Midway through the first quarter of Saturday’s Gophers game against Colorado State, TCF Bank Stadium was less than 70 percent full, with the gold seats spelling a clearly visible M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A along the south sideline.
Athletic director Mark Coyle had given free tickets to former season-ticket holders who didn’t renew this year, inviting them for a special pregame discussion. His message, according to a department spokesman, was “We want you back.”
The Gophers regularly played to capacity crowds last year, but much of that buzz has been missing as they’ve opened this season with nonconference victories over Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State.
Season-ticket sales are down about 18 percent from last year, and the actual in-house attendance in the 50,805-seat stadium has looked considerably smaller than the average announced attendance of 43,487.
The next 10 days — with games at Penn State and home against Iowa — could set the tone for the rest of the season. After that, the home schedule brings Rutgers, Purdue and Northwestern, which have a combined record of 4-7. None will stir much excitement, unless the home team is on a roll.
“I think a win at Penn State would be so huge for this fan base,” said Nadine Babu, a longtime season-ticket holder and co-owner of Gopherhole.com. “I think the die-hards see a lot of potential. But I don’t think the casual fans are coming to games and really have much interest.”
Last year, with several marquee games on the schedule, the Gophers’ announced attendance was 99.7 percent of their capacity, which ranked 17th in the nation, according to PhilSteele.com.
It wasn’t just the games against TCU, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. With the Vikings as tenants, the Gophers had expanded seating, and drew an announced 52,823 for Kent State and 53,917 for homecoming against Ohio.
“I think a couple of things are big factors,” Babu said. “One is the weaker schedule, and two is the ticket [price] increases. I know a lot of people dropped tickets because of seat licensing.”
Former AD Norwood Teague unrolled an aggressive three-year increase in the team’s “scholarship seating” plan. Scholarship seating fees, common throughout college football, are built-in donations attached to season-ticket packages.
The scholarship seating price for lower-level seats between the 35-yard lines was $500 when the stadium opened in 2009. Teague’s plan hiked that amount to $650 last season, $850 this year and would have jumped to $1,000 next season.
But in August, less than three months after taking the job, Coyle announced he was canceling next year’s increase.
“I think that was great,” Babu said. “But it was almost too late because we already lost so many.”
The Gophers have sold 22,818 non-student season tickets, down from 27,885 last year. Student season tickets don’t have scholarship seating fees. The Gophers have sold 6,967 student season tickets, down from 8,495 last year.
“The increase with the ticket thing made it extremely difficult on people,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “Mark has taken some [steps to change] that. But as I’ve said before, you can try all of the gimmicks you want. The only way to improve the attendance, you got to win. And I understand that.
“We win, more attendance comes. We don’t, less attendance, I get fired. It’s pretty cut and dry.”
The Gophers reached out to those former season-ticket holders, and Coyle invited them to the West Plaza an hour before Saturday’s game.
“The message was, ‘Hey, you’ve been a loyal supporter in past; we can’t tell you how much we appreciate it,’ ” said Jake Ricker, Gophers associate athletics communications director. “He told them, ‘We’re always open to feedback. You’ve invested so much in us. We want to invest in you. We want you back. We want to hear how we can improve.’ ”
Coming off a 6-7 season, the Gophers know they also must improve on the field. These next two games will say a lot about their chances of competing for a Big Ten West title — and their chances of filling their stadium this fall.
Ricker said they’ve sold about 8,000 student tickets for the Iowa game on Oct. 8, but plenty of tickets still are available all over the stadium. A victory at Penn State wouldn’t hurt.
“It’s the hardest-working group I’ve been around and the hungriest as well,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “So I can only imagine as the wins keep coming and we keep playing well … that people are going to want to hop on that bandwagon, if you will.”