The University of Minnesota athletic department sold 138 new public season tickets for men’s basketball from March 23 through May 23 of this year. There are 64 new accounts for the 138 total.
The information was emailed to Sports Headliners following a request to the U regarding current and past totals for season tickets. The March 23 date was a day after Ben Johnson was named head coach.
During past weeks the media has consistently provided coverage of the new basketball leadership and the athletic department has been promoting season ticket appeals via mass emails. The department has also worked at publicizing Johnson, his new assistants and new players. But all of this has prompted minimal season ticket commitment, and that shouldn’t surprise those interested in the program.
After Richard Pitino was fired in mid-March, Johnson was the hurried replacement choice of U president Joan Gabel. Johnson, a Minneapolis native and former Gopher guard known for his high character and likeability, arrived in March with no previous head coaching experience. The 40-year-old’s resume includes assistant roles at multiple schools, including two Big Ten jobs (the U and Nebraska) and one stop in the Big East. To most fans in the general public there isn’t enough excitement about the hire to ponder buying tickets, and the verdict on Johnson as a head coach won’t be known for at least a couple of years.
Since Johnson’s arrival there has been a near 100 percent turnover in the roster. Player turnover is always anticipated when coaching regimes change and in these times many college programs see a lot of flux because of the easy-to-use transfer portal. Those players moving on at Minnesota include the only two from last season’s team with ticket buying appeal, guard Marcus Carr and center Liam Robbins.
Most fans are unfamiliar with the present roster of players who have transferred to Minnesota. Early media predictions are for the Gophers to finish toward the bottom of the 14-team Big Ten next year. The 2021 club placed 13th in the standings with a 6-14 record.
The athletic department has a June 10 deadline for renewal of season tickets. In the days and weeks following the U will know whether the trend of recent years in declining sales will continue. The pandemic prevented fans from attending games last season but the three prior years the public season ticket totals were 5,944 (2019-2020), 6,155 and 6,524.
About 15 years ago season tickets totaled over 9,000. Long gone are the days when Gophers basketball was a tough ticket. Sellouts are rare at 14,625 seat Williams Arena. The average attendance of 10,232 for the 2019-2020 season was the lowest since 1970-1971.
In the glory days and winning years of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s home sellouts were common and season tickets were even passed from one family to another. The Gophers back then were leaders in Big Ten attendance and basketball revenues (pricing tickets higher than most other programs). The decline now in season ticket sales is a blow to a cash-strapped, largely self-supporting athletic department that depends on the profit making sports of football, and men’s basketball and men’s hockey, to pay the bills.
The season ticket base that remains is an older demographic that remembers the successful programs of coaches Bill Musselman, Jim Dutcher and Clem Haskins. Those ticket buyers have remained loyal and stayed through the 21st century failed eras of coaches Dan Monson, Tubby Smith and Pitino. Others have given up their tickets, discouraged by the product on the court and preferred seating fees.
Younger ticket buyers are in the minority at Williams Arena, a near 100-year-old facility loved by many but disparaged by others. Buying season tickets requires a commitment of time and money that many Minnesotans aren’t willing to make right now for Gophers basketball.
The proof is in the numbers.
Filling up Big Ten football stadiums is challenging. Despite a winning program and minimal competition for the sports dollar, Iowa is offering three-game mini-plans starting at $150.
Potential number: It might take a new deal that pays about $23 million in the first season to satisfy Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Among the over 100 campers at P.J. Fleck’s Minneapolis football camp last week was quarterback Kyle McCormick from California. While there are highly recruited high school players at camps like Fleck’s, many preps like McCormick are trying to get noticed.
“He (Kyle) absolutely loves P.J. Fleck and (offensive coordinator) Mike Sanford,” said Kyle’s dad. Lee McCormick, a 1980 graduate of Golden Valley High School, became a fan of Fleck when the Gopher head coach was leading Western Michigan to prominence.
Lee admires Fleck’s energy, values and success, and he told Sports Headliners it would be a “dream” to have Kyle, who has an offer from Yale, play for Minnesota. Kyle, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound pro style passer heading into his senior year, will compete for the starting quarterback job this summer at La Costa Canyon High School in San Diego County.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association is hosting the 57th annual Football Hall of Fame August 13 at the Doubletree, 1500 Park Place Blvd. Inductees are Bill D. Bailey, Starbuck; Karl Deis, Mora; Terry Horan, Concordia College; Mike Plinske, Bethel University; Richard Robinson, Minneapolis North.
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold talking about three key players his team plans to re-sign before training camp begins: “Kirill Kaprisov, (Kevin) Fiala, (Joel) Eriksson Ek are three players that you go, wow, what exciting players. What potential going forward.”
Two words not often associated with the NHL: Gentlemanly conduct. Minnesota Wild captain Jared Spurgeon is a finalist for The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy presented annually to an NHL player “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold recently told Sports Headliners the story of how luck impacted the drafting of Kirill Kaprizov in 2015. The rookie sensation is a finalist for the 2021 NHL Calder Memorial Trophy honoring the league’s best first-year player and he has the potential to become the most decorated performer in Wild franchise history.
Six years ago Chuck Fletcher was the Wild’s GM and his scout in western Russian couldn’t get out of the region on a flight because of smoky skies. With planes neither going out nor coming in, the scout had time to attend local games he wouldn’t have otherwise watched. Leipold said that’s when the scout saw Kaprizov, while other NHL teams didn’t. Although the Wild never scouted him again in person the franchise decided to take a “flyer” on the young forward in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
“We would have liked to have had him come on our team a couple of years earlier but that didn’t work out that way,” Leipold said during a phone interview. “We’re so excited about his future and the things that he can do for our team and our market.”
The 24-year-old Kaprizov captivated the State of Hockey this year with his offensive skill set and electric play, providing Minnesota with long sought scoring while energizing a jaded fan base in search of a hero. He led the Wild and NHL rookies with 51 points in 55 games last season. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound forward also led the team and league rookies in goals, even-strength goals (19), power-play goals (8) and shots on goal (157).
Leipold owned the Nashville Predators prior to buying the Wild franchise. In 23 years of ownership this is the most excited he’s been about a player. “I’ve never seen a player with that kind of vision,” Leipold said.
Kaprizov has impressed with his personality, too. He laughs and smiles a lot, and despite his considerable physical talents is humble. “We’ve got a great kid here,” Leipold said. “I think he’s going to be able to handle the stardom that he is going to get. Our objective is to sign him as long as we can.”
By NHL policy Kaprizov is entitled to a new contract this offseason, although he can’t go to another team like two other forwards of importance to Minnesota, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek. Those two are official NHL restricted free agents, with the Wild unlikely to lose control of them.
“There’s no way that we aren’t going to get them (all three players) signed,” Leipold said. “I think the question is how long will the term be. We’re shooting for the longer the better. We’d like to lock these guys in.”
The Wild had an impressive regular season record going 35-16-5 and although the club had another first round exit from the playoffs, there is a vision about the franchise’s future that sees this team as special. “I really like our position,” Leipold said. “I’ve never felt as positive about any team moving forward as I do about this one.”
Leipold looks at his team and is enthusiastic about the mix of young and veteran players. That group includes 33-year-old goalie Cam Talbot who helped turn around the team after GM Bill Guerin added him to the roster as a free agent last October.
The club’s No. 1 priority during the offseason will be re-signing the three players referenced above but after that the to-do list will include looking for a proven center. Other than the goalie position, NHL teams covet a terrific center. “I say that’s probably pretty high on the shopping list that Billy has, but they don’t come easily and they don’t come cheap,” Leipold said.
It might require the Wild giving up a key player like Fiala to bring a high profile center to Minnesota. That could make passionate Wild fans wince but it’s also the cost of doing business.
Because of the pandemic and restrictions on fans attending games, NHL teams have lost a lot of money. Leipold declined to say how much red ink his franchise has absorbed but emphasized it’s a mega number. Still his position is that the Wild will“look at all the options, whatever it takes to make us a better team.”
The financial losses are mitigated by the $20 million expansion fee that each NHL team is receiving from Seattle. What will be painful, though, is giving up a quality player in the expansion draft. “They’re gonna take a player and they’re gonna get a great player because we are deep,” Leipold said.
Leipold wouldn’t speculate who the Wild will leave unprotected in the expansion draft. Could it be a talent like defenseman Matt Dumba? “Matt Dumba is a great player,” Leipold said. “He’s got a cannon of a shot. We’d like to keep him on our team if we could.”
It will be interesting to see who will be on the roster next season, with a lot of talk about 36-year-old forward Zach Parise. He wasn’t allowed to suit up for three playoff games (a healthy scratch). Leipold is taking a diplomatic approach about the aging star who he signed in 2012 to a 13-year $98 million deal. “I love Zach. I am not going to get into Zach. His work ethic is incredible. I am a Zach fan, but Billy will deicide what players are on the team and (coach) Dean (Evason) decides who plays. …”
The Wild roster last season could well have included center Marco Rossi who was chosen as the ninth player in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Instead the talented Rossi was hit hard by COVID and sidelined. “We knew that he was one of the few players in the draft last year that would have been ready to play this year,” Leipold said.
Rossi’s playmaking could mean he is the Wild’s center of the future but first he faces recovery from COVID. He needs to build strength and stamina, but is known for his work ethic. “We think that will happen,” Leipold said. “It won’t be easy but he’ll make it happen.”
In Evason’s first full season as coach, he proved he deserved the job. Leipold hired Guerin in 2019 and he’s brought changes that turned the team in a better direction including making Evason coach. The pandemic has prevented Leipold from getting to know Evason. “(But) as long as he (Guerin) tells me he’s happy with Dean, I don’t need to pull the onion back anymore. If he’s happy I am happy. And I am happy with Billy so I think I am in a very fortunate situation.”
Danielle Hunter is the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive MVP. His value to the club is comparable to quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook.
But unlike Cousins and Cook, Hunter’s contract prompts concern about him remaining in Minnesota. The 26-year-old edge rusher is among the NFL’s best at what he does, but his contract doesn’t compare with peers at the position.
Could Hunter be a no-show at mandatory Viking practices this summer? Maybe, but it’s a smart bet the franchise does a redo on the $72 million contract that binds him to Minnesota through 2023. Head coach Mike Zimmer said today he hasn’t heard from Hunter who is absent from this week’s voluntary team activities.
Ownership, led by Zygi and Mark Wilf, have shown a commitment to win and spend money in support of facilities and players. They are passionate fans who want a Super Bowl team and have invested in U.S. Bank Stadium and Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, while improving contracts of players like Cook and wide receiver Adam Thielen.
After missing last season with a neck injury, Hunter must show he is healthy and ready to resume peak performance. In 2018 and 2019 the former third round draft choice had consecutive seasons averaging 14.5 sacks. He established himself as a Pro Bowl quality pass rusher, with the promise of high production for many years.
Hunter’s edge rushing peers include seven players who have deals worth over $100 million. That’s per a July 20, 2020 SI.com story reporting on Joey Bosa’s $135 million new deal that came weeks after a $125 million contract for Myles Garrett. Hunter’s past performance exceeds players earning much more and he is more than a bargain—he’s a steal—with his current earnings.
NFL clubs are pushing their budgets on defensive ends because they can single handedly turn a game—or even a season—with a few crucial plays like sacking the quarterback or causing a fumble. In Hunter the Vikings have a talent who became the youngest player in NFL history to achieve 50 career sacks. He is also outstanding in defending the run.
The Wilfs aren’t likely to let a disgruntled Hunter force his way out of town. A revised and highly compensated new deal appears all but certain this year or next, unless an injury dictates otherwise.
The current issue of Sports Illustrated offers a feature on Prince’s love of basketball including hosting a party after the 1994 NBA All-Star game in Minneapolis. At Paisley Park the flamboyant entertainer descended from the ceiling. “Something out of a movie,” Alonzo Mourning said in the article.
Target Center opened in 1990 and underwent extensive remodeling a few years ago but it doesn’t compare favorably with many of the “palaces” in the NBA. It could be potential new Minnesota Timberwolves owners will in a few years push for a new building, likely with the threat of relocating to another city.
In the late 1980s the Minnesota North Stars wanted about $11 million from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission to upgrade Met Center but it was a failed attempt. The franchise, under new ownership, relocated to Dallas in 1993. Long ago the Lakers left Minneapolis for Los Angeles because of lagging attendance and a facility issue.
Unruly fan behavior in the NBA has been making news of late. Anyone remember when what seemed like every Sunday in the 1960s someone threw a light bulb onto the floor at Boston Garden during national telecasts?
Gophers basketball coach Ben Johnson and staff remain in all-out recruiting mode to finalize next season’s roster that right now will struggle to compete in the Big Ten. Johnson is trying to shape a roster now and in future years with state of Minnesota players.
June and July are prime recruiting months for Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck and staff. Expect multiple verbal commits for the class of 2022 during the next several weeks. Minnesota’s class for next year, with five verbal commits, is currently ranked No. 35 nationally by 247Sports.
The Gophers’ subpar PAT and field goal kicking of last season will be much improved with the transfer of Kent State’s Matthew Trickett. As a sophomore in 2019 at Kent State he was first team All-MAC, and tied for the NCAA lead in field goals with 29. He had two game winning kicks. The Mid-American Conference cancelled its 2020 season due to the pandemic.
Congratulations to former Gopher defensive end Bob Stein who will be inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame December 7 in Las Vegas. Stein made All-American in 1967 and was a key contributor to Minnesota’s last Big Ten championship team. The St. Louis Park native was also an Academic All-American. University of Minnesota alum Mark Sheffert and the late Pat Fallon, the Minneapolis advertising whiz, advocated for Stein’s overdue recognition by the NFF.
With two PGA vice presidents of rules and competition retiring, it will be interesting to see how that could positively impact former Gopher and Viking Mark Dusbabek. The Faribault native has been a PGA rules official since 2006.
The St. Thomas team that rallied to win three games over the Memorial Day weekend and earned its way to the Division III Baseball World Series, plays an opening game against Adrian starting at 1:15 p.m. Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Minnesota United, whose regular season schedule started in April and continues into November, has a long break after playing last Saturday with the next match June 19.
The Twin Cities Dunkers, after months of Zoom meetings, resumes in-person breakfasts in July with likely upcoming programs to include Gophers football and the 3M Open.
No update yet on a new contract for Gophers baseball coach John Anderson (see Monday’s Sports Headliners).