Thursday, November 12, 2009

Solving the Student Section Problem

What should we do with the student section? That's been a major topic of discussion amongst Gopher fans this week after more than half of the student section no-showed for the Illinois game. Yup, just seven home games into the TFC Bank Stadium Era, and we're already having trouble getting students to show up for games. Actually, it's been a problem all year, as really other than the opener for Air Force, and the next one against Cal, there's been empty seats in the upper deck end zone where students should be sitting all season (including for the Wisconsin game How is that possible??!).

What's the problem? Why can't we get U kids to get drunk and show up for three-four hours on a Saturday? Especially last Saturday, where it was a PERFECT November day, and showcased the Gophs coming off a monster win against Michigan State playing for bowl eligibility and more?!?! Apparently they had better things to do at 11am on a Saturday morning, like sleep, drink some more and avoid homework because according to those who were there, there was probably 60% empty seats in the upper deck.

For someone like me who wanted season tickets and would have gladly paid $50 a seat, but couldn't get them because all seats were "sold out" this year, it's frustrating that 10,000 students can't be bothered to show up for games they paid $10 for.

The Strib's Kent Youngblood ran a story Tuesday asking Where Have All the Student Fans Gone? which included comments from disappointed and troubled AD Joel Maturi (disappointed and troubled about the lack of students- not about his job over anything). The story drew 234 comments on the Strib site, including a follow-up blog post from Youngblood yesterday with some possible reasons he had gotten. They include:

-A ton of people said it was because of the early game starts. Well, I have news for you: Thanks to TV, those early starts are here to stay for the near future. It was noted by several folks that students arriving late for early games is not exactly unusual, even in places like Wisconsin. Somebody sent me a link to a story lamenting the same situation at Penn State!

-A couple people noted that they thought a number of fans used their kids' student status to purchase tickets, then found they couldn't enter games without a student ID. One person said they know of at least two dozen parents who were in that situation.

-One person mentioned that, it being the first truly nice weekend of the fall, some students from rural backgrounds might have gone home to help their families with field work.

I've also heard that because everybody in the lower bowl student section stands for the whole game, they cram more kids in there than there are seats, leaving empties up above.

All of these are plausible reasons, but to me still don't excuse the absence of so many students for a Big Ten conference game. Don't get me wrong, the students that do show up and always fill the lower bowl are awesome. They stand the whole game, are loud the whole game, and definintely add to the atmosphere- but having so many empty seats in the upper deck is inexcusable, and it's something that needs to be fixed for next season.

Thankfully, I have the answers, and I'm happy to share with with you, and anyone else will listen. And Joel Maturi, if anyone has a direct line to him. To the points made, and others that weren't but should have been:

Early start times
As Youngblood says, this is not going away, especially with the Big Ten's assanine rule that you can't have night games in November. Freaking ridiculous. That means here at Minnesota, and at half the other schools in the Big Ten, we're guaranteed 11am home games in the month of November because we're not going to be good enough to play in the one prime 2:30pm ABC timeslot, so every Saturday in November, nine of the eleven Big Teams will have to play at 11am central. Dumb.

While I think students who pay for tickets should actually follow through and use them, regardless of start time, this does make it more difficult for them- and for everyone else. I know Jer's uncle and aunt, season ticket holders since 1982, are considering giving up their tailgating spot next year and just parking in the Oak Street ramp, because with so many 11am games, it's difficult for them to get up here from Rochester and tailgate at all before such an early kickoff. The 11am game I tailgated for was Purdue, and even to meet someone in the St Paul lot to tailgate we had to be up at 7am, and when it's freezing a** cold so freaking early, I can see why more people just skip it altogether.

Part of the college football atmosphere is tailgating before the game, and 11am kickoffs, especially in November, discourage that- not just for the students, but for everybody. I would love to know the reasoning behind the Big Ten's archaic rule, and I have to think that if the big boys like Penn State are also having issues with the early start time (although keep in mind for them, and anybody east of Illinois, that their early start time is noon), that hopefully they can get it changed. If they're worried about the weather being too cold, that just seems ridiculous considering all of the advancements in technology for player gear and sideline stuff, and the fact fans can just layer up and booze up to stay warm like they've been doing at college games for over 100 years. It's also just as cold if you want to tailgate at 8am as it is to sit in a stadium at 8pm. This rule needs to be abolished ASAP.

You Can Only Use a Student Ticket With a Student ID
To me, this is the most easily solvable problem of all the ones raised, and could do the most good towards helping to fill the empty seats and unused tickets. They were not this militant at the Metrodome, and everyone seemed to be just fine, so they should nix this rule starting next year. I used student tickets a number of times (actually for about the first three or four years I went to games) without ever being a student at The U, and it was great fun, and the sections were full. Somebody explain to me why this rule shouldn't be repealed, and we go back to the way it used to be.

Drunk College Kids
This was not addressed by Youngblood in his blog post (at least not in so many words), but it's obviously an issue. Apparently, not only are the people at the gates militant with students about having ID's, but I guess they're turning away any student who even appears to be drunk. Well there goes your student section. Look, I'm not about to condone underage drinking (or maybe I am), but you have to be in heavy denial, or just an idiot, to believe it doesn't happen on every single college campus in America (well maybe not the Mormon schools, or Bob Jones University, but let's say 99.5% of them). Partying and making bad decisions is part of being a normal college kid (although hopefully your bad decisions don't allegedly involve shoplifting and pushing down security guards at the MOA, picking fights with undergrads, or swinging a 2X4 at a frat party), and getting a little lubed up before a game and then going in and yelling and screaming your head off for 3+ hours is also part of a normal college experience. I know drinking underage is illegal, but if you're going to turn away every student who appears drunk you're not only going to have a very small student section, but you're also going to have a very BORING student section.

If the kids are falling down drunk and puking on themselves, then yeah, they're not getting in. But if they're walking, talking, and yelling "WHO HATES IOWA?!?" and acting like, oh I don't know, 99% of college kids do, then let them in.

Nice Weather
This one is bubkis. What's the U's undergrad population? Almost 50,000 right? You're telling me even if kids who paid for student tickets that couldn't use them, or decided not to, couldn't find a buddy to take them to fill 10,000 seats? Seems a little ridiculous. Actually, it seems a lot ridiculous. Kids in California, Florida and generally everybody south of the Mason Dixon line have nice weather throughout football season, and yet they still go to games. Heck, 60 degrees and sunny in November should be MORE of a reason to go to the game, not less!

People Who Bought Tickets to Scalp Them
This is a problem in all sections obviously, as if you peruse Craiglist or Stubhub there are plenty of tickets available, and not just in the student section. As Jer and I have had to go this route for tickets, I've noticed more than a few postings that do not have Minnesota area codes, leading me to believe some folks decided to buy some up in a brand new stadium, hoping to make a buck. And it obviously hasn't happened. There had to be students who also had no plans to ever go to a game but were hoping to cash in on scalping cheap tickets in the first year of the new stadium, but because of the "Student ID with Student Ticket" rule, as well as with the demand, that hasn't happened either. Which leads us to...

The Performance of the Team on the Field
This is definitely a contributing factor. Call people fair weather if you want for not following a 5-5 team in a brand new stadium, but I honestly cannot and will not blame the good people of Minnesota for not rallying behind this team yet. Why would they? For those of us hardcore fans who are going to go to every game or watch every game and devote far too much time and effort to thinking, writing and talking about this team, we're going to be invested whether they're 10-0 right now or 0-10. Doesn't matter. You've got us no matter what.

But for the casual sports fan, or Minnesota student, it's not that simple. Fall is the best time of year in Minnesota and there's a TON of things to do here. Tons. It's a major city that is close to some of the most beautiful wilderness and outdoors areas in the country, and it's no surprise you have so many outdoors lovers here. Sportswise, the fall is the busiest time of the sporting season: between September and November you have all three professional sports teams in play (four if you count the Timberwolves), plus add in an insanely popular college hockey team AND a college basketball program ran by one of the best coaches' in the country, and it shouldn't be a surprise that we're having trouble selling out games, and even getting the students who paid for tickets to show up.

As one of only two Big Ten schools in a major city (Northwestern the other- and no I don't count Ann Arbor being so close to Detroit), there is an incredible amount of competition on Saturdays for your attention and money, and with so much going on, the casual fan, or non-hard core Gopher football fan, need a reason to tune in and buy in.

And as much as I'm on board with Tim Brewster for another season and believe he has us going in the right direction, there so far has not been much for casual fans to be excited about. Since the 70's, this program has been mediocre at best, and everytime there's been a reason to get excited (like under Lou Holtz, Glen Mason, and now Brewster), they never follow through. We're still waiting for that Big Ten title and trip to Pasadena, or even a freaking New Year's Day bowl!!!! Until this team wins a Rose Bowl, or at least puts together a couple of 10 win seasons and starts going to New Year's Day bowls, we're not going to get the casual fan. We're just not. And as much as it hurts to say it, we're not going to get the casual student either. Because this is not a college town, and therefore is the only sports show in town, they're not going to be obligated to show up. This is not a tradition and a rite of passage like it is at many other Big Ten schools, or at every school in the South. Brewster, like Mason and every coach before him, is trying to build a winner and SUSTAIN a winner so that we can have that tradition and following here.

So what to do until we get to Pasadena? Three easy solutions (besides getting the Big Ten to repeal their rule about November night games, since that's out of The U's control:

1) Take two upper deck sections away from the students and give them to the general public. This assures more people who want tickets can buy them, and it still leaves between 7,000-8,000 student tickets, which judging from the number of no-shows this season should be about right.

2) Oversell the student section. Students who are packing the lower deck and standing the whole game should continue to do so, but that means if you're selling the same number of tickets as seats in the SS, you're going to have empty seats in the upper deck. Somebody figure out roughly how many extra students are cramming into the lower bowl (5 extra per row? 10? more) and then sell roughly that many extra student tickets. Heck, I'd even just remove row and seat numbers from student tickets (if they're currently printed on there), and just make it general seating on a first come, first served basis.

3) Repeal the "Student ID with all Student Tickets." Again, if there's a logical explanation for this, I'm all ears, but it was fine the way it was before in the Metrodome, and would go a long way towards solving the problem of students who got tickets and don't want to use them can get rid of them.

See? Problem solved in three easy steps. Step four, of course, would be to get a better more consistent product on the field, which hopefully starts this week against the Jackrabbits. Too bad Maturi doesn't read this blog, but I'm guessing he's smart enough to have figured this out already.

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