everyone else.
“It’s not like you’re taking over a program that won two or three games, that fired a coach because the team wasn’t any good,” Revsine said. “So I think that becomes a challenge.
“I do think the pressure is on [Fleck] for them to be pretty good, and to be pretty good in relatively short order. It’s just going to be a matter of whether their on-the-field performance can back up all of the talk.”