Over the past three years, the University of Minnesota football team has tied for the nation's biggest drop in attendance among major conference schools. Factor in no-shows, and the average crowd was just 22,656 last season – the lowest in a quarter-century.
The men’s basketball team now plays to average crowds 4,000 below Williams Arena’s capacity. At least officially. Unofficially, the number plunges further among people who may have spent $75-$100 on a ticket, but still can’t be compelled to head to the U – or even give their tickets away.
Then there’s the men’s hockey team, once the school’s premier sporting venture. It played all season to swaths of empty seats, culminating in the Big 10 playoffs, when the crowds officially reached 1,000 souls, if one were being gracious with the math.
This is not a good state of affairs for the school's three revenue-generating sports. If the Gophers were a stock, they'd be surrounded by vulture capitalists hoping to buy cheap and sell them off for parts.
So last week, the Athletic Department took a bold step to address its unwanted supply and retreating demand. It cut prices for basketball and hockey. Season tickets for hoops will now begin at $340. For hockey: $500.
By dropping season ticket prices, it could also drop single-game prices, hopefully winning back fans repelled by pro fees for middling collegiate fare.
But the university always seems to have a gun pointed at its foot. This moment was no different. It couldn't resist running a sleight of hand on its most loyal fans.
While official prices declined, “scholarship seating” fees – the university’s version of a seat license – rose correspondingly, meaning most season ticket holders won't see any savings at all.
Take, for example, a primo season seat for men’s hockey. Last year, it would have cost $700 per ticket, with a $300 mandatory gift. Total: $1,000
Next season that same seat will sell for $500, but with a $500 “scholarship seating” fee. Total: $1,000.
“Our ticket price went down by $300!!!” one commenter wrote. “Our per seat contribution went up by... $300. Thanks?”
The U had taken a page from the cable industry's manual on customer relations. New customers get tempting discounts, while existing ones are taken for everything they can get. At Minnesota’s greatest center of higher thought, they actually built a disincentive to customer loyalty. The new prices mean you can now pay considerably less at the door. And you can skip contests against stiffs that are scheduled only to pad records and home-game revenue.
The U, of course, is motivated by a dilemma. Unlike most schools, it sits within a major city, forced to compete against all manner of pro teams. It doesn’t have the luxury of a country locale where it’s the only game in town.
Nor does it have the prestige or athletic history to measure its donors by the tonnage. Yet it still must compete in the arms race of college sports, playing with an anchor roped to its foot.
Then come national trends of declining attendance, particularly among students and families. It's not hard to see why. Throw in tickets, parking, and concessions priced by the Department of Usury, and fans can feel like they've been invited to a mugging. This is where the U has gone astray.
When you're not a national power, college sports carry a different emotional tender. People show up not for the winning, but for the fond memories of alums, family affinities passed through generations. The attraction lies in the gentler collegiate pageantry, in rooting for something that feels more wholesome than a simple entertainment transaction.
Yet the U can’t stop intruding on this suspension of conventional sporting belief. It wants to be your friend, yet insists on behaving like Comcast. And no one wants to pay to see Comcast play.