Gophers struggle to remain relevant in the State of Hockey

Low attendance, even for big rivalry games, is a problem for U hockey.
The University of Minnesota Men's Hockey crowd of 6,407 on December 2, 2017 was the lowest for a game against the University of Wisconsin at 3M Arena at Mariucci since the teams joined the Big 10 Hockey Conference in 2013.
Kyle Shiely | MPR News 2017

Once considered the hardest ticket in town to get, University of Minnesota men's hockey has seen a steep drop in fan interest over the past five years.

A decade ago, the school had 7,765 season tickets to help fill the 10,000 seats at what was then just called Mariucci Arena. Sellout crowds used to pack the arena every weekend to see Gophers players, such as Thomas Vanek and Blake Wheeler, battle Midwest rivals like the University of North Dakota and the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.

"When I grew up going to games with my father, there was a lot of student involvement ... It was just a college atmosphere," said Eric Vegoe, a contributing writer for The Athletic, who writes about Gopher Hockey.

"It's changed. It's become a bigger building, a little bit quieter, more commercial, more corporate," Vegoe said.

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In 2013, the Gophers bolted from the WCHA to form with Big 10 Hockey Conference along with five other Big 10 schools, leaving behind storied rivalries and beginning the onset of a general malaise surrounding the program.

Over the past five years, season tickets sales have dropped 30 percent, down to 5,474 this year, while more and more tickets are going unused by fans.

"I think it is dire because in the State of Minnesota, hockey is the premier sport," says Vegoe. "To see the interest level drop like this for one of the money-making programs at the university is definitely an issue that has caught the eye of (Athletic Director) Mark Coyle."

Vegoe told MPR News host Tom Crann that a couple of factors have led to the decline in the interest in men's hockey.

"The change from the WCHA to the Big 10 was big. Number two, they reseated all their season ticket holders based on Gopher Points, which was giving," he said.

In 2012, the university reseated long-time season ticket holders based not only on seniority, but on how much money they had donated to the athletic program. Those changes took place in 2012, right before the Gophers moved to the Big 10. "So if you gave more to the university, you got a better seat," said Vegoe.

"You had these people who sat next to each other for decades, and now they got split up," he said. "They weren't able to stay in touch and it just changed the atmosphere for the game."

The rising cost of tickets has also been an issue for fans. "If you look at prices when they won their last national championship [in 2003], it was about $25 a game. And now the starting price is about $35 a game," said Vegoe. The U charges anywhere from $35 to $60 per ticket and charged as much as $90 when North Dakota returned to Mariucci two years ago.

Along with the drop in season ticket sales, University statistics show 30 percent of tickets that are sold are not being redeemed.

"They're not even being used, so you're seeing crowds in actual in the building around 6,000," Vegoe said. "So that's something they're trying to figure out. Is it parking? Is it game day experience? Is it lack of value, lack of interest?"

The latest revenue numbers released last month show that the Gophers still have one of the top revenue-generating college hockey programs in the country, but Vegoe says those numbers could start to slip.

"This year is the first year that the building hasn't had tickets sold nearing 10,000, so this is the year we'll see some fiscal impact," he said.