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Gophers Football Ticket Sales Decline

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October 10, 2018

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Ticket sales continue to decline for Golden Gophers home football games. In response to a request from Sports Headliners, the University of Minnesota reported that both non-student and student season tickets had declined 2,572 from last year.

As of late September, 21,682 non-student season tickets had been sold compared to 22,990 in 2017. The student season tickets total of 4,730 compared with 5,994 last year.

The public isn’t rushing to buy single game home tickets either. Announced attendance for four games so far includes three totals under 42,000 in TCF Bank Stadium with a seating capacity of 50,805. The attendance of 38,280 for the Fresno State game was the second lowest in stadium history since its opening in 2009.

There is also the eyeball test at each game that shows huge patches of unsold or unused seats all over the stadium, including many that are expensive seats. Buyers are paying for tickets but not showing up or successfully giving those seats away. This was evident even at the most attractive game on the 2018 schedule, last Saturday’s rivalry game against Iowa.

Announced attendances for college football games, including those at TCF Bank Stadium, have long raised eyebrows and caused speculation about accuracy. A Wall Street Journal article last summer reported that based on actual ticket scans at FBS games last year far fewer fans actually show up in their seats than what announced attendances indicate.

The Journal reported in its August 30 article that the Gophers announced total attendance in 2017 of 310,506 for seven home games contrasted with a tickets scanned total of 210,909. That resonates with last Saturday’s Iowa-Minnesota game at TCF Bank Stadium when despite an announced attendance of 48,199, it appeared that 10,000 to 15,000 fewer fans were in the building.

College football attendance decreased for a fourth consecutive season in 2017, and there are many reasons. HD TV delivers captivating pictures for those watching college football in the comfort of their homes without paying high ticket prices and investing time travelling to and from game sites. Then, too, the college game is lengthier than its NFL rival with longer halftimes and more clock stoppages during the four quarters of “action.”

Younger fans, including college students, often aren’t as interested in their hometown team as past generations. The argument of moving Minnesota’s games back to campus at TCF Bank Stadium to draw more students has proven highly questionable.

Whether a school has a winning team, of course, also has a big impact on attendance. Often, the schools that draw the smaller crowds in their conferences (like the Gophers) don’t have successful teams and in many instances haven’t for a long while. Add it all up and many universities, including those in the Big Ten such as Minnesota, find themselves with lots of empty seats but grateful for TV revenues in the range of $50 million this school year.

Tracy Claeys

Interest in Gophers football began declining with the mid-season resignation of head coach Jerry Kill in 2015. Kill had the program on the rise and was a popular personality who connected with the public. Ticket buyers didn’t respond the same way with Kill’s successor, Tracy Claeys, who had one full season as head coach in 2016.

A couple weeks prior to the start of the 2016 season the University reported about a 19 percent decline in non-student season tickets. The total in 2015 had been 27,885 but in mid-August of 2016 the Gophers had sold 22,706 non-student season tickets.

Despite a winning Big Ten record and unexpected Holiday Bowl win in 2016, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle and University president Eric Kaler terminated Claeys in early January of 2017. “I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program,” Coyle said in a statement.

University regent Michael Hsu said the message from administrators was there would be a “Fleck bump” in ticket sales by hiring P.J. Fleck, known as an exciting young coach from Western Michigan who was coming off a 13-1 season.  Fleck had drawn national press coverage because of both his record and salesmanship. Hsu told Sports Headliners he had been reluctant to approve Fleck’s contract because it was not only considerably more compensation than Claeys earned, but also the athletic department was taking on the expense of over $3 million for buyouts of Claeys and his assistants.

In fact, there hasn’t been much “Fleck bump” in ticket sales. Last year, the Gophers’ first under Fleck, attendance for seven home games averaged 44,358—slightly improved over the average of 43,814 in Claeys’ only full season as head coach. That average was the lowest in TCF Bank Stadium history. The Gophers had averaged a TCF best 52,355 fans in 2015 when the Kill-effect was still in play and the stadium had a temporary larger capacity because the Vikings were playing there.

This season might set a new attendance low at TCF with the team off to a 0-2 Big Ten start, giving up 90 points in the first two league games. The Gophers could be underdogs in all of their remaining games. The remaining home schedule has three opponents with no marquee pull—Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue. Through four home games Minnesota is averaging 42,233 fans per game in announced attendance.

The “honeymoon” effect of TCF Bank Stadium has been gone for some time. As the weather turns colder, and the possibility of precipitation is in play, having an outdoor facility in this marketplace (compare to U.S. Bank Stadium) is a liability in selling tickets, and it causes those with tickets to stay away.

In an interview last month with Sports Headliners, Kaler acknowledged the attendance problem at Minnesota and elsewhere. “We’re not alone in this situation across the country,” he said. “As you know, attendance at sporting events has dropped off nearly everywhere. Of course, I expected more people to come (to Gopher games), but nothing brings people to a stadium better than a winning team. I think as P.J. begins to put more w’s up on the board, (and) the young men continue to perform, our attendance will rebound.”

Fleck’s recruiting classes have ranked higher than what Gophers fans have known over the years. Fleck, Kaler and other leaders at the U are counting on more talent in the seasons ahead. “I am very pleased with the decision that Mark and I made to hire P.J.,” Kaler said. “He is exactly what we expected him to be. …He is setting a foundation that I think will hold up a very, very strong team as time goes forward.”

When does Kaler believe the Gophers can start filling up their stadium for every game? “Oh, I don’t have a timeframe for it, Dave. But I do think when we start routinely beating Wisconsin, we will sell out.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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