Mark Coyle was in his first year as Gophers athletic director when the football team played a meaningful home game against Northwestern in mid-November 2016.
The Gophers had a 7-3 record. The sun was shining that afternoon, but temperatures were in the low 30s with a windchill of 18. Coyle looked out at TCF Bank Stadium and saw sections of empty seats.
The announced crowd of 38,162 was the smallest in the stadium’s eight-year history. Actual attendance was considerably lower.
Coyle knew he had a significant problem, which he discussed with his senior staff.
“That [game] got people’s attention,” Coyle said.
Coyle announced last week more measures aimed at tackling an issue that continues to plague not only his department but also teams in different sports leagues nationwide: sagging attendance.
The Gophers announced on Thursday a reduction in some season-ticket prices for men’s basketball and men’s hockey. And in an interview later Thursday in his office, Coyle acknowledged that he has had discussions with school leaders about expanding alcohol sales in Williams Arena and 3M Arena at Mariucci beyond suites and club rooms.
In conversations with university employees, my sense is that allowing alcohol to be sold throughout those two venues is inevitable because that would generate new revenue. The school has averaged $1.3 million in alcohol revenue annually at TCF Bank Stadium for football games. Any change requires Board of Regents approval.
“We’re trying everything that we can,” Coyle said. “[Reducing ticket prices] is a way we feel like we can be more proactive in a very competitive market to try and get people to come back to our games.”
The rollout of their plan created some confusion, but here’s the gist: The cost of season tickets in more expensive seats largely will remain the same because of an increase in the scholarship seating donation charge. The school targeted sections that don’t require a donation because those areas are usually lacking fans.
Coyle’s staff realized that empty seats equate to lost revenue and are a detriment to game-day atmosphere. They’re trying to entice casual fans — or fans who dropped season tickets in protest of Norwood Teague’s scholarship seating plan — by reducing what they call “get-in” prices.
Coyle uses an airplane analogy.
“If that seat is empty next to you, when that plane takes off, they just lost that revenue,” he said. “So what is the magic number to sell that seat at? Looking at our attendance, we’ve got to be creative. It’s a competitive market here.”
Teams in all sports nationally, pro and college, are grappling with declining attendance. The Gophers face a double whammy because they share a market with six major pro teams. The competition for fan and corporate dollars is intense.
Gophers football last season had its lowest average attendance since 1992. Attendance for men’s hockey is a fraction of what it once was, in part because of exorbitant ticket prices. Men’s basketball rarely reaches capacity anymore.
The best solution, of course, is for teams to win consistently and contend for championships. But Coyle understands that he can’t sit and wait for that to happen, or simply hope fans will show up without giving them incentives.
One concession that won’t happen is an elimination of scholarship seating, a revenue source that, as much as fans hate it, has become common in college athletics. Coyle wrote to fans in 2017 that scholarship seating generates $12 million — about 10 percent of the department’s budget — which goes directly to pay for scholarships.
The Gophers need to fill empty seats to improve the atmosphere at games and because lost revenue from attendance decline has serious financial implications. Coyle admits that he says “no” a lot more to coaches and staffers on requests that cost money because of budget constraints.
“I think they all know how competitive I am and how I want to win,” Coyle said. “At the same time, I think they’re mindful of the challenges we have. You’ve been to our venues. When we’re down in attendance in football or men’s basketball or men’s hockey, those are our three revenue-generating sports. When you’re not generating ticket sales, that impacts everybody.”
Coyle notes that the department has built a new indoor golf facility and a new wrestling facility and is starting renovations on Maturi Pavilion all with private fundraising, no debt.
“While we have tightened the belts, we’ve not stopped putting our foot on the gas pedal,” he said. “Because if you take your foot off the gas pedal, you have no shot.”
Reducing ticket prices is a smart move. The department hosts “Coffee with Coyle” events periodically for season-ticket holders. The first two questions — or statements — that he hears at those gatherings are about ticket pricing and scholarship seating.
“Every time,” he said. “You could bet your life on it.”
Coyle’s first few years in charge were dominated by instability, replacing coaches and trying to bring order to chaos. His department has more stability now, so he’s focused on growth. Improving attendance is critically important to that mission.
“It’s on us to get people back,” he said.