Gophers football attendance drop among nation’s steepest declines

November 23, 2018 GMT

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck insists the teams plunging attendance doesnt concern him, but the announced crowd numbers this fall showed some of the steepest declines in the nation.

And the numbers counting actual fans in attendance are even worse.

According to that data, obtained this week by the Star Tribune, TCF Bank Stadium was less than half full for five of the teams seven home games.

The Gophers average announced attendance was 37,914, their lowest since Jim Wackers first season as coach in 1992.

And thats announced attendance, or tickets distributed, not the actual number of tickets scanned at the turnstiles. The official scanned ticket numbers show the Gophers actual average attendance was 22,656.

The Gophers announced a crowd of 41,291 for their opener against New Mexico State, for example, but the number of scanned tickets was 20,218. In four of the following home games, actual attendance was fewer than 23,000 in TCF Bank Stadium, which now has a capacity of 50,805.

Only three years ago, with a home schedule that included TCU, Nebraska and Wisconsin, the average announced attendance was 52,355, all but filling the stadium that whole season. So that average has dropped 14,440 since 2015.

Of the 65 Power Five teams, only one has suffered a bigger drop in that time USC, with 20,784 fewer fans per game. The Trojans still have one home game left, with a big crowd expected for No. 3 Notre Dame. In terms of percentage, USC and the Gophers have had almost identical drops over that span: 27.6 percent.

My focus is on the people who are actually there, thats it, Fleck said this week, as his team prepared for Saturdays regular-season finale at Wisconsin. I mean, you look across college football in general whether its NFL, college attendance is down as it is. For us, I know, when we build it, everybody will be there.

Across the nation, college football attendance fell 3.2 percent last season, the second-biggest drop since the NCAA began compiling attendance data in 1948.

The Gophers actually reversed that trend last year, Flecks first at Minnesota. They drew an average announced attendance of 44,358, which was up 544 fans per game from the previous season under then-coach Tracy Claeys.

After a 5-7 finish in 2017, the Gophers are 5-6 heading to Wisconsin and 4-13 in Big Ten play in two years under Fleck. But he is determined to eventually fill those 50,000 seats.

Thats why were doing it the way were doing it, and were not going to come off that plan. Period, Fleck said. Its not like Im sitting there changing and panicking and now Im bringing in 20 [junior college] players for Year 3.

Fleck also experienced an attendance drop in his second season at Western Michigan, as the Broncos drew an average of 15,625 per game, down from 17,347 his first year. That number climbed to 23,838 by Flecks fourth year, as the Broncos stayed undefeated before a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

[Attendance] went way, way, way, way up, Fleck said. Youre selling out your last year, and College GameDays there. I mean, things that people could never imagine happening.

The Star Tribunes request to interview athletic director Mark Coyle this week for this story was denied, but Coyle made his feelings known in late August, shortly before the season. At that point, Gophers ticket revenue had already fallen by $8 million, or 28 percent, in a three-year span with the primary declines coming in football, mens basketball and mens hockey.

We need ticket sales to pick up for us, Coyle said then. Ticket sales is the lifeline of your program, and we need to pay attention.

If the Gophers bottom line benefited in 2015 from a home football schedule with robust opponents, this years has been lean. The marquee home game this year came against Iowa, which drew an announced 48,199.

The last two home games came with kickoff temperatures of 21 degrees and 23 degrees, for Purdue and Northwestern, respectively. It rained for the Friday night game against Indiana on Oct. 26. The average announced attendance for those three final home games was 32,158.

And the universitys official scanned ticket numbers for those games 20,357 (Indiana), 15,434 (Purdue) and 15,160 (Northwestern) were even more alarming.

Im not concerned with that at all, Fleck said of the overall attendance numbers. I think weve got an incredible fan base, and we have a lot of people who love and care for us and our student section and the band. I appreciate their loyalty, and those are the ones were going to focus on.