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

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.)

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.

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.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/26/2019 - 12:07 pm.

    I’m not a Gopher Hockey fan (I went to a few sold-out games in the 90s) but my friends who are blame the demise of the fan base on the move to the Big Ten from the WCHA.

  2. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 04/26/2019 - 01:22 pm.

    Tho Big Ten Conference ruined Gopher hockey. You will never get those fans back. Potion never should have been hired in the first place. Overpriced tickets, overpriced food and beverage, overpriced parking, traffic, crowds etc…There are just too many reasons to stay home.

  3. Submitted by Jim Carter on 04/26/2019 - 01:25 pm.

    Excellent piece, Pat.
    We should send it to the centenarian at the StarTribune for edification!

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/26/2019 - 05:53 pm.

    What really me is the people who tell me that the new reality is the B1GMistake, and we need to just accept it.

    We have accepted it. But that doesn’t mean we need to like it, or buy tickets, or even tune in on TV.

    We’ve just moved on.

    Hey, anyone know how the NCHC fared in the NCAA tournament this year?

  5. Submitted by Garry Knapp on 04/26/2019 - 05:54 pm.

    Women’s Hockey Tix are a bargain: $5 for senior ticket. But I’ll be damned if I’ll pay $7.50 for a pretzel!!

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/28/2019 - 03:36 pm.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m a supporter of girls and womens sports. I say that because I have laid out cash money to see girls & women who I am not related to nor am I a neighbor of. (Because if you only go to see girls and women who are your family or neighbors, it’s not saying much.)

      That said, there is a reason womens hockey tix can be had for $5. The fan base will hopefully grow, but it’s not there yet.

      Let’s not kid ourselves.

  6. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 04/26/2019 - 08:45 pm.

    Pat has nailed it again. Let’s hope this column is read by the right U of M athletics folks and marketing folks. And, yes, the women’s sports and women athletes at the U lead the way in doing it right!

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/27/2019 - 10:37 am.

    The sports bubble is bound to pop eventually. The cost of these sports programs and the required revenue stream is simply unsustainable.

    The University is supposed an institution of higher learning, not a platform for training professional athletes, and there are signs that organized sports is losing it draw as a form of entertainment.

    Sports at the U. has always been annoying in many ways from parking hassles it creates for students trying to get to classes to the financial strains and inherent inequities between student athletes and the rest of the student body. The fact that we’re re-naming all of the arenas and stadiums to pay homage to corporations and banks is kind of disgusting when you think about it.

    People can just be obnoxious as well. When I was student back in the 80’s people who didn’t even know me would ask me to buy them tickets using my student discount. How cheap is that?

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 04/28/2019 - 12:05 pm.

      The simple truth is that the U is ill-equipped to compete in this market now flush with rich guys owning and operating pro teams while reshaping the Twin Cities with their real-estate and/or media plays. And alcohol sales factor prominently in their profits, to the point that Bill McGuire’s 96-tap Beer Hall is open for business in the Midway even when no soccer is being played. The university, meanwhile, is stuck with the worst facilities with which to compete: a 90-year-old basketball arena that couldn’t produce much revenue even with sellouts; a separate hockey arena that has become superfluous with the relegation of its primary tenant to a punitive conference affiliation; and a football stadium too large to produce a hot ticket but too small to allow the U to compete with the Big Ten behemoths. The bubble shows no sign of bursting — not with the pedestrian Wild continuing to sell out the X at steep NHL prices — but there is no solution for Dinkytown U.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/29/2019 - 08:40 am.

        “The simple truth is that the U is ill-equipped to compete in this market now flush with rich guys owning and operating pro teams …”

        Actually I think the simply truth is that athletics at public universities like the U of M aren’t supposed to be “businesses” in the first place. The athletics department at the U has never “made” the U. money in sense that it contributes to programs outside of itself, in fact audits routinely reveal that the AD is subsidized by the U and barely breaks even in terms of it’s revenue and spending. And yeah, the more they dump into coaches and facilities, the more they break even or even fall short.

        College sports programs aren’t supposed to compete in markets, they’re just supposed to compete with each other to win competitions. On any given campus a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the student body are in the athletic program, and those programs are simply part of a vibrant campus experience, they are not and cannot function as for-profit businesses.

        As a photographer I work in the stadiums and arenas at the U frequently and they look like plenty nice places to play games and watch games, I don’t know what more you want or why? The function of these places is to provide a place for the teams to play, and the students, families, and alumni to watch them play. You get into trouble when you start thinking that this is all something MORE than that.

        There’s something like 50k students at the U, and what? A few hundred of those students are in the athletic program? When you add up all of the spending that goes into the athletic department you find that they’re spending more per student in the athletic program than any other department at the U, even in the Med School. And for what? A fraction of a fraction of those athletes go on to have decent professional sports careers. If 90+% of the Med School graduates failed to become practicing Doctors it would a huge scandal. Yet the only measure of a “successful” athletic department is it’s revenue? This is messed up on a fundamental level.

        • Submitted by Gary Derong on 04/29/2019 - 11:02 am.

          The run of seven national football champions ended abruptly when the Vikings and Twins arrived on the scene in 1961. The diehard fans of that golden era have largely died off, leaving a fair-weather fan base yearning for a Rose Bowl or legitimate Final Four appearance but finding more reasons to jump off the bandwagon every year. College sports may not be intended to compete with the pros, but in this town it always will. It stole facilities money to replace Williams Arena. It stole the corporate clout that once brought Lou Holtz to town. It stole the best and brightest athletic figures that could’ve become U coaches and ADs — such as Grant, Dungy, Nanne, McHale, Saunders, Molitor — leaving only Whalen to return AFTER her pro career. It stole the best newspaper writers — the Russos and Zgodas — and left the lower-rung folks to cover the U. And, of course, it stole the discretionary dollars of Twin Cities sports fans, that now more than ever includes beer money and apparel sales dough. See any kids running around town in Gopher gear lately?

    • Submitted by Miriam Segall on 04/28/2019 - 12:22 pm.

      I certainly hope you’re right, Paul. Of course, a land-grant university isn’t the same as a private liberal arts college, but you’d like to think its purpose is education and research, not semi-professional high-dollar (at least for facilities and coaches) athletics. I’ve often heard that many alumni identify with the football and basketball teams and wouldn’t support the U of M otherwise, but it’s never been clear to me whether they are supporting the U or the football and basketball. Maybe it’s high time we disconnected the essentially commercial sports from the educational mission. As far as I can see, the only people who would really suffer are those undergraduates who come on certain athletic scholarships, but do we really need so-called “students” who couldn’t qualify otherwise? And, of course, we taxpayers would probably be on the hook for the athletic facilities. But why should we be paying for the minor leagues for professional football and basketball? Let them be like the minor leagues in baseball and pay for themselves or fold.

      • Submitted by Gary Derong on 04/29/2019 - 04:46 pm.

        You can’t pull the plug on football and basketball now. Unless you want to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe forever as a retired trophy, and leave basketball fans with an NCAA tournament victory as a parting gift. Seriously, the time to bow out would’ve been before the football stadium and athletes village — both only partially paid for — were built.

  8. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 04/28/2019 - 08:46 pm.

    The U of M does no belong in the Big Ten anymore. They can’t compete. The top players go to SEC schools. Would you want to live in the frozen tundra? Maybe you do, they don’t. Spending 166M, without having the funding was financially irresponsible. Give it up, move to D2. Most will consider this sacrilegious, but wouldn’t you rather see your team compete on a level playing field? Stop throwing money down the drain. No one will ever give this is second thought. I am 100% confident this is the only workable solution. I am a former D2 coach.

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 04/29/2019 - 10:10 am.

      There is no place for the U in Division 2, given its size and existing facilities. There would be a place in Division 1 FBC, which would consist of leaving the Big Ten for the Summit Conference and the familiarity of the Dakota schools. But I sense no appetite for that among diehard Gopher fans. Beating the Coyotes, Jackrabbits and even the Bison would never be as satisfying as beating the Badgers. How would you feel about a major downgrade of competition for all the successful U women’s teams? And how would you feel about losing the U’s annual distribution from the Big Ten, which hit a record $51.1 million in Fiscal 2018 with the inclusion of the Fox networks in the TV package?

  9. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 04/29/2019 - 09:59 am.

    I once ran into President Kaler at the State Fair standing in line for a beer. I greeted him and asked him how it was going. He immediately launched into a speech about PJ Flexk and the football team. I politely listened while internally saying, “why is this the top thing on the mind of the President of the U?”. Clearly sports takes up much, much, MUCH too much mindshare relative to its impact on the state. I’d much rather hear about growing the number of engineering students, increasing size of undergrad business program, or solving some other actual problem facing the state. The sooner we get colleges out of the business of sports the better.

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 04/29/2019 - 10:29 am.

      It’s a Gopher problem, not a college sports problem. And it’s a problem shared by other schools in predominantly pro sports markets. Big-revenue sports are doing wonderfully in the small town of Ames, Iowa, where alumnus Fred Hoiberg helped build a solid men’s basketball program and where native son Paul Rhoads restored fan loyalty to the football program and laid the groundwork for Matt Campbell’s arrival as a successful coach. But in the Big Ten, we have three schools — Minnesota, Northwestern and Rutgers — up against 11 with the built-in advantages of owning their markets in media coverage, corporate sponsors, donors/boosters and apparel sales. Northwestern is doing everything right. It is upgrading facilities, hiring alums and native sons as high-profile coaches and being as competitive as a small school with high academic standards can be. It even won the Big Ten West in football last season. But greater Chicagoland pays more attention to Notre Dame than the Wildcats. And, of course, to the Bears, Cubs, Sox, Hawks and Bulls.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/02/2019 - 08:27 am.

      I can’t agree more. I wish they would have sold the football stadium to the Minnesota United. That would have solved several problems at once.

  10. Submitted by Steve Carnes on 04/29/2019 - 11:25 am.

    I chuckled when I read the comment about gouging your most loyal fans. Not many years ago, I think it was for 2016 season tickets renewal, I was informed that to keep my two season tickets on the 10 yard-line (not exactly prime seating), I would not only have to renew at the on-going rate but would have to also pay $200 per seat, and that would be on-going, not just for that season. I had had those seats since 1993. going to (to say the least) more than a few games where the team didn’t exactly impress anyone. So my reward for my loyalty? Basically a $400 surcharge on my two seats. Needless to say, I said goodbye to them, pointing out that that kind of thing works fine at Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Oklahoma….you know places where getting tickets is at a premium because every game is sold out. That is not here.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/30/2019 - 11:01 am.

    I think it’s important to remember that neither sports or anything that happens in sports ever rises above the the level of mere trivia.

    The fact is it doesn’t really matter in any significant way whether or not these athletes win or lose the games they play, or if they get into or win or lose championships of any kind. In fact one could argue that of all the students who graduate from any university the athletes have the least impact on the world and society at large, specially if they’re go on to have pro careers. One can certainly claim that of all the work product produced by students on campus during their collage careers, that of the athletes is the most trivial.

    The idea that any of these coaches, no matter how well paid, put universities “on the map” somehow is kind of ridiculous. Does Carlton even have a football team? I’d be willing to bet that of the 50+ thousands students registered at the U 75+% of them never attend more than one sporting event during their student careers, if that. I’d also be willing to bet that most of students couldn’t name any of these coaches. I would also point out that Goldie is the University Mascot, not just the sports mascot.

    And this IS a college sports problem. You can brag about or envy Penn State’s football program if you want, but some of us note that it was a reservoir of sexual predators, a problem that seems to plague more than few very expensive athletic departments.

    I don’t think anyone is talking about pulling the plug on sports, but we can certainly restore sports to it’s proper perspective as a campus amenity rather than an existential necessity.

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 05/01/2019 - 10:29 am.

      “. . . Athletes have the least impact on the world and society at large.”

      J.J. Watt has raised more than $37 million to help Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey. After the Santa Fe High School shooting on May 18, 2018, that left eight students and two teachers dead, Watt offered to pay for the funerals of the dead. His foundation provides after-school opportunities for children in various communities, in order for them to get involved in athletics in a safe environment.

      Watt was planning to become a Gopher out of high school in suburban Milwaukee. But his plans changed when Glen Mason was fired as coach in 2006. Watt spent a year at Central Michigan before accepting an offer to walk on at Wisconsin. He thrived as an athlete and a person in Madison. He’s not alone.

      Russell Wilson, another former Badger and now the highest-paid QB in the NFL, is an active volunteer in the Seattle community. During the NFL season, Wilson makes weekly visits on his days off to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, and has also visited with soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. In the offseason, Wilson hosts the Russell Wilson Passing Academy, a youth football camp, in several cities. In 2012, proceeds from the camp went to the Charles Ray III Diabetes Association, for which Wilson is the National Ambassador. In 2013 and 2014, Wilson partnered with Russell Investments for its “Invested with Russell” program, which donated $3,000 to Wilson’s charitable foundation for every touchdown he scored

      D’Cota Dixon, a graduating football safety pursuing a master’s degree in counseling psychology, grew up in a broken home wracked by parental violence and prolonged absence, but grew as a Christian athlete to win the 2018 Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award and the 2017 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award winner. He is becoming a motivational speaker.

      Former basketball players Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have become spokesmen for American Indian and African-American issues.

      Current Badger running back Jonathan Taylor is pursuing a degree in astrophysics as well as the Heisman Trophy.

      Forest Lake High School grad Patrick Kasl left the UW football team last year to focus on his biomedical engineering studies. His decision was applauded on campus.

      I could go on and on.

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/02/2019 - 08:21 am.

        For people in those positions it should be expected. Unfortunately, in our celebrity driven world, these people have cameras following them around at every event. They manage to look good in all the pictures, and everyone believes what a huge impact they are making. However, the middle aged volunteer who helps refugee families, or spends precious time apart from their 9-5 job, and family commitments receives no recognition. It’s a bad joke watching a sports game and seeing the commercials highlighting athletes volunteering.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/02/2019 - 08:47 am.

        Gary, no one said athletes are bad people. And yes, when athletes do something other than play games, they can do important things… just like the rest of us. I’m sure all the biomedical engineers in the field are waiting with baited breath for Kasl joins their ranks… but they’ve been saving lives for decades.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/03/2019 - 08:43 am.

    Very often when thinking about sports, an implicit assumption is made that just because all the teams compete on a level playing field, the competition itself is on the level. It is not. Sports are run for the benefit of the dominant team, the ones that win, and the ones that have the highest revenue. This is the unalterable reality of the real game the participants are engaged and it determines all the conditions of the relationships between the parties.

    Historically, Minnesota athletic teams, at least the ones that count, football, basketball, and to a much lesser extent, hockey, haven’t been players, they have been opponents. Their role isn’t to win, it’s to provide teams on the various fields for the real teams to beat. Those teams are in strong economic positions, which means they can make choices that have real financial impact. Among other things they have pricing power over tickets they can use in different ways ticket licenses being one of them. The Gophers aren’t like that. The football team hasn’t won a Big Ten Championship in over a half century. They haven’t been in a Rose Bowl in nearly sixty years. Unlike Michigan and Ohio State, the Gophers play in a sports market that is saturated with other, more attractive teams, They play for a University which has little commitment to their prospects for success. All this means the university doesn’t have pricing power and given their status as opponents, they never will.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/04/2019 - 09:24 am.

      “Very often when thinking about sports, an implicit assumption is made that just because all the teams compete on a level playing field, the competition itself is on the level. It is not. ”

      Yes, this “level playing field” stuff is absolutely an enduring myth for a variety of reasons. We should recognize this and re-orient the significance of sports accordingly.

  13. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/03/2019 - 12:10 pm.

    You know, I have heard more times than I can count that college athletics are all about the money. And it is true, vast sums of cash are involved. We pay hundreds of millions to contractors to build sports facilities for the programs, local businesses get millions of dollars in revenues each sports weekends. Coaches receive huge salaries, the meekest and humblest of whom are paid more than the president of the United States. Just the sums we know about are beyond comprehension. But what is most curious about this is that the students who play, the ones who provide the only value there is to this vast industrial enterprise receive nothing at all. This is not something for which a rational explanation exists.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/04/2019 - 09:26 am.

      Yes, and the more you build and spend, the more tickets you have to sell and round it goes to what end? Simply to HAVE an athletics program?

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