Both the Timberwolves and Gophers men play at home Tuesday night. No doubt team and school executives will be as anxious to see what happens in the stands as on the court.
They are hoping (praying?) to see more bodies and fewer empty seats.
With the exception of the Vikings, Wild and Lynx, attendance for other high-profile teams in town has been dismal this year. In some cases, teams are on pace to draw their fewest fans in more than a decade.
“We know we’ve got to earn everybody’s trust and respect back,” Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino said a few weeks ago.
Missouri’s nickname is the “Show Me State.” That motto also applies to the Twin Cities ticket-buying public that has been beaten down by constant losing.
Sagging attendance indicates that fans are tired of being spoon-fed hype and hope, and they won’t be lured back easily.
They want to see a winning product before they buy in. It’s not cheap for a family to hold season tickets, or even attend one sporting event.
The Wolves rank last in the NBA in attendance, a mild surprise based on the buzz created by Tom Thibodeau’s arrival and returning nucleus of exciting young talent.
Attendance at Target Field plummeted to new lows this season, which wasn’t surprising given the Twins’ ineptitude. This season marked the first time the Twins failed to draw 2 million fans at Target Field, their lowest attendance overall since 2004. A wonderful ballpark alone is no longer enough enticement.
The Gophers men’s basketball team is drawing 8,642 fans (announced) for nonconference games. The team averaged 10,706 for all games last season, the lowest at Williams Arena since 2004-05.
Crowds were so sparse the first few games that Pitino brought a player, Goldy the mascot and the marching band for a surprise visit to an economics class to drum up student support.
The football Gophers drew an announced crowd of 38,162 for their home finale against Northwestern, the smallest turnout in eight seasons at TCF Bank Stadium. Average attendance this season was 43,814, their lowest since 2002.
Those sharply declining figures should alarm organizations. They also send a message: Fans are withholding their financial support until they see the product improve.
The drain of losing has forced teams to get creative in promotion and marketing. It seems like every team in town works overtime in that area. Those folks deserve medals because that job probably feels like flicking a pebble up Mount Everest some days.
The reality is simple: Win and fans will return.
The Gophers football situation, however, is more complicated than their record. A major miscalculation by former athletic director Norwood Teague caused many fans to drop their tickets.
Teague mistook one good season and Jerry Kill’s popularity as an opening to squeeze more money out of fans by instituting his ill-fated “scholarship seating” price hike.
Teague sold his plan as something common in college athletics, but he underestimated backlash from a fan base that has had its patience and loyalty stretched thin by generations of mediocrity.
New athletic director Mark Coyle wisely scrapped the final installment of price increases before this season, but the damage was already done. Judging by attendance this season, Coyle and the football program have a lot of work to repair that disconnect.
The men’s basketball teams in town should see an uptick in crowds sooner. Pitino’s team has started 7-1 and features a dynamic local player in Amir Coffey. If the Gophers continue to show improvement, the Barn will become a lively arena again.
The Wolves are an interesting case. They finished top 10 in the NBA in road attendance by percentage last season and likely will finish high again, meaning they draw well as a visitor.
That makes sense given the national profile of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
A bad start to this season has muffled enthusiasm locally and required even more patience from loyalists. Team officials remain optimistic that fans will return to Target Center.
“This is a tremendous basketball state,” said Brad Ruiter, vice president of communications. “You see it in the number of kids playing youth basketball and in the growth in popularity of our state tournaments and the number of kids from Minnesota moving on to play college basketball. The interest in the sport is there and the fan base is there.”
The final piece is no secret to any team in this market.