U Football Scheduling Needs Makeover
Thursday night P.J. Fleck makes his debut as the Gophers head football coach but there will be a lot fewer eyeballs on his 2017 team than there should be because the Vikings are also playing their final preseason game. It’s ridiculous that the two teams are playing home games in Minneapolis within a couple miles of one another on the same night.
That was also the reality in 2016—and two years ago the teams again played on the same evening, but at least that time the Vikings were out of town when the Gophers lost to TCU in front of a TCF Bank Stadium record crowd.
The scheduling conflict will happen in the future too, unless Gophers leaders move away from nonconference opening games on Thursday nights. The NFL mandates that its teams play the last of their four preseason games on Thursdays that usually are in late August.
The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Fair authorities made an agreement before TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009 that created these Thursday night conflicts. The agreement runs through June 30, 2022, and requires that any Gophers home game prior to Labor Day be played on a Thursday evening.
The reason for the agreement is 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 at home on Saturdays but because of larger fair-going crowds on the weekends, U officials agreed to switch games to Thursday evenings.
The Thursday night conflicts don’t work very well for local football fans, and that problem begins with season ticket holders. There are companies and individuals who buy season tickets for both the Gophers and Vikings. That’s a dilemma on Thursday evenings, and it also is for the general football population who want to follow both teams either in person or on TV. There are also high school football games this Thursday evening, causing another conflict.
The U needs to push back on the agreement with fair officials. Why not move future Thursday night games to Friday evenings? There is precedent for the Gophers playing on Friday night when the Metrodome was their home, and doing so in the future eliminates competition with the Vikings regardless of whether they are playing at U.S. Bank Stadium or on the road.
A change to Friday night is just part of a needed upgrade for Minnesota’s nonconference scheduling. This is a big league city with all kinds of sports and entertainment options for the public. The Gophers could fuel interest and maximize ticket sales, while also increasing other revenues such as sponsorships and advertising, with a revised approach to scheduling.
Minnesota and other Big Ten Conference teams play three nonconference games each year, plus nine times against each other. The addition of a ninth game debuted last season and was done to create more interest in conference teams who used to play four nonleague games—many against dreadful opponents with zero box office appeal.
Games against no-name opponents do serve as “tune-up” exhibitions for Big Ten teams and aren’t going away, but at a minimum the Gophers should have a nonconference rivalry game each season. Plus, often in the same year, Minnesota should also play a marquee opponent from the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC conferences.
An annual matchup with North Dakota State could be a rivalry series waiting to happen. The Bison have more than proven they can play against major college teams with six straight road victories against FBS teams including Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas State.
The FCS Bison need big paydays because they don’t have the stadium and TV revenues like Big Ten teams including Minnesota. NDSU already heavily recruits Minnesota and has a fan base that could bring 10,000 people to an annual weekend in Minneapolis against the Gophers. The U could probably make an agreement with NDSU to play a series with no return game in Fargo at the small but raucous Fargodome.
Apparently NDSU is eager to be in this market, playing against the Gophers here in 2006, 2007 and 2011—and in 2019 the Bison will play Butler at Target Field. The Bison won two of the three games against the Gophers, delighting and enraging NDSU and Minnesota fan bases. Can anyone spell R-I-V-A-L-R-Y?
At least every other year the Gophers should schedule a box office heavyweight who can add excitement to the home schedule and value for season ticket holders. Maroon and gold loyalists have been waiting forever to see Notre Dame return to Dinkytown for the first time since 1937. A return engagement from Texas, last here in 1936, sounds good, too. Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Miami are among heavyweights who have never been on the home schedule.
The Gophers do have more recent history with a few football powers including Southern California and TCU. Those teams and the other schools mentioned above can sell out stadiums and create a buzz about Gophers football. That’s not only a winning formula for fans and media but even the players. It seems like there is minimal public anticipation about Thursday night’s game against the Buffalo Bulls but two years ago the Gopher players knew there was plenty of public buy-in for TCU because the Horned Frogs were ranked No. 2 in the country.
Skeptics might argue Minnesota isn’t good enough to play elite teams but you don’t just build a winning program by playing patsies. Players and coaches should want to compete against the best competition. Through the years the Gophers and fans have been fed a steady diet of nonconference softies. The fans are still yawning at the schedules and the program has yet to break through with championships or New Year’s Day bowl wins.
Fleck talks a lot about being “elite.” The 36-year-old with a nothing is impossible attitude has an opportunity to lead the Gophers into a new era of scheduling. Let’s see where he and U administrators “row the boat.”