Ever notice the half-empty student section at the University of Minnesota's home football games? So has the university.

In fact, so few students buy season tickets at TCF Bank Stadium that the U is looking for another way to fill the empty seats.

Starting this fall, if the 10,000 student seats aren't sold out by the first week of school, the U may offer them to the public — at more than three times the student price. On Friday, the Board of Regents gave its blessing to the Athletic Department to make the change.

"It's our goal to fill that section with 10,000 students," Mike Ellis, the executive associate athletic director, told the board. But realistically, he said, that goal has been elusive.

Since the 50,800-seat stadium opened in 2009, the number of student season-ticket holders has dropped from 10,248 to 4,953 last year.

From the start, legislators required the U to set aside 10,000 seats for students at a relatively modest price — currently, $90 per season. That's a bargain compared with season tickets for the general public, which now range from $310 to $330. But even at a discount, fewer than 3,900 students bought season tickets in 2012, the low point.

"This is a national trend, it's not just here," said Chris Werle, senior associate athletic director. Even Michigan and Alabama — two of the most popular college teams — have seen a decline, he noted.

Some say it's because students would rather watch at home on flat-screen TVs. Or because of the iffy Wi-Fi reception in the stadium, which can make it hard to multitask while cheering.

"Nobody knows," said Werle, "but everybody knows that the numbers are declining."

Joelle Stangler, a junior who is the incoming student-body president, says there are practical obstacles, too. "Many students have work obligations on the weekends," she said. And with the U's history as a commuter campus, she noted, "game day isn't an integral part of every student's life."

Mike Schmit, a finance major, said he skipped the season tickets his sophomore year because of the cost. "Personally, I have over $30,000 in student loans," he said. "I could use this $100 somewhere else."

In the past, the U did not permit the Athletic Department to sell student seats to the public until the Tuesday before game day. Now, it will release them for all games after the first week of school — but only, Ellis said, if all the other seats in the stadium are sold out. Even then, they'll keep a minimum of 6,000 seats for students.

Officials say that student-ticket sales have started to climb back up, thanks in part to a big spring-marketing campaign.

But there's one selling point they can't control.

"If they're losing, students don't want to go," said Schmit. "That's pretty plain and simple."

Werle agreed. "Winning helps. That's just the truth."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384