Last season, Gophers football attendance at TCF Bank Stadium dropped to a 26-year low, as average attendance for all FBS programs plunged to the lowest mark in 22 years.
And that’s just counting the announced numbers of tickets sold, which often differ significantly from the actual tickets scanned. Last year, for example, the Gophers’ average announced attendance was 37,915, while their average number of tickets scanned was 22,656.
With the Gophers set to open a new season at home Thursday, combating declining attendance is paramount for the athletics department. But the Gophers aren’t alone in their concern.
Florida State experienced its smallest crowds since 1992 last season. Ohio State began offering flexible season-ticket packages for the first time, a sign that even Buckeyes fans want options. And Clemson failed to sell out any of its games — despite making an undefeated run to the national championship.
“It’s not just a Minnesota thing,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said. “It’s across the country.”
The shared problem has spurred a collective solution brainstorm in recent years. For the Gophers, that’s involved taking feedback from a fan advisory board on how to make the gameday atmosphere more appealing to families and students alike.
The Gophers introduced a new mobile season-ticket option for $199.96, where fans sit in a different seat for every game, and held a one-day flash sale for the opener where they sold more than 7,000 tickets at $10 apiece.
This week, they introduced a “Gameday Gopher Hour” promotion, where fans are invited onto the stadium’s West Plaza pregame for discounted prices on hot dogs ($2), popcorn ($4), beer ($5) and wine ($6).
As of Monday afternoon, the Gophers had sold 46,553 tickets for Thursday’s opener. Their season ticket sales of 21,614 are on pace to surpass last year’s total of 21,663, according to a team spokesman.
“There’s no doubt there’s been more and more conversation about it,” Coyle said. “Obviously, how the market is changing and how people go to games, what they want to do when they get to games.”
At Big Ten Media Days last month, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald answered a question about the national attendance problem with a rant about youth having a “pathetic” dependence on cell phones and social media that creates a culture of narcissism and closet self-loathing.
“The fans that grew up going and tailgating, and the fans that grew up going to the stadiums four hours before the games are getting a little older. And I think the next and younger generation of fans are more reliant on technology,” Fitzgerald said. “They’d rather have 12 TVs set up in their TV-watching cave than go to the game and experience the pageantry.”
While Fitzgerald’s team showed the biggest attendance improvement in the country last year, averaging more than 8,000 more fans each game than in 2017, he isn’t the only Big Ten coach lamenting this new era.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said “apathy exists in America, and impatience exists in America,” especially when it comes to sitting through a three-hour game. Maryland’s Mike Locksley said many fans are in the “swipe-right-or-left business” of instant gratification, making them always ready to move on to the next thing.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz synthesized it into one main point: It’s just hard to entertain people nowadays.
“You hear about what’s important now, getting Wi-Fi in the stadium. I mean, heaven forbid we all go to a football game and watching the game, like the whole game,” Ferentz said. “… All we can try to do is try to put a good team out there on the field. … If that’s not enough, if they need me to stand on my head, that’s going to be tough. Or juggling. Or acrobatics.”
Other coaches think their teams are immune. Nebraska’s Scott Frost said if there’s a decline in college football attendance, his school doesn’t see it.
“Raising our kids the right way. Having morals and characteristics that I admire, personally. Having genuine, real, tough people,” Frost said. “Loyal people that are going to show up through thick and thin and stay for four quarters in a Michigan State game when it’s freezing outside. … That’s the type of people Nebraska has.”
The Cornhuskers have boasted 368 consecutive sellouts at Memorial Stadium, dating to 1962. But a report in the Omaha-World Herald before last season revealed a large discrepancy between the announced attendance and tickets scanned from 2014-17, which put all 28 home games under the more than 85,000 capacity.
Penn State’s James Franklin said there’s just something special about being there in person. But he admitted his team has an advantage in central Pennsylvania, with no nearby professional sports teams competing for entertainment dollars.
“It’s an opportunity to put your phone down and look up and talk to people and interact and enjoy the great game of football,” Franklin said, “which in my opinion, has the ability to bring communities together and bring people from all different backgrounds together at probably a time in our country where we need it the most.”
Even with all the challenges, the Gophers are optimistic for an attendance rebound this fall. They went 3-1 to finish coach P.J. Fleck’s second season and nine of 11 starters return on offense.
If last year’s home schedule lacked marquee matchups — aside from the Iowa/Minnesota rivalry — this one includes visits from Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said scheduling plays a part in the attendance drama, with many teams failing to play competitive nonconference slates that entice fans.
Coyle said that sounds like a simple fix but is much more difficult in reality, considering how far out teams schedule and what a puzzle it can be to find opening dates that match. Still, the Gophers have bolstered future schedules with the likes of BYU, Colorado, North Carolina and Mississippi State.
“We’ve just got to win. To me, that’s just, it’s pretty simple,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said of what he tells his players when they see fans leave games early. “We win that game, we find a way to finish that game, and they regret leaving.”
Coyle said he doesn’t have the answers for how or why college football attendance is waning. He doesn’t have a specific solution either. But what he does know is the onus to correct it isn’t on the fans.
“It’s not their fault that they’re not coming to games,” Coyle said. “It’ on us to find a way to get them back.”