Joan Gabel takes over as University of Minnesota president July 1 and her tenure will be interesting on many fronts including athletics.
Former Golden Gophers football player Mark Sheffert was a member of the presidential search committee, and he is a shrewd evaluator of people and organizations. It didn’t take him long during the search process to become an admirer of Gabel.
Sheffert has over 40 years of business experience and in 2014 was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame. He is former president of First Bank System (now US Bancorp) and now he is founder and CEO of Manchester, a renowned Minneapolis-based firm providing financial and advisory services to organizations. A reserve football player for the Gophers in the 1960s, he is a passionate but sometimes critical supporter of the University on multiple issues including athletics.
Sheffert has long insisted that high profile U sports like football can and should be more successful, and do so on a consistent basis. He told his colleagues on the academics-heavy search committee he wanted the U to hire a person “that understands” the value of Division I sports in this marketplace.
The athletic department reported to Gabel at South Carolina where she is provost. She has been exposed to big-time sports at South Carolina, including the football-crazed South Eastern Conference environment. Her experiences should be beneficial to the U Athletic Department and Gophers fans.
“I love sports—I’m a huge fan,” Gabel said in a 2015 story about her on the University of South Carolina website.
“She is a supporter of athletics. She loves athletics,” Sheffert agreed. “She thinks we can do better in athletics, and I love that too. She said during the interview (process), ‘I think there are a lot of opportunities at the University of Minnesota that haven’t been capitalized on, and we’re going to do that.’ ”
When Sheffert and others on the search committee looked at Gabel they saw a candidate with not only interpersonal skills, but a balanced blend of administrative, academic, law, finance and business backgrounds. “She started off as a commercial litigator. Commercial litigators are the true professionals of the legal field,” Sheffert said. “She was also at Missouri (as) head of the business school.”
Gabel will become the 17th president of the University and the first female. Sheffert is pleased to have Gabel, who quickly earned his confidence, make history at Minnesota. “She did her homework (on the University),” he said. “She knew more about us coming into the (interview) meeting than we knew about her. As soon as I read her resume, I said to myself, ‘This is going to be our next president.’ “
Over the years the University has employed many presidents who shorted athletics in vital ways. They failed to recognize and passionately support the notion athletics do represent “the front porch” of a major University’s image, and the resulting goodwill and financial windfalls that can occur. Not only didn’t many of those presidents make athletics a priority at Minnesota, but their indifference and lack of expertise resulted in mediocre (at best) hires of athletic directors and coaches.
Gabel will soon have the opportunity to not only be the first female president but perhaps one day be judged as the best ever for both academics and athletics.
Vietnam veteran Tom Sakal, a superb defensive back on the 1967 Golden Gophers 1967 Big Ten champions and one of the great captains in program history, will be interred Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Tom was a wonderful friend and he lived a life that blessed so many others including his many years as an insurance executive.
Twins home attendance has been on the rise since last week’s popular $5 “flash” sale. In their last three games at Target Field, the club has announced crowds of 26,789, 28,840 and 20,724. As of last Thursday, the Twins ranked No. 23 in MLB attendance, averaging 16,843, per ESPN.com
Twins’ fan Scott Buss writing on Facebook: “In June they should have regular price tickets and $4 beers and $2 hotdogs all month. By July, people will be scalping tickets if they keep playing the way they are.”
The Twins, with the best record in the majors, are 12 games over .500 at 25-13 going into today’s series finale at Target Field against the Tigers. Minnesota’s starter, Martin Perez, is 5-0 with a 2.83 ERA after restarting his career coming over from Texas.
Baseball legend Willie Mays, who played for the 1951 Minneapolis Millers and is considered by some authorities to be the greatest player ever, turned 88 last week. Mays played his early MLB career with the Giants in New York when the club eyed a franchise move to Minneapolis. Instead, the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season and Mays played most of his career in windy Candlestick Park instead of home run friendly Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
An NBA source told Sports Headliners new Timberwolves general manager Gersson Rosas was effective in 17 years working for the Houston Rockets front office but not visible to the public. “There weren’t five paragraphs written about him in the newspapers,” the source said.
Rosas’ work as assistant general manager for the Rockets was appreciated by Kevin McHale, the former Houston head coach and once the Timberwolves basketball boss. “Great hire by the Wolves. Gersson is a good blend of analytics and basketball. He values high IQ and skill in players, along with chemistry. Gersson will make sure the team can produce high value shots from three, in the paint and from the line. He is a good person and will fit very nicely in Minnesota.”
Among Rosas’ challenges will be extracting more production from over compensated Andrew Wiggins. A suggestion: switch Wiggins from small forward to big guard. NBA game strategy is often about exploiting mismatches and at 6-foot-8 the athletic Wiggins has the potential to do just that, including near the basket.
The Minnesota Twins offered the deepest single game discount on tickets this week that sources could recall.
Tuesday the club offered thousands of outfield seats for each of the 12 remaining home games in May at a price of $5 per ticket, and by Wednesday afternoon the inventory was gone. Then Wednesday night the organization did a second $5 flash sale for May offering entry to Target Field for games but not a designated seat, and now that inventory is also gone. This afternoon a Twins news release said that 20,000 outfield seats were sold via the first sale and 12,000 ballpark access tickets in the second.
How fast the Twins sold out the $5 allotment speaks to its popularity. “In my memory, I don’t remember anything this deep affecting so many tickets for this long a time,” said WCCO Radio talk show host Dave Mona who has followed the Twins franchise since its inception in 1961. “They’ve still got a substantial part of May remaining. I think that they (Twins executives) looked at it and said, ‘We need to do something dramatic to get people into the ballpark,’ and this was pretty dramatic.”
It’s been a rough spring for weather but the Twins have been playing some of the best baseball in the majors and the organization’s marketers want to get fans to Target Field so they can sample the product. “…I am sure they are as perplexed as others at how much of the decline is weather related because it truly has been a terrible spring for baseball,” Mona said. “They’re hoping people come to the park, like what they see and come back even after the promotion ends.”
The Twins attracted less than two million customers to their games last season. That was the lowest head count since 2010 when they moved into their new home, Target Field. This spring empty seats have been everywhere at the downtown ballpark.
Team marketers are using flexible pricing to counteract attendance problems. For the last couple of years the club has sold an inexpensive spring ballpark pass, and this season the Twins offered ticket plans at $49, $99 and $149 per month that gets you into Target Field for all but two games, Opening Day and Joe Mauer Day. Single game buyers can purchase inexpensive tickets, and then at the game use apps on their phones to upgrade to a better and more expensive seat for minimal costs, paying something like $20 for a $50 seat.
Getting people to fill seats has benefits, even at drastically reduced pricing. Bargain paying customers may return later to Target Field for other games and some will buy more expensive tickets to improve their seating in the ballpark. Fans also purchase food, beverages and merchandise inside Target Field, contributing to franchise revenues.
“A sea of empty seats” is not the desired image to project to fans watching games at home on television, or to sponsors who have invested millions of dollars to be associated with Minnesota’s big league baseball club. A former front office executive in Major League Baseball likened the Twins’ attendance situation to the image of driving by a restaurant at 6 p.m. “If the parking lot is empty, it might not be a good place to eat,” he said about giving off the wrong impression.
There are many reasons for the Twins’ slide at the gate. The poor weather of the last couple of springs is a painful reminder for both the ballclub and the public of failed efforts years ago to build a new stadium with a retractable roof. Target Field is a terrific outdoor ball park but it offers no solution for rain, extreme cold and bad baseball. Since Target Field opened the Twins have had four seasons when the club lost more than 90 games. When teams lose their emotional ties with patrons, it can be difficult to get customers back in the ballpark.
The Twins sold 25,000 season tickets in the first season at Target Field but estimates now have that number at around 10,000. That means the club has the challenge of selling roughly 28,000 seats via group and single game tickets for each home date.
And there are 81 home dates to sell, more than any other major sport in America. That’s a lot of inventory for customers to commit to on a season ticket basis, or even partial season tickets. The commitment involves money, time and emotion. In a busy, even glutted marketplace, with so many sports and entertainment options, there is fierce competition in Minneapolis-St. Paul to command the attention of consumers.
Despite their 2019 success on the field, as of today the Twins ranked No. 23 in MLB attendance, averaging 16,843, per ESPN.com. (The small market Milwaukee Brewers with a retractable roof stadium are No. 8, averaging 33,079).
The Twins are not alone in their challenge to attract customers. Earlier this spring USA Today’s website reported 12 of the 30 Major League teams were down in attendance, with a 17 percent overall decline.
The length of games has for years been a common complaint among lukewarm fans. Typically games will take three to four hours. Add in time going to and from the ballpark, and that totals a lot of hours for customers—no matter the cost of tickets.
Gophers Baseball Notes
Spring weather often does the baseball Gophers no favors, either. John Anderson has led the program for 37 seasons. “The last two years have been really challenging (springs),” he said. “No question.”
During Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule poor weather has resulted in the Gophers having to play five unplanned doubleheaders in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the Gophers had to cancel a home nonconference game with Omaha because of rain.
The Gophers had to play their first 21 games on the road this season, with indoor U.S. Bank Stadium unavailable to them because of preparations to host the early April men’s basketball Final Four. The road dates, combined with bad spring weather, have cost the team a lot of practice time and slowed player development, resulting in a “crazy year,” Anderson said.
Minnesota, though, is 11-7 in Big Ten games (22-23 overall) and playing some of its best baseball of late. “We’re trending in the right direction,” Anderson said. “Our pitching has really improved, has been consistent and stable over the last three weeks or so.”
Anderson hopes the Gophers can excel in their last two Big Ten series of the season and then impress in the Big Ten Tournament that starts May 22. “If we’re going to make a run here at the end, it’s going to start there on the mound,” he said.
Anderson turns 64 on May 16 and has another year remaining on his contract. He plans to continue coaching for awhile if the University of Minnesota wants him beyond 2020. There shouldn’t be any doubt about that considering Anderson is a college baseball legend with over 1,300 career wins.
In an interview today, owner Glen Taylor said it will be up to new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas to decide if Ryan Saunders has the interim tag removed from his title as the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach.
Taylor is an admirer of Saunders but said he isn’t telling Rosas who should be the team’s head coach for next season. “He’s got to sit down with Ryan,” Taylor said following a news conference at Target Center where Rosas was introduced as the franchise’s new basketball boss.
Does Saunders have to sell himself? “Sure, he does,” Taylor said. “That’s part of his job, but I am positive Ryan knows what he wants to do, and he will do a good job. So we’ll see how it works out.”
Saunders, 33, is the NBA’s youngest head coach and was promoted to his interim status in January when Tom Thibodeau was fired. Although he had never been a head coach before, he impressed Taylor despite the team not making the playoffs.
“I think that Ryan did a great job based upon the circumstances that he was given,” Taylor said. “It’s hard to really measure him when you have so many of his guys that were injured and stuff.
“But I still watched how he substituted, brought players in, got the most out of some of our young guys and did some really positive things. I haven’t changed in my thinking, and now we’ll see what others think.”
Taylor said that during the interview process Rosas asked what he saw in Saunders. But Taylor didn’t try to prejudice the decision Rosas will need to make in the coming weeks about who his coach will be.
The Wolves missed the playoffs this spring after qualifying for the postseason in 2018 for the first time since 2004. Taylor believes in the personnel already in place. “I haven’t changed my mind. I think we have the talent.
“What he (Rosas) talked about is something I just really believe in too. We’ve got to develop our own players, our draft choices. We’ve got to get those guys to play better.
“I think that’s what he’s got to talk to the coach (about). What plays do you set up? What styles do you do to utilize the skills of your players? …
Taylor said the goal of building a world class organization is shared by Rosas who worked for 17 years in the successful Rockets organization and gained a variety of experiences including as executive vice president of basketball operations. The ultimate goal for the Wolves is an NBA title for an organization that began play in 1989 and has never reached the league finals. “I think we have selected a leader that can take us there,” Taylor said of the 40-year-old Rosas.
Rosas’ wife Susana said the couple, who have been married almost 16 years, met in high school in Houston. “When we met he told me he wanted to be the president …(of a) team. We were 15 years old and I thought he was trying to impress me,” Susana said. “Lo and behold…here we are today. We’re very thankful and blessed.”
It’s a solid bet the Vikings and the metro area will host their first NFL Draft within seven to 10 years. Club officials are interested, but probably have to wait awhile for the NFL’s blessing after Minneapolis hosted the 2018 Super Bowl. The city of Nashville estimates more than 500,000 fans attended Draft activities last month.
While there is speculation the Vikings want to restructure tight end Kyle Rudolph’s contract to better the club’s payroll—or even trade him—he does remain a superb pass catcher. He and rookie tight end Irv Smith could sometimes be on the field together. The Vikings might line up the athletic Smith in the slot while using two tight ends, and have Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on the flanks.
The 29-year-old Rudolph isn’t known as an elite blocker, but Smith was praised for that skill in college at Alabama. Smith said, “I don’t want to be classified as a receiving tight end. I want to be classified as a complete tight end.”
Kyle Kilgore, the rookie free agent defensive end trying out with the Vikings, describes his four years at Division III Bethel as the best of his life. He told Sports Headliners he was taught at Bethel that you either become a “horse,” or a “jackass.”
“That place is chock full of horses,” the East Ridge alum said. “It’s rich soil. I can say I’ve grown as a man in those four years. All the brothers that I have on that football team forcing me to be better every day. Kind of the coolest thing.”
Kilgore’s Bethel teammate, safety Dawson Brown, is a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons. He played high school football at Becker.
Brown and Kilgore have been training together since the Royals season ended at the East Metro location of ETS Performance. ETS is run by Ryan Englebert who trained Thielen after his senior year of college.