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All Options on Table for the Wilfs?

October 28, 2020 - (0) comments

 

NFL insiders might be speculating on whether the Minnesota Vikings ownership group is interested in selling the franchise.  Zygi Wilf led a group that purchased the club in 2005 for a reported $600 million and earlier this year Forbes valued the franchise at $2.7 billion.

Even adjusted for inflation, the difference in those two figures represents a nifty gain. Other numbers the Wilf family and their partners are looking at today aren’t so rosy.  With COVID-19 blocking ticket sales and other in-stadium revenues, this is a fiscal year unlike any other for NFL owners.  Just lost ticket revenue at US Bank Stadium is likely north of $750 million for the Vikings this season, and there is no guarantee fans will be admitted for home games in 2021.

There is also disgruntlement from season ticket and single game purchasers. A 1-5 start to the season is a shock for a fan base more accustomed to double digit wins each year. Those fans have quickly found perceived villains in both the front office and on the field (players and coaches).

Ticket buyers may also be struggling with their own financial challenges, leaving them with less discretionary income for now and the foreseeable future. There are customers, too, that dislike the prominence of social justice and politics by NFL ownership, management and players.  Regardless of who is right or wrong, the perspective of critics is that they want to watch football without other commentary.

NFL TV viewership is down this fall, consistent with a decline of other televised sports—led by surprising and disappointing numbers from NBA games and historically low World Series ratings.  Going forward, if NFL TV viewership doesn’t improve, that will hamper financial negotiations by the league with the networks as both sides contemplate new contracts.

The Wilfs are diversified in their financial holdings but much of their wealth has been made in real estate, including New York and New Jersey.  Commercial real estate has its issues with movie theatres and shopping malls closing and more companies allowing employees to work at home rather than occupying office buildings.  Residents are moving out of New York City and other locales they consider undesirable. How the Wilfs are impacted is unknown but it’s fair to speculate they are crunching numbers to keep up with developments and anticipate the future.

There is a cost savings direction for their football team with the unloading of pricey stars Stefon Diggs and Yannick Ngakoue.  Rumors this week, if true, indicate a possible “fire sale,” with team leaders and impact players Harrison Smith, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen possibly being shopped in advance of the league trade deadline November 3.

The Wilfs love football and have been committed in spending money on salaries, facilities and philanthropy in Minnesota.  Their long stated goal is to produce a Super Bowl team for the city and state.  But the team’s 1-5 record this fall, and priority in collecting draft choices with the Diggs and Ngakoue trades, more than hints this team is rebuilding and further from a Super Bowl now than in several years.

Mike Zimmer

In these times of health, economic and political challenges for the country, do the Wilfs want to go through an on-the-field rebuild?  If they do, will ownership continue to be satisfied with longtime GM Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, the head coach since 2014?  The Wilfs are known for their loyalty to employees and they don’t make knee-jerk moves, but they are also successful business operators.

They know this is a turbulent period both literally and figuratively, including because the club’s passionate fan base is dissatisfied.  But it’s also true NFL franchises can turn around pretty quick (see the Tampa Bay Bucs)—with on-field performances able to flip within a couple of seasons.  And until 2020, no major American sport has been so consistently profitable for owners as the NFL.

What are the Wilfs thinking?  In their view, is the Gjallarhorn half full, or half empty?

Worth Noting

It will be interesting to see what kind of money MLB free agents can negotiate during this offseason.  Sportico interviewed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred who said in a story Monday his 30 teams amassed $8.3 billion in debt from financial lenders and lost $2.8 to $3 billion in operational expenses this year.  Manfred is cautious about what baseball will look like in 2021.

The COVID-impacted and shortened 2020 season dictated no fans in attendance at stadiums.  Franchises like the Twins lost hundreds of millions in missing ticket and other ballpark revenues.

With Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan out long term with an injury, and backups Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf rumored to be sidelined with COVID for three weeks, the Gophers, despite their opening loss to Michigan, could soon be labeled as favorites to win the Big Ten’s West Division.  Sleeper pick (favored here) is Nebraska.

Ticket King owner Mike Nowakowski told Sports Headliners yesterday his company has sold a couple dozen tickets for the September 4, 2021 Gopher football opener against Ohio State in Minneapolis.  “We’re seeing some action on the game already,” he said.

Ticket King prices range from $125 to $300 for the game that will be Ohio State’s first appearance in Minneapolis since 2014.  The Buckeyes could be defending NCAA champions when they come to town.

Nowakowski has sold about three dozen tickets for the April 8 Twins opener at Target Field against the Seattle Mariners.  Ticket King pricing ranges from $70 to $800 (Champions Club).

Big Ten men’s hockey teams will each play four nonconference games against Arizona State.  The Sun Devils AD is Ray Anderson, former agent to Vikings coach Denny Green and a friend of new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren who was Chief Operating Officer of the Vikings.

Arizona State is ranked No. 15 in the USCHO.com national preseason poll, with Minnesota No. 14. Top ranked Big Ten schools are No. 9 Penn State and No. 10 Ohio State.

 

U May Sign Record Total of 4-Stars

October 26, 2020 - (0) comments

 

College football’s early Signing Day for high school players is only about eight weeks away and it looks like the Gophers will land a program record seven four-star players, per information from 247Sports.

Ryan Burns from 247Sports and Gopherillustrated.com told Sports Headliners Minnesota may even push that total beyond seven.  Davon Townley, the defensive end from Minneapolis North High School, is a coveted four-star who the Gophers want as part of their 2021 recruiting class. “I think they’re probably the favorite right now,” Burns said.

Townley is also considering Arizona State, Michigan State and Penn State.

Ryan Burns

Burns said Minnesota is also pursuing four-star defensive lineman Andre Porter who made his reputation last year playing in the Washington D.C. area.  Porter has made a verbal commitment to Boston College but the Gophers are trying to change his mind.

If Townley and Porter become Gophers, they will join three other defensive linemen who have already verbally committed to Minnesota in anticipation of Signing Day, December 16.  Deven Eastern from Shakopee and Jacob Schuster of Olympia, Washington are four-star recruits, per 247, while Austin Booker, from Greenwood, Indiana, is a high three-star.

Great Power Five programs feature outstanding defensive line talent and performance.  Highly coveted prep defensive linemen are among the most difficult to land because of their impact.  Could Booker, Eastern, or Schuster play for Minnesota next year?

The Gopher d-line roster will have returnees who are playing this year so their experience and maturity gives them an edge over freshmen.  But Burns believes Schuster at 300 pounds and Eastern at 280 could see some time off the bench in a defensive line rotation.

“These are guys who don’t have to put on 40, 50 pounds before you can ask them to contribute,” Burns said.  “These guys have bodies that are ready now, but I think it all comes down to how ready are they in comparison to the rest of the defensive line—because, ideally, you don’t want your freshmen playing if you’re expecting to win a lot of games.”

Other Minnesota four-star commits are cornerbacks Avante Dickerson (Omaha) and Steven Ortiz (Goodyear, Az.), offensive tackle Cameron James (Chicago), quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and running back Mar’Keise Irving (Country Club Hills, Ill.).

Minnesota has 17 total verbal commits, per 247, and Burns said another pledge isn’t “imminent,” but between now and Signing Day the Gophers could be prepared to offer about three more scholarships.  “The focus right now is certainly trying to shore up that defensive line,” Burns added.

Minnesota is on course to land a record number of four-stars in what Burns refers to as the “Internet era.”  As referenced earlier in this column that total of seven could grow and at the same time set a record for four-star defensive linemen landed by the Gophers.

Minnesota is coming off a 2019 season when the Gophers went an uncharacteristic 11-2 in coach P.J. Fleck’s third season.  That success is impacting recruiting for 2021.

Worth Noting

Former Viking Willie Howard, now head coach at Cooper High School, has a sophomore son playing for him who already has 43 college offers, Burns said.  Minnesota is among those interested in the 15-year-old who is about 6-4 and 235- pounds and might project as a college defensive lineman.  “He can go anywhere (to school) in the country,” Burns added.

247 has Jaxson Howard ranked as the No. 47 prospect nationally in the class of 2023.  He is a 247 four-star now but Burns said Howard has the potential to become a rare state of Minnesota five-star recruit.

Fleck talking this afternoon about true freshman linebacker Cody Lindenberg who started Saturday night’s first game of the season: “He is going to be a very good player in this league.”

The Gopher Goal Line Club reports selling over 300 memberships to support the U football program. Past funding has gone for various projects including special weight lifting equipment.  The club is doing informative Zoom programs on Fridays prior to home games this fall.

Paul Molitor, one of just 57 players elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, speaks to the Capital Club via Zoom Wednesday morning.  The Minnesota native is one of five MLB players with at least 3,000 hits, a .300 batting average and 500 stolen bases.

Former Gophers running back Barry Mayer remembers early morning phone calls from the late Sid Hartman that got him “staggering” out of bed in his U dorm. “No intro, no notice, just the question right out of the box,” Mayer said via email. “I was still asleep in answering so I had to read his column for the next couple of days to see what I had answered! He was one of a kind!”

That was Minnesota Twins broadcaster Cory Provus doing play-by-play for BTN’s telecast last Saturday of the Purdue-Iowa game.

 

What to Know for Gophers-Michigan

October 21, 2020 - (0) comments

 

It’s no exaggeration to write that Saturday the nation’s college football fans will have eyes focused on Minneapolis, and the Big Ten Conference’s premiere season opening matchup of Minnesota and Michigan.

The hoopla starts at 8 a.m. with ESPN’s GameDay reporting for three hours from inside TCF Bank Stadium.  The weekly program is coveted everywhere by college football pitch artists, and their cities.  The show arrives in Minneapolis this week for the second time ever.  Know that high school players, including recruiting targets of the Gophers, will be watching and listening to what is said.

No inside word yet on who exuberant Lee Corso will pick to win the game, but social media geniuses will be typing at high speed about whoever gets the nod from the former Indiana head coach.  While signaling his prediction, maybe he will slip on a Goldy head and hoist the Little Brown Jug in deference to the Golden Gophers.  Then, again, perhaps he poses in a Desmond Howard mask and strikes a Heisman Trophy pose to predict a Michigan win—making Howard, Corso’s GameDay colleague, giggle about his old school and his Heisman hardware.

Hopefully, the game will be even more entertaining than Corso, GameDay’s undisputed showman.  It should be with two top 25 teams playing in primetime (6:30 p.m. kickoff) on national TV via ABC.  Somewhere near the top of storylines will be the two head coaches, P.J. Fleck of the Gophers, and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.

Fleck’s record since November 10, 2018 is 14 wins, 3 losses.  In that stretch his teams have won at Wisconsin, upset No. 4 ranked Penn State at home and taken down No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl.  After the bowl game, Minnesota was ranked No. 10 nationally, the program’s highest poll position since 1962.

P.J. Fleck

But Fleck, starting his fourth season at Minnesota, will be the first to acknowledge success must be sustained year after year, and Project Consistency comes one step at a time.  Another successful season, starting with a win over the Wolverines, will chase more of the anti-Fleck crowd toward the Gopher bandwagon. And a lot of admirers are already more worried about holding on to the 39-year-old Fleck as coach, than fretting over whether the program will be an annual winner.

Harbaugh has a losing record at Michigan against A.P. top-25 teams, 10-14, per Michigan.rivals.com.  Although he is among the best paid coaches in the country at more than $7 million this season, he has yet to defeat hated rival Ohio State in five seasons coaching in Ann Arbor and he is 1-4 in bowl games.

With two seasons remaining on his contract, Harbaugh’s seat will be warm at chilly TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night.  Power Five coaches almost never have just two years left on a contract, so it seems the higher-ups in Ann Arbor are sending a message.

Here are six more things to know about the game:

No. 1. Among the players, who is healthy and available to play?  Testing positive for COVID-19 will likely sideline players for both teams.  Who and how many may determine the game’s outcome.  Subtract too many top playmakers and key defenders, and this game likely doesn’t fulfill its potential to be special.

No. 2. How high will the total points be in the game?  College football scores this fall can resemble low scoring basketball games.  Powerhouse programs like Alabama have even experienced poor defensive outings.  In explaining the offensive fireworks, COVID is again a villain. The pandemic cancelled spring practices and since then has limited teams from having full contact.  The over-under total for Michigan-Minnesota should be about 60 points.

No. 3. Will Minnesota’s defense be a liability?  While the starting offense has nearly everyone returning from 2019, the defense is without several regulars including its best performers.  Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, though, has shown an unflappable demeanor and golden touch since being elevated to his position after the infamous November 3, 2018 loss at Illinois.

Rossi is kind of starting over now, but not without talent including a pair of the Big Ten’s better cornerbacks in Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste, plus exceptionally athletic defensive lineman Boye Mafe, and a “coach on the field” leader in linebacker in Mariano Sori-Marin.

No. 4. Does Rashod Bateman’s presence push the Gophers over the top?  The NCAA has done few favors for the University of Minnesota Athletic Department over the years (see Clem Haskins scandal), but the governing organization granted the return of Bateman, the Gophers’ All-American wide receiver who initially had opted out of the 2020 season.  He is an extraordinary playmaker, and opinion here is his presence could tip one or more games into the win column this fall.  Will that start Saturday night?

No. 5. Is the 2020 game the start of a new age in the Minnesota-Michigan rivalry?  Michigan leads the all-time series by a dominating 70-23-3 total.  Long ago, though, this was a rivalry about Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, Big Ten titles and national supremacy.  Since 1970 the ineptitude of Gopher football has mostly made folly of a rivalry that is symbolized by possession of the famed Little Brown Jug.  Minnesota hasn’t defeated the Wolverines in Minneapolis since 1977, although the Gophers have won three times in Ann Arbor since then.

Sadly, the two programs don’t compete against one another every year because they are in different Big Ten divisions.  Minnesota and Michigan last played in 2018 and aren’t scheduled again after Saturday evening until 2023.  There is the possibility of the two schools meeting in the Big Ten championship game as champions of the West and East Divisions.  That would wake up the echoes of a rivalry that once had Gophers fans and players circling the Michigan game before all others on the schedule calendar.

No. 6.  Get ready to cringe every time GameDay and ABC talking heads bring up how cold it is here.  How high can you count?  Some stereotypes don’t go away—like cold weather in Minnesota even in October.  However, Weather.com predicts the evening low Saturday in Ann Arbor will be 35 degrees.  So take that, Minnesota weather bashers.

 

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