Ben Johnson knows what it's like to see Williams Arena loud and packed, a tough place to play for opposing teams, having grown up watching the Gophers before playing and coaching at the U.
Johnson hopes to build a homecourt advantage again, but that will take time. His men's basketball program is in a rebuilding stage and attendance numbers are on pace this season to be the lowest in five decades.
The Gophers' average announced attendance (tickets sold) through the first eight regular-season games is 8,551. Not counting two seasons ago, when fans couldn't attend because of COVID, that's the Gophers' lowest mark since 1970-71, when they averaged 8,395 the season before Bill Musselman was hired.
This season's official scanned ticket numbers, obtained by the Star Tribune, are even lower. According to the university, the average number of tickets scanned for Gophers men's home games this season is 3,313.
"We've got to get the fans behind us and create an environment and energy here," Johnson said Friday.
Saturday's 11 a.m., game against Nebraska could be an ideal opportunity for the Gophers (6-7, 0-3 Big Ten) to show much-needed progress and get their first Big Ten win, especially coming off a respectable showing in Tuesday's 63-60 loss at Wisconsin.
Johnson preached to Gophers faithful to have patience early in his second season with an inexperienced team with young but unproven talent in the Big Ten.
During their five-game losing streak in late November and early December, the Gophers lost home games to Michigan and Mississippi State by a combined 33 points.
The announced attendance for the Michigan game, for example, was 10,004, but the scanned ticket number was 5,872. The scanned ticket numbers for Mississippi State (3,256) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2,584) weren't even close to half-capacity at 14,625-seat Williams Arena.
Minnesota's most recent home game, a victory against Chicago State on Dec. 22, drew just 1,577 scanned tickets. But that was moved from a night game to a noon Thursday tip because of bad weather.
"Regardless of who is in the stands, the energy has to come from the team," freshman guard Braeden Carrington said. "The fans are there to make the arena louder. But regardless, if it was an empty gym or 10,000 people, that energy has to come from [us]."
Carrington, the state's Mr. Basketball last year, played in front what appeared to be a much bigger crowd at Williams Arena in his last high school game than he's seen so far in college. Park Center beat Wayzata last March in front of an announced 9,581 to win Minnesota's Class 4A state title.
Gophers senior associate athletic director Mike Wierzbicki said the U's opponent, game times, inflation and market costs are variables that have also impacted ticket sales across the country during the pandemic.
"Is there probably some COVID fatigue? I think so," said Wierzbicki, who handles Gophers marketing. "I think there was that buzz of people excited to get back together. But there also was some hesitation about things. Maybe got disconnected from the team and haven't re-engaged.
"I think that's not just Gophers men's basketball, but you can apply that to a lot of other sports entertainment options."
In the Big Ten, three teams have lower announced attendance than the Gophers this season: Rutgers (7,818), Penn State (5,932) and Northwestern (3,807). It's worth noting that Rutgers plays in an 8,000-seat arena.
The last time the Gophers' average attendance topped 12,000 for a season was 2014-15. The next year, the Gophers went 8-22 under then-coach Richard Pitino, and their attendance hasn't recovered.
With fans allowed back last season, and Johnson in his first year as head coach, the Gophers created buzz with a 10-1 start, including 5-0 at home. Their average announced attendance for the season increased to 10,267 even though they unraveled and finished last in the Big Ten.
Wierzbicki credited the Gophers coaches and players for getting around campus and the community to engage with fans to support a mostly new team. Johnson's motto for his program is "C2F," which means Committed to Family. And that will be on display with Saturday's alumni day honoring close to 50 former players at the game.
"Things are different today than they were 10 years ago," Wierzbicki said. "You look at the transfer portal, right. You've got turnover in your team every year. Obviously, that's a lot for Ben and our staff to work through. Even more so to help our fan base get to know these guys.
"Luckily, we brought in some Minnesota kids [Jamison Battle and Dawson Garcia] who were at other schools to come back. There still is some re-education and relationship building in this era of the portal that's not bad. It's just different."
The Gophers anticipate their biggest crowd yet this season Saturday, so players are anxious to play well and make the Barn environment what it could be with more fans.
"When I watched games here or on TV the atmosphere was really nice," freshman Joshua Ola-Joseph said about previous years. "Us having a conference win here would be really big."