Chip Scoggins
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Mark Coyle spent his first year as Gophers athletic director staring at empty seats.

Football games at TCF Bank Stadium were half full, even for important Big Ten games late in the season. Crowds at Williams Arena steadily improved as the men’s basketball team made a historic turnaround, but the Gophers still finished with their lowest average attendance since the 1970-71 season. Attendance for men’s hockey dropped to its lowest level in five years.

Fan engagement with the three revenue sports on campus is a serious problem. Coyle made that issue a priority after being hired last May.

“It’s not our fans’ fault that they’re not coming to games,” Coyle said. “That’s on us, and we’ve got to earn them back.”

Coyle has launched a series of smart initiatives designed to give fans more voice and better benefits with their financial commitment. He created a new fan advisory board that will allow fans to offer feedback and suggestions directly to Coyle and his leadership staff.

Roughly 550 people applied for the board. Coyle wants the group to consist of 25 to 30 fans from a cross-section of interests. Final vetting is being completed, and the board will meet regularly starting in May.

“We want honest feedback,” Coyle said. “We don’t want people to tell us what they think we want to hear. We want to hear the good, the bad, the ugly.”

My guess on the No. 1 discussion topic: pricing.

Increases in scholarship seating implemented under former AD Norwood Teague proved disastrous and single-game tickets for some football and hockey games are simply too expensive.

“We’re trying to be conscious of our market,” Coyle said. “If people are telling us, ‘Hey, the cost for a football single-game ticket is crazy or it’s an awesome price, our market will tell us.’ ”

Their biggest challenge remains winning back football fans that dropped season tickets in protest of scholarship seating increases, a money grab that is common practice in college sports.

Teague sought to capitalize on Jerry Kill’s popularity and euphoria of a rare New Year’s Day bowl game. But he misread the situation by not recognizing that Gophers fans have suffered for decades and needed more than just one successful season to accept substantial price increases. Instead, many revolted and haven’t come back as season-ticket holders.

Coyle froze the third price hike last fall hoping to stop the exodus. The damage already was done, though.

Planning is underway internally to lower some football single-game ticket prices for nonconference games and possibly lower-profile Big Ten games. Exact prices aren’t known, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest a family of four should be able to get into a non-marquee game for $100 in the upper deck.

If the Gophers win big under P.J. Fleck and achieve sustained success, financial expectations will and should change. But for now, the Gophers need to entice fans to show up, not push them away.

Coyle commissioned a football survey during the season. The top three reasons fans listed for why they might not renew their tickets were: 1. Price exceeds value and benefits; 2. Affordability of tickets/overall cost of attending; 3. The team is not headed in right direction.

“It was consistent with what I had been hearing and what I had been seeing,” Coyle said.

The survey was collected through the beginning of December, so it didn’t include the sex scandal punishment and player boycott that rocked the program. The opinion here is that Coyle already had made up his mind to fire coach Tracy Claeys before then. He saw empty seats all season, noticed the lack of excitement in an 8-4 season and realized change was needed.

“The No. 1 thing is we have to add value,” Coyle said. “How I define value is, winning those big games, creating special moments from the time you come to our campus.”

That vision led them to overhaul their fan benefits program and create a new loyalty plan that allows fans to customize a benefits package that interests them. Previously, only donors had access to pre-assigned special benefits. The new loyalty program offers rewards to all season-ticket holders. The department also expanded its annual Gopher Road Trip to include more dates and stops.

Winning, of course, remains the top driver of fan engagement. Success solves many problems. But Coyle expects his entire department to do more to make people feel emotionally connected to Gophers athletics.

He hired a relentless salesman in his new football coach. Coyle said he was “very intentional” in targeting Fleck because he felt the program needed energy.

One small example: Fans who attended a spring practice received an e-mail that night that included a video from Fleck filmed on the field, thanking them for coming to practice.

“That leaves an impression,” Coyle said. “And those are things we haven’t always done in the past.”

Substantive changes were needed. These initiatives are a good start. Coyle knows fans won’t just magically reappear in those empty seats.

Chip Scoggins • chip.scoggins@startribune.com