After playing 26 years in the Metrodome, the Gophers don’t have much planned for their final game there — a few representatives from Dome-era teams on the field before the game and a commemorative ticket.
For University of Minnesota higher-ups, there isn’t much to honor. The Dome people have been accommodating and inviting, they say, but that’s about it.
“Did I like playing in the Dome? Absolutely not,” Glen Mason, Minnesota’s head coach from 1997 to 2006, said. “I don’t think anybody knows until you actually come here. Right away I thought it didn’t have a collegiate feel to it whatsoever.”
When asked if he would miss the Dome at all, current second-year coach Tim Brewster paused, chuckled and said, “No.”
The program grew frustrated with not controlling its own facilities, including the locker room, not generating revenue from parking or box suites, not being on campus and playing in a stadium too big for its fan base.
The team’s play during the Dome era hasn’t helped the building’s legacy, either. Since 1982, when they moved in, the Gophers have gone 138-178, haven’t won a conference championship, went 12 straight years (1987-1998) without making a bowl and eight straight years with a losing record (1991-1998).
The team’s struggles, combined with a site that most students have to bus to, has led to what radio announcer Dave Mona called “a graying of the fan base.”
“There’s no question we lost an entire generation, maybe a generation and a half, of fans who didn’t get started at the collegiate level because the Metrodome, as nice as it was, wasn’t a home field,” Mona, the color commentator for Minnesota football games, said.
After Saturday, the Gophers’ next home game will be Sept. 12, 2009 against Air Force at TCF Bank Stadium and they will have the parking, the box suites and the on-campus site. Perhaps of equal importance, they will also have a stadium with almost 15,000 fewer seats.
“TCF Bank Stadium is already sold out, and a lot of that is because it’s smaller,” Maturi said. “There are a lot of factors, but I’ll be very honest about it, the biggest factor is that it’s smaller. It’s easier to sell 50,000 seats than to sell 64,000 seats.”
Maturi said the smaller stadium will create a higher demand for tickets, which will make people attend more of the games they have tickets for and hold on to their season tickets even in down years. The program expects a $3 million to $5 million boost in revenue per year from the new stadium.
“Right now, we don’t have a real big season ticket base,” Maturi said. “A lot of people will buy them on an individual game ticket. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go deer hunting,’ or ‘Oh, it’s a nice day, I’m going to rake the lawn and listen to the game on the radio.’ Now, it’ll be, ‘Okay, these are the seven home games, and I’m going to them all, or I’m going to five and giving my neighbor two,’ or whatever it might be.”
But for all the ill will toward the atmosphere, Gophers officials acknowledge that the Dome has been good to them.
In the late ‘70s, the University was faced with a $10.5 million plan to renovate Memorial Stadium that they couldn‘t afford, so the state allowed them to move into the brand-new Metrodome without paying anything toward its construction, according to Dennis Alfton, the Director of Operations for the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which is responsible for the Metrodome.
The MSFC initially charged them a 10 percent ticket tax, but rebated that money in 1998 when they retired the Metrodome’s debt. The Gophers play rent-free and also get 40 percent of gross concession sales, Alfton said, which accounts for most of the profit from concessions.
By comparison, the Vikings still pay a 15 percent ticket tax and receive just 15 percent of concessions revenue, though they do get the money from the Dome’s box suites for all events. They also contributed $6 million to the construction of the Dome.
“The idea was it was going to enable the University to not have to pay a huge amount to remodel Memorial Stadium, which needed significant remodeling,” MSFC Executive Director Bill Lester said. “My guess is the Legislature wanted to make sure that the state’s public institution could use the new facility in the most economic way possible.”
The Gophers only generate around $250,000 per year in revenue for the MSFC, Alfton said, compared with $6.6 million for the Vikings. The Gophers typically play seven games at home, while the Vikings play eight, plus any playoff games.
“We’re going to be able to operate fine without the Gophers,” Lester said.
Compared to the sparse farewell to the Dome, there was a strong resistance to leaving Memorial Stadium, Alfton, who has worked with the MSFC since its creation in 1977, said.
The stadium, which stood on the land now occupied by the recreation center, aquatic center and McNamara Alumni Center, was in dire condition by the mid-’70s. The seats were backless benches, there were no lights to allow for night games and, Alfton said, “There were serious sightline issues.”
Proponents of moving the team indoors — headed by influential local businessman and University graduate Harvey Mackay and one-time Athletics Director Paul Giel — said the indoor climate and NFL stadium would help in landing star recruits from warm-weather places.
While both Mason and Brewster deny any truth in that — “The weather’s still severe here when you have to go to class and stuff, so that’s negated,” Mason said — it has helped with some players.
“The first thing I thought when I came to the Dome was, ‘Thank God,’ because I heard it was freezing in Minnesota,” senior linebacker and St. Louis native Steve Davis said. “I don’t think I’m the only guy that felt like that. There are a lot of guys from down south that don’t like the cold weather.”
And even some of those opposed to leaving Memorial Stadium in the first place say that without a quarter century of playing in the Dome, TCF Bank Stadium may not have been built.
“It was a poor move, but it could have a very decent outcome,” Mona said. “Because no matter how nostalgic you are, what we’re getting in the new stadium is going to be better in every way than both Memorial Stadium and the Dome.”
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