The Minnesota Twins, who like their MLB brethren lost millions of dollars in 2020 because of the pandemic, are facing a new challenge selling tickets for home games because of crime in Minneapolis and the disappointing performance of the team.
Murders, shootings, carjackings and other lawlessness have soiled the reputation of a once great city. Much of the crime has been downtown and some of it near the Twins’ Target Field home.
Fans, particularly from the outer suburbs, greater Minnesota and the Dakotas, think twice about coming to the big city now. In fact, many don’t need to think at all about a trip to Minneapolis. They are too frightened to even consider it.
Since 1961, the franchise’s first season in Minnesota, the Twins have relied on fans from outside the Twin Cities for a significant portion of their fan base and revenues. Now countless individuals and families are hesitant (at best) to buy tickets to see their favorite team. A Sports Headliners reader and Twin Cities resident said his elderly father, living in southeast Minnesota, wouldn’t come to Minneapolis “for 10 million dollars.”
Minneapolis violence and headlines like “Defund the Police” scare many Minnesotans and other potential visitors to the city. Attracting people to the state’s flagship city is a mega challenge for not just the Twins, of course, but also downtown restaurants, bars, hotels, retailers, and employers. One can only take a deep breath and hope the leadership of City Hall will improve, prioritizing safe streets and neighborhoods including downtown, Uptown, Dinkytown and the north side.
Public relations authority Dave Mona believes the “Defund the Police” slogan will haunt the Twin Cities’ reputation for years. A long time Twins fan and civic leader, Mona knows first hand the front office is concerned about getting fans back into the ballpark. He said the club has “done a lot of research” about the issue.
While Mona said he feels safe attending games, he recognizes the apprehension of other fans and the predicament the franchise faces in losing part of its historically important fan base. Combined with the team’s performance on the field, a lot of fans have been staying away from the park.
Mona recognizes the situation as a “double whammy” for ticket sales. “…When the Yankees come to town and you don’t draw 20,000 people, you gotta scratch your head because the Yankees were over the years…pretty much fool proof no matter how the Twins were doing, or how the Yankees were doing. Those were series that drew fans. It’s been slow to come back (attendance now versus the past). I am sure they (the Twins front office) are very concerned.”
The Twins hosted the Yankees for three games earlier this month and announced attendance each game was 17,000 to 18,000. Even with a COVID mandate limiting capacity to 80 percent at Target Field, the attendance for the Yankees series wasn’t close to maximum. Starting with games July 5, Target Field will be at full capacity of nearly 40,000.
Hard to say which factor contributes most to the Twins’ “double whammy” situation, but attendance average is among the lowest in club history so far. The Twins are averaging 11,818 fans for home games and rank No. 19 among 30 MLB franchises, according to ESPN.com. There was a time the franchise sold more season tickets than what the club is averaging now. To be fair, the Twins and others in MLB would have better numbers if not for the pandemic limitations and fears.
Minnesota was a preseason favorite to be among the better clubs in baseball. The core of the team had produced consecutive AL Central Division titles, and a win-now attitude was in place. “There’s no question the focus now is on 2021 and we think we’re well positioned to win a lot of baseball games,” Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners before the season began.
The club, though, has suffered through perhaps an unprecedented number of key injuries, particularly to position players, while the pitching staff has faltered badly at times. The bullpen has been unreliable, including falling apart late in games. Starting pitching has been inconsistent, with the ongoing saga of Minnesota trying to find a shutdown ace.
Before the season, the Twins might have been expected to be 10 games over .500 in late June. As of today they are 31-42. Minnesota has produced better results of late, going 11-12 in the last 23 games and winning five straight before losing yesterday to the Cincinnati Reds.
It’s a long climb ahead, though, for the team to become a playoff contender. It will be a challenge hindered now by yet another injury to club MVP Byron Buxton that has him sidelined indefinitely (left hand fracture in his third game back after missing the previous 40).
The Twins have a well-earned reputation for appealing promotions and creating a fan-friendly atmosphere at Target Field, a venue that ranks among the best in baseball. Part of the marketing involves honoring heroes like Twins legends, first responders and war veterans. That recognition deserves applause and plays well to much of the franchise’s target audience, including those living in greater Minnesota, but winning baseball will sell more tickets and so will a perception the streets downtown are safe.
After Labor Day more workers will return downtown as the pandemic eases. Hospitality attractions are expected to be busier in coming months, bringing more people to the city. The First Avenue hot spot near Target Field has already announced a lineup of entertainment for this year and next.
More people on the streets will help lessen fears about downtown. There is certainly increased confidence in being one of 100 people walking from the Nicollet Mall to Target Field than being alone or in a small group.
“People (will) have to feel safe, and they need to tell their friends about it,” Mona said when asked about how the city and Twins eventually get beyond the current environment. “People need to stick their toes in the water and start coming back downtown.”
Friends call him “Billy Rob.” It’s a nickname you might expect to hear when kids are choosing teams for a hockey game at a neighborhood pond. “Yeah, Billy Rob, you play goalie, okay?” When spoken by adults, the nickname shows how comfortable people are with Robertson who has a decorated behind-the-scenes career in professional sports.
Bill Robertson has many friends and admirers, and they celebrated his success a few days ago when the United States Hockey League announced that the St. Paul native is its new president and commissioner. Facebook, text, telephone and in-person messages congratulated Robertson on his new assignment to lead one of the world’s best junior hockey leagues. The total may have been about 1,000 well wishers including the likes of hockey’s Ryan Suter and baseball’s Paul Molitor.
Two years ago Robertson, then commissioner of the men’s WCHA, sat with a friend in a Bloomington restaurant and wondered what he might be doing in the summer of 2021. Most of the member schools in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association had announced in 2019 they were forming a new league for the 2021-2022 season. The end of the historic WCHA was more than a possibility. In the months following that Bloomington lunch Robertson continued to lead the WCHA, hoping to secure new members, but knowing that in June of 2021 and beyond he could be with another organization.
Several career possibilities were in play this spring, with Robertson telling Sports Headliners he had been talking with the USHL since the beginning of the year about succeeding his friend Tom Garrity as league commissioner. “When they told me several weeks ago that I was their candidate, and they would be forwarding me an agreement, there was a big sigh of relief,” Robertson said. “I sat in my chair for a few minutes, and put my head down, and thanked God for watching over me. To be honest…I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up next.”
Dave Mona, who built a public relations empire in Minnesota, wasn’t surprised Robertson landed with another hockey league that will have its leader based in the Twin Cities. “Bill is very good at what he does and he makes friends along the way,” Mona said. “So I think he’s on everyone’s list when someone says, ‘Hey, there’s an opening, do you know somebody?’
“Bill’s got a pretty board skill-set and I think he’s been extraordinarily skillful… making friends at all levels, people who enjoy being with him. He does what he does well. I don’t think he has to apply for a lot of jobs. People say, ‘Well, what about Bill Robertson?’ ”
During seven years leading the WCHA, Robertson successfully brought playoff games back to campuses, introduced the 3-on-3 overtime and shootout format to league games, and championed safety provisions. His commitment to a fan-friendly league that included overhaul of the WCHA’s digital operation, and he developed external corporate partnerships and sponsorships.
With the USHL, the 60-year-old Robertson will contribute extensive marketing experience and one of his initiatives will be how to grow the sport, not just for his 16 league franchises, but hockey in its entirety. He wants to see the expense issue of playing hockey addressed and with the best initiatives there will be more participation by both boys and girls. USA Hockey, the NHL and colleges are partners he looks forward to working with.
Robertson’s ties with hockey go back to childhood as the son of Norbert Robertson who played collegiately for both Minnesota and St. Thomas. Brother Mike played hockey at Boston College in the late 1960s. Bill was an executive with the startup Minnesota Wild from 1998-2011.
It was in those early Minnesota Wild years that Robertson and Patrick Klinger became acquainted. Klinger worked for the RiverCentre event complex in St. Paul and later became an executive with the Minnesota Twins. “We very quickly became fast friends and have been best of friends ever since,” Klinger said.
How did the bond form and stay in place all these years? “He’s such a high integrity individual,” said the 57-year-old Klinger. “You know, we share a lot in common. We have two children. Each of us has one that has special needs. We sort of grew up in the sports industry together…and here we are 20-plus years later, and my admiration and respect for Bill is greater than it ever has been.
“We play a ton of golf together. We talk, we go out to dinner. We do a (cable) television show together. I love the man, I really do.”
Klinger recognizes a flaw or two in his pal. “He’s an awful, awful putter. I am telling you what, Stevie Wonder would putt better. Watch him get to the green and then putt, and putt again, and a third time. Sometimes we just have to bite our lips. You know, he gets a little feisty.”
Klinger fondly recalls an “epic match” involving the two at a Hastings, Minnesota golf course. “There was some money on the line and it got to the 18th hole,” Klinger said. “Bill had literally like an 18-inch putt, maybe not even that much to tie the match, to tie me. It would have gone into sudden death. I wouldn’t give him the putt. Of course, he missed it. He’s never let me forget it.”
Robertson recently celebrated his USHL hire in South Carolina, with daughter Brooke, and son Brett and his wife Maritza. The trip had been planned for awhile to get in some long overdue family time, and turned out to be more special than anyone could have imagined.
“I don’t think there’s any greater gift than to have children, and I have two wonderful people,” Robertson said. “One is in his late 20s, my son, and my daughter is in her mid-20s. The thing that made me just tickled as a father was the fact that I watched the two together…in South Carolina and how they meshed together like when they were really young. It was so wonderful to see. I had some tears in my eyes watching how they interacted and how the older brother helped the younger sister with a lot of tasks. Just trying to help her continue to develop more skills and her independence.”
In recent days Robertson might have reflected on his career in the sports industry. He was Director of Communications with The Walt Disney Company, and in that role he led communications efforts for the Mighty Ducks of the NHL and Anaheim Angels of MLB. Before that he was the media relations boss of the NBA expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in the early 1990s.
Mona commented that media folks are often a cynical bunch but Robertson didn’t treat reporters, columnists and talking heads as adversaries. “They all speak highly of him, even though they may have known him two or three jobs ago,” Mona said. “They have lunch with him a couple times a year. When their kids graduate from college and you read the Facebook comments, one of the first comments is from Bill Robertson. He’s got really good people skills and he’s got…a knowledge of, and a track record of, being able to bring people together and get things done.”
Klinger has long observed how Robertson relates to people in various positions. How he treats individuals with authenticity and sincerity, no matter who they are.
“What you see with Bill is what you get,” Klinger said. “He really genuinely cares about people. …
“He knows that I am going through a difficult time with my back. He’s the guy that’s gonna pick up the phone, call me almost every day to check in, or send me a text. If something else is going on in life, in business, in family, I know I can call Bill and he’ll drop everything. We’ll get together and talk things through. And vice versa. We’ve done that for each other for a long time.
“He’s just that person that’s authentic and genuine and kind-hearted. He’s somebody that will do anything for his friends and family.”
While growing up in St. Paul, Robertson dreamed of having a baseball career, perhaps becoming the next Paul Molitor. He was passionate about the sport as an infielder at Cretin-Derham Hall.
His passions also include the city he reveres. “You know, he was born and raised in St. Paul, on St. Paul Avenue,” Klinger said. “Went to Cretin, loves the city. He’s in the Mancini’s (Sports) Hall of Fame. St. Paul is in his blood.”
So is hockey.
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.”