The Minnesota Golden Gopher football program has had real trouble gaining and maintaing a strong fan base in the Twin Cities over the past 40 years or so. For some folks, the reason why is simple: the downfall of the once powerful Gopher program (last Rose Bowl 1967) coincides almost exactly with the creation and rise of the NFL Minnesota Vikings (founded 1961, 1st NFL title 1969). Since the late 60's this town(s) has been dominated by the Vikings, and the Gophers have been a complete afterthought. A big part of that is winning, as the Vikings have done a lot of it (no Super Bowls, as our "friends" east of the St Croix will remind us, but 4 Super Bowl appearances, and a bunch of heart-breaking, gut-wrenching close calls) while the Gophers have done very little (no conference titles and no New Year's Day bowls since 1967). The Vikes, of course, have also had some down years, but the fan following has rarely dropped. It also doesn't help Gopher football that they've had very few seasons for the casual fan to get excited about (the last, by my count, being the 2003 season when the Gophs' started 7-1 and ALMOST beat highly ranked Michigan, losing a 35-7 4th quarter lead).
But the Gophers aren't alone in this quest to draw fans in a major market against an NFL team. This week, E!SPN.com is focusing on the challenges faced by D-1 college football programs in major cities. Back in February, South Florida assistant AD Bill McGillis held a Big City Marketing Summit in USF's home town of Tampa, and 15 schools with division 1 football programs located in major cities showed up. McGillis' idea was to brainstorm ideas of how to generate more revenue and sell more tickets with school's in similar situations as USF. The list of attendees is below. You'll notice the Gophers aren't on it. I can't imagine they weren't invited so apparently Joel Maturi doesn't need any help as he has it all figured out. Because he certainly didn't have a half empty stadium the second half of last season- oh that's right, he DID. Sure, the tickets were technically all sold, but it doesn't look great for your school when a brand new stadium is half empty. Anyway, the list...
Big City Marketing Summit participants
- Arizona State (Pac-12)
- Boston College (ACC)
- Cincinnati (Big East)
- Houston (Conference USA)
- Maryland (ACC)
- Miami (ACC)
- Northwestern (Big Ten)
- Pittsburgh (Big East)
- Rutgers (Big East)
- San Diego State (Mountain West)
- South Florida (Big East)
- TCU (Mountain West)
- Temple (MAC)
- Tulane (Conference USA)
- Washington (Pac-12)
The two biggies who did not attend were USC and UCLA. Obviously, they're not competing with an NFL team right now, but it's believed they will in the next few years. The others all play in a major city and have to compete with the NFL for football fans. In just about every case, the NFL is winning.
Obviously, the 15 schools on that list have something in common with the Gophers, but there's also plenty of differences. A few of the challenges the Gophers face trying to differentiate themselves from the Vikings and many others in a very clogged Twin Cities sports market:
THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
I may never attend another NFL game in my life. I'm not anti-NFL, it's just not worth the money and hassel of going to an NFL game compared to the ease and comfort of sitting on my couch. The sterile Metrodome certainly doesn't help, but even if/when the Vikings get a new stadium, I'd only go to a game for free.
The Gophers? Completely different story. Part of the lure (are least for me) is the atmosphere a college football game day provides. Granted, Minnesota has some work to do to become known as a great game day atmosphere like an Ohio State or Penn State or Wisconsin. But there's still an effort made for tailgating in parking lots around the stadium, the marching band, the student section (when they show up), and more than 100 years of traditions and rivalries.
Getting back on campus in a gorgeous brand spankin' new college football-only stadium was a big step in the right direction as well. College teams that play in an NFL stadium puts them at a disadvantage because you lose that college atmosphere, and the Gophers certainly lost it playing all those years in the crappy, sterile Metrodome. Also, college football is meant to played outdoors.
THE BIG TEN BRAND
Sure the new division names are the dumbest in the history of anything, but the Big Ten brand is one of the most powerful in all of sports. This gives the Gophers a big advantage over just about everyone else on the list of major city teams. Even when the Gophers are down, the fact they play schools like rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, and household names Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State brings them attention they wouldn't receive if they played in another conference.
For BCS conference schools, there's a clear advantage. A school like TCU has had to win a LOT just to get any kind of foothold in the Dallas/Ft Worth market. And yet even with their addition to the Big East, TCU could win every national title for the next 10 years and they still would not only not be as popular as the Dallas Cowboys, but wouldn't be even be the most popular college football team in the area (Texas) or even second (Texas A&M). BCS conference schools have more tradition and generally much larger fan bases than smaller schools, and for an elite conferenc like the Big Ten, the advantage is even larger- well unless you're Northwestern. An amazing stat from the E!SPN story: Northwestern only has the 10TH highest number of graduates in Chicago. Tenth. No matter how much Northwestern does, they'll never be Chicago's school, but with such a huge population, there's plenty of fans there for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats to grab.
MINNESOTA HAS GREAT FANS
This is something that doesn't get talked about enough. We have great sports fans here in Minnesota. They support their teams passionately whether it's a niche group (like the Wild or on a smaller scale the St Paul Saints) or the big teams like the Vikes and Twins. For the market size, the Twin Cities has given strong support to four pro (plus the Saints and Lynx) and three college teams (Gopher football, basketball, and hockey). Look at that list again of the 15 schools that attended that conference and tell me how many of those cities that compare in size to the Twin Cities supports as many teams as we do.
Certainly, winning is the biggest factor of all (and we'll get to that) but the Twin Cities has much better fans than it gets credit for. That "other" The U, Miami, has had one of the most successful college football programs of the past 30 years. They've won a staggering amount of games and titles, and have done it with a brash and exciting group of players. And yet, unless the Canes are winning national titles they struggle to fill their stadium. That's because Miami has the worst sports fans in America (and Canada too for that matter). Maybe there's too much to do in Miami or there's just not a lot of sports fans there, but unless you're a title contending team, they don't pay you much attention down there.
Unlike the Northeast this is also an area that supports college teams and college foobtall from D1 to D3. Boston College is always going to be off the radar in Boston, ditto Syracuse or Rutgers or any school around Manhattan, and even a school like Maryland has struggled to gain any tracion in am NFL-obsessed area with the Redskins and Ravens. The Twin Cities though has always supported Gopher basketball and hockey well. Certainly not in numbers that rival the Vikes or Twins, but they have a strong and stable fanbase.
Also, while Packer fans make fun of us for not being loyal enough (which is when I like to remind them there were plenty of good seats available for Packers games during the 80's- when they played half their home games at County Stadium to try and generate more interest in the state!), I'm not sure there's been a pro sports franchise in the past 40 years who have put their fans through more heartache, turmoil, and frustration than the Vikings. And yet, this town bleeds purple and gold, and if there's literally ANYTHING going on with the team, they're the top sports story 365 days a year. The football fans in this town will support you through thick and thin...you've jsut got to give them a little something to get them hooked.
Finally, the Gophers also have an advantage over those other city schools because The U is the only D1 college football program in the state, and with an annual undergrad enrollment of almost 50,000 there's a LOT Of Gopher grads in the Twin Cities. Now if the team would just give them something worth cheering for...
Bottom line, if a college football program wants to grab the attention (and let's face it, the money) of fans in a major city, they have to win. Have to. Places like Lincoln or Tuscaloosa won't tolerate losing, but the fanbase will remain rabid win or lose because that's what those places have and care about the most. In a major metropolis like the Twin Cities, if you're not winning, you're not going to get the attention of the casual fan. I believe all of the factors mentioned above would help Gopher football keep a strong following...if they can just win some games first to get those casual fans interested. I'm not even sure if would take going to the Rose Bowl (although that would obviously help), but if Jerry Kill could just do what no coach has done since 1967, and that's get this team to a New Year's Day bowl game. You know, a REAL bowl. Do that with a team on the rise, and show some real, honest to goodness promise, and Gopher football will finally gain more fans and traction in this area.
While I think it would take some substantial winning (that Rose Bowl thing) to overtake the Vikings, I do think there's an opportunity here to grab some football fans either away from the Vikes or to share those fans. The Vikes look like they're entering a down cycle (your starting QB? Christian Ponder everyone!) while the Packers and Lions are trending up (I can't believe I just said that about the Lions either but it's true). The Vikes could be the worst team in the NFC Norris in 2011 (if there's football) and for a few years to come. If the Gophers could just give the fans some hope this year by getting to a bowl game, and then build on that with a New Year's Day bowl in the next three or four years, the Gophers can gain a foothold in this market. I look at Seattle with the Washington Huskies, a school who despite the presence of the NFL Seahawks has always been top "Dawg" so to speak (sorry bad pun) or close to it. Why? They've won pretty consistently, and while support has dwindled a bit in the past decade of futility, they're still pulling in-on average- well over 60,000 a game over that span. That's a problem almost every city school would love to have, including Minnesota.
I know, I know- easier said than done. But while being in the Twin Cities certainly presents some challenges for Gopher football to gain more fans, they have some advantages and opportunites most other city schools don't. Now all they have to do is win.