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The U’s attendance problems aren’t going to be solved by booze and better pricing

The U is making the same classic mistake we newspaper veterans watched our industry make: focusing on those who aren’t coming back at the expense of your most loyal customers. 

3M Arena at Mariucci
At 3M Arena at Mariucci, in pricier sections for 2019-20, the “per seat contributions,” as the athletic department donations are called, rose even as ticket prices dropped.

University of Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle is in a tough spot. His young, energetic football coach hasn’t generated the buzz and ticket sales he expected. His men’s basketball team, which made the NCAA Tournament, and his men’s hockey team, which didn’t, play before thousands of empty seats every night. Empty seats mean less revenue for a department that built the $166 million Athletes Village project without enough pledges to cover the full cost.

So in the last ten days, the U announced two initiatives to try and entice fans back. It reduced prices of the least expensive seats at Williams Arena (basketball) and 3M Arena at Mariucci (hockey). And it proposed expanding beer and wine sales at both venues into general seating, as it is at football’s TCF Bank Stadium, instead of just in suites. The latter requires approval from the school’s Board of Regents.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying an adult beverage at a game, of course, as long as it doesn’t turn you into a cursing, screaming idiot. But the U is making the same classic mistake we newspaper veterans watched our industry make repeatedly: Focusing too much on customers who aren’t coming back, while gouging your most loyal ones so badly they ultimately walk away in disgust.

This shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone who’s lived here awhile, but Minnesotans are notoriously thrifty. They like getting the most bang for their buck. They love deals. This is a fan base that relishes finding street parking ten blocks from Williams Arena to avoid paying $10 or $15 at a U ramp. (I know. I’ve done it myself.)

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So when former athletic director Norwood Teague and his crew instituted mandatory athletic department donations as a condition to renewing season tickets, the impact was catastrophic. For teams that are okay, but nothing special, there’s only so much up-charge Gopher fans are willing to put up with. Some season subscribers stayed. Others bailed. Still others hung in a year or two longer before departing as well. Ticket revenue in football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey dropped by $7.6 million between 2014 and 2017, per the Star Tribune.

Last year’s announced average football attendance of 37,914 was the lowest since 1992. A key late-season Gopher basketball game against nationally ranked Purdue drew 10,062 to Williams Arena, not even close to a sellout. And two Gopher men’s hockey Big Ten Conference playoff games that were not part of season ticket packages drew less than 2,000 people — in a building that holds close to 10,000. Optics, not great.

Mark Coyle
Mark Coyle
It doesn’t help that Gopher fans are tired of coaches who promise the moon and deliver a grain of sand. They’re tired of being played for suckers. The football team under P.J. Fleck is no better than it was before TCF Bank Stadium was built. The basketball team under Richard Pitino is no better than it was under Tubby Smith. And the hockey team … you get the idea. Only now, everything costs more. A lot more.

It’s too easy to sit home, fire up the 55-inch flatscreen, flip on the Big Ten Network and sing The Rouser from your couch rather than shell out $4,500 for courtside basketball seats you can’t give away on the nights you aren’t there. Same with hockey and football. Who needs the hassle? And once you’re comfortable staying home, saving all that money, avoiding the traffic, what’s the incentive for coming back?

That, more than anything, is what Coyle and his staff are fighting.

They’re trying. Two years ago they instituted a Gopher Loyalty Program, a series of perks for season ticket holders that included tours, ticket upgrades and celebrity meet-and-greets. Before that, fans were lucky to get a thank you when the check cleared. The reduced-priced cheap seats and alcohol sales are the next logical steps.

But at Williams and Mariucci, in pricier sections for 2019-20, the “per seat contributions,” as the donations are called, rose even as ticket prices dropped. That negated any savings. The U fumbled a chance for goodwill by not reducing the donations, instead running a shell game on the price. And anyone who thinks fans will magically return for the privilege of paying $10 for a craft beer, $2 more than a six-pack costs at the liquor store up the street, needs to learn a little more about their customers.

The U should apply what works in so many of their women’s sports — volleyball, hockey, basketball, softball and soccer. Affordable tickets. Athletes who avoid the police blotter. Outstanding coaches willing to connect with fans. Success helps, but personal touches matter more.  

No one chants Pitino’s name at Williams Arena, but volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon hears his first name — HUUUUUUUUUUUUGH! — before every sold-out match at Maturi Pavilion. Volleyball fans revere McCutcheon, a two-time U.S. Olympic coach, because he could have gone anywhere and chose Minnesota. Volleyball might be the U’s toughest ticket and best atmosphere.

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Lindsay Whalen’s Minnesota roots and engaging manner brought the right kind of attention to a women’s basketball program that needed more fans and more media coverage. Whalen understands that marketing and salesmanship are part of her job as head coach, and she’s game for anything the U marketing department dreams up. Pitino and Fleck, not so much. Fans responded to Whalen; women’s basketball crowds averaged 5,570, the most since 2008-09 and more than 2,000 higher than the season before.

“Win more” is an easy answer to any attendance problem, but it’s not that simple anymore. Fans have options, including staying home. They needed to be courted, their loyalty acknowledged and appreciated. Dropping the price of parking once in a while wouldn’t hurt, either.