Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it appears the University of Minnesota is desperate to put more fans in the stands at football, basketball and hockey games.
Attendance at these big-name sporting events has plummeted in recent years. In terms of actual people coming through the gates (not ticket sales), the Gophers football squad last year drew an average of 22,656 fans. The attendance decline TCF Bank Stadium since 2015 is the second-worst among the nation’s 65 “power conference” football teams.
Basketball attendance isn’t much better. The Big 10 has become a ticket-selling hoops juggernaut, with the best average attendance of any college basketball conference, but attendance at Williams Arena is down more than 10 percent since 2014. Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the conference in ticket sales.
And hockey? Well, a late-season Gophers game at 3M Arena at Mariucci used to be one of the hottest tickets in town, but a little more than two months ago, the Gophers couldn’t sell 2,000 tickets for a playoff game against Michigan. And that was the announced attendance — far fewer people than that were actually present, and photos of the nearly empty arena went viral.
What to do?
University officials are betting on beer.
The plan currently under consideration would expand alcohol sales to general seating areas at Williams Arena and 3M Arena at Mariucci. Currently, alcohol is sold only in premium seating areas at these venues. Alcohol is already sold throughout TCF Bank Stadium.
While increased alcohol sales are projected to provide an additional $250,000 in revenue each year, that’s not the main objective. The thinking is that more people will attend games if they can buy a lower-priced ticket and enjoy a beer or glass of wine.
The potential pitfalls of such a change are obvious. Anyone who has attended a handful of professional sporting events knows what it’s like to sit near someone who’s had one too many drinks. (Or five too many.) A drunken fan can really detract from the enjoyment of those nearby. If you’ve witnessed a fight in the stands — and they do happen — alcohol was almost certainly involved.
But unless the U is ready to ban alcohol sales entirely — and it’s not — then we’d prefer the new proposal to the current policy. We’ve never liked the notion that people in “premium” seating are able to buy drinks that the average fan cannot.
If the well-heeled people sitting in luxury suites are surrounded by fine wine and imported beer, then the metalworker who paid $15 for a general admission ticket should be able to drink a Miller Lite while he watches the Gophers hockey team.
But make no mistake — alcohol sales won’t fix what ails the Gophers sports programs.
A lot of factors make it difficult for Gophers sports teams to attract fans, and the biggest one is the competition from professional sports teams. The Gophers football team plays in a new-but-smallish stadium that’s just a few miles from the gigantic palace where the Vikings play. The Vikings own the loyalty of most Minnesota football fans, and that’s not going to change.
Gophers hockey has to compete with Minnesota Wild for fans’ attention and dollars, and while Mariucci is very nice, it’s a far cry from the Xcel Energy Center. The biggest blow to Gophers fans and players was the U’s switch from the WCHA to the Big 10. Fans packed Mariucci each week to see the likes of North Dakota and Colorado College, teams with which the rivalries were long, storied and even bloody.
Finally, although the Timberwolves are consistently lousy, basketball fans who go to one or two games each year can watch a middle-of-the-pack Gophers team, or they can choose to see LeBron James, Steph Curry or one of the half-dozen other NBA superstars who come to Minneapolis every year.
Williams Arena is a great college venue, but James Harden never plays there.
It also doesn’t help that the U of M has made mistakes that test fans loyalty. A few years ago, the now-infamous athletic director Norwood Teague approved a plan that required fans who renewed their season tickets to make an additional donation to the athletics department.
Minnesotans love their sports, but we’re a thrifty bunch, too. Given the choice between being extorted or using that money to buy a 70-inch flat-screen on which to watch games for free, many people chose the latter.
That last problem isn’t specific to the Gophers. The Twins are a first-place ball club, with a lot of exciting new players, yet for the first few weeks of the season, attendance at Target Field was absolutely abysmal. When every game is on TV, why hassle with parking and an hour-long drive home after the game?
So the Twins got creative, offering a “flash sale” of $5 seats — and in a matter of hours had unloaded more than 30,000 tickets that might otherwise not have been sold.
The University of Minnesota is going to have to do something similar, and already it has cut prices in the least-expensive seating areas of Mariucci and Williams Arena.
That will help, but it’s a short-term fix. The best way to put fans in stands is to win, and for years, the big-ticket Gophers programs have underperformed.
When the football team wins the Big 10 West and plays in a New Year’s Day bowl, attendance will grow. If Richard Pitino can deliver a regular-season Big 10 championship and a berth in the Final Four, Williams Arena will be packed.
And when the best college hockey team in the nation is in Minneapolis, rather than Duluth, then 3M Arena at Mariucci will once again be the hottest ticket in town.