Norwood Teague and Jerry Kill may not be salesmen by title, but struggling sales for Gophers football pushed them into that role prior to the team’s home opener against New Hampshire.
Teague, Minnesota’s athletics director, and Kill, its football coach, shook up their schedules Friday to focus on one thing — selling the football program to students.
Accompanied by Minnesota cheerleaders and Goldy Gopher, Teague and Kill spent an hour handing out student football tickets and candy at Coffman Union to promote the Gophers’ home opener against New Hampshire on Saturday.
“There aren’t many BCS coaches out on [their] lawn or campus doing things like this,” Teague said Friday.
There aren’t many BCS athletics directors shaking hands on their own campus to promote football, either. It’s normally not necessary.
But student season-ticket sales have hit a record-low for Gophers football since it moved back on campus three years ago. A sold-out student section embraced TCF Bank Stadium when it opened in 2009, but the Gophers athletics department has seen that number drop from 10,000 students then to fewer than 4,000 this year.
“We’ve got a building [football] program,” Teague said. “A program that hasn’t won at a certain level over the years, and [selling the program] is all part of it.”
A vibrant student section and an announced crowd of 47,022 watched the Gophers defeat New Hampshire 44-7 Saturday. But attendance still fell short of the announced total of last year’s home opener against New Mexico State — 48,807.
The Star Tribune reported in August that Jason LaFrenz, associate athletics director at Minnesota, said the University had hoped to sell 8,000 student season tickets this season. However, when interviewed Friday by the Minnesota Daily, LaFrenz denied ever having a specific goal.
As the team’s play dwindles, so does interest from students. The shine of the Big Ten’s first new stadium in 49 years has worn off, and ticket sales have taken a nosedive.
“I bought them my freshman and sophomore year,” University senior Hannah Wolf said. “But I can’t bring myself to buy for the whole season when I know I won’t go to every game.”
Wolf, 21, said her enthusiasm for Gophers football took a hit when she would witness fewer and fewer people showing up on Saturdays during the season.
“Half the fun is being around like-minded people, but when no one’s there and the team also isn’t winning, it’s not worth it,” Wolf said.
However, with a new marketing plan and a new athletics director, the Gophers athletics department made it a priority to fill the student section for Saturday’s home opener — even if that meant giving tickets away.
Besides handing out hundreds of tickets with Kill on Friday, Teague gave out 5,500 free tickets to freshmen during a University Welcome Week event to promote the game.
This isn’t entirely new — Kill rode through campus on a golf cart handing out tickets before last year’s home opener.
“Our biggest thing is to get [students] to come to a game and check it out for themselves,” LaFrenz said.
Gopher officials needed their football team to perform as well as they did, as there won’t be thousands of students getting in for free again this season.
LaFrenz said Teague and Kill’s campus walkthrough and the free tickets were a one-time deal and that it was a way to “kick off the season.”
“We’ll sell a fair amount to the freshmen that came for free this week,” LaFrenz said. “But we’ll have a better idea after the first two games are done.”
After Minnesota’s contest against Western Michigan next Saturday, LaFrenz said Gophers marketing will start selling single-game student tickets in an effort to fill the stands.
“Whether it’s single-game or season tickets, we just want the student section to be full,” he said.
For Kill, it’s simply about getting students involved.
“I told [students] they need to take a break from their studies a bit, come check us out on Saturday,” Kill said Friday. “Heck, I told them they could come yell at me for three hours if they wanted to. I don’t care.”
In Kill’s second full season, the Gophers are 2-0 for the first time since 2009. A dim light is visible at the end of the Gopher’s football tunnel, and at least for the first game, the team’s marketing strategy has paid off.
Elizabeth Schwartz, 25, said she’d never considered going to a football game until Kill handed her a ticket outside of Coffman on Friday.
“If I can get out of work, I’ll definitely go,” the fifth-year University senior said.