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Does U Need to End Thursday Games?

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August 26, 2016

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The opinion here is the Gophers need to fix their problem of opening their home football schedule on Thursday nights.

U.S. Bank Stadium

U.S. Bank Stadium

Next Thursday evening the Gophers play Oregon State at TCF Bank Stadium while less than two miles away the Vikings host the Rams in the second football game ever in the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium. While it’s only an NFL exhibition game, your average Minnesota elementary school sports fan knows the Vikings are much more popular than the Gophers.

And it’s not just the Vikings the Gophers will compete against for attention next Thursday evening. The Twins will play the White Sox downtown that night—just a long walk from U.S. Bank Stadium. The St. Paul Saints also have a home game, and Canterbury Park hosts its usual Thursday night racing. High school football teams also begin their seasons. The topper among attractions next Thursday is the eighth day of the Minnesota State Fair. Attendance for the day and evening combined might be a number approaching half the population of St. Paul.

“Nobody will be at home that night,” a friend and Gophers football season ticket holder said to me this week.

My friend will be at the Gophers game but others who might normally attend or watch on TV won’t. U athletic department officials will likely announce a crowd of 40,000 to 45,000 in 50,800 seat TCF Bank Stadium. Could it be a record low attendance in the stadium that opened in 2009? The smallest announced crowd to watch a game at the Bank is 41,062 for the Purdue game in 2012.

The last three years the Gophers have also opened their seasons at home on Thursday evenings. The last two years the Vikings played on those dates but their games were on the road—providing TV competition but not entertaining football fans a couple of miles from the U campus.

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys

With a promising Gophers team and playing a potential national championship team, Minnesota drew a TCF Bank Stadium record crowd of 54,147 for its opener last year against TCU. This year the Gophers are down a reported 10 to 20 percent in non-student season ticket sales. There is a public wait-and-see attitude about new coach Tracy Claeys and the team. It’s a similar situation to 2013 when the Gophers were coming off a 2-6 season and drew an announced attendance of 44,217 for a game against UNLV. The Vikings played that same night in the Metrodome.

The Gophers are scheduled to play future Thursday night games at home in late August of 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Vikings will also be playing on all of those Thursday evenings.

How do we know?

The NFL mandates all teams must play their fourth games of the exhibition season on a Thursday, 10 days prior to the beginning of the regular season. Those Thursdays usually come in late August, or this year September 1. The league schedules each franchise’s first three preseason games. Teams are told who they will play and where for the first three games. The fourth game and opponent are determined by each franchise. Teams play two home preseason games and two on the road. If the Vikings have been told by the NFL that two of their first three games are on the road, they will schedule the fourth game at home—up against the Gophers.

The Vikings aren’t changing their scheduling. The Twins, with 81 home dates each year, may also be playing at Target Field on future Thursday nights. The Saints, Canterbury Park and high school football are lesser entertainment rivals for the Gophers at the box office and provide no TV competition.

The Gophers and State Fair authorities made an agreement before TCF Bank Stadium opened, which resulted in all these Thursday night games. The agreement runs through June 30, 2022, and it states that any Gophers home game prior to Labor Day will be played on a Thursday evening. A U spokesman said he isn’t aware of any discussion to change the agreement.

The reason for the agreement is that during the State Fair drivers can park their cars for free on the University’s Minneapolis campus and ride free buses to the fairgrounds in nearby Falcon Heights. The Gophers usually play their home schedule on Saturdays but because of larger fair-going crowds on the weekends, U officials agreed to switch their games to Thursday evenings to better accommodate fair customers.

The existing agreement inconveniences fewer fair-goers but it’s not a winning policy for the Gophers. Fans have to fight rush-hour traffic to attend Thursday night games. Next Thursday those who choose light-rail will likely find cars jammed to the max with everyday commuters, plus Gophers, Vikings, Twins and Saints fans. Fans at home have to make viewing choices between the Vikings and Twins games that start about 7 p.m. and the Gophers game at 8 p.m. Then, too, fans and companies with season tickets and suites for both the Vikings and Gophers face an obvious conflict with the two teams playing at the same time.

There’s no doubt the Gophers could maximize revenues from ticket sales, concessions, parking and perhaps other sources if they were playing Oregon State on Friday night or Saturday afternoon next week.

It’s highly unusual for the NCAA to allow teams to start their seasons before the primary kickoff to college football which begins on Thursdays and continues into the weekend—so the Gophers probably can’t look at Wednesdays in the years ahead. Switching to a Friday night goes up against high school football but out of scheduling necessity the Gophers did that with success at the Metrodome.

Friday night or Saturday openers for the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium in future years make sense. If U officials tell fair officials they need relief from the competition of Thursday nights it would be a smart move. Fair-goers can find their way to Falcon Heights without free parking on the U campus—even on a Saturday. It’s a safe bet the fair would survive and continue to set record annual attendance.

It should be documented, too, that Gophers fans park free at the State Fair and ride free buses to U football games after Labor Day.  That’s been beneficial for fans and the U athletic department.

Worth Noting

When entering TCF Bank Stadium next Thursday fans will be screened with a hand-held metal detector. This is a new security procedure for Gophers games and a best practice at other venues drawing large crowds. The hand-held device was used for Vikings games at TCF Bank Stadium the past two seasons.

Fans can ask new athletic director Mark Coyle about scheduling and other topics at the State Fair. He will be at the fair’s University of Minnesota Building at 3:30 p.m. next Tuesday. The building is located at the corner of Dan Patch and Underwood.

The Lynx, with the WNBA’s second-best record at 21-4, resume play tonight after the long Olympics break. The Lynx had four players on the gold medal winning U.S. team, and those additional minutes of travel, practices and games in Brazil are a concern. Lynx owner Glen Taylor said coach Cheryl Reeve has monitored WNBA game minutes for Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen.

Time management for the Lynx’s four Olympians this season has been a priority. “She (Reeve) has come down like eight minutes a game (per player),” Taylor said.

Taylor, who also owns the Timberwolves, has spoken this summer to 40-year-old future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. Will Garnett retire or return for another season with the Wolves? “I have no new news,” Taylor said. “He hasn’t indicated to me if he’s made a decision or not.”

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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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