A year ago when the Gophers men’s basketball team advanced to the Final Four, large caravans of Minnesota fans traveled to every NCAA tournament game and all the campus-area bars and restaurants overflowed with rowdy fans watching and cheering loudly at each game.
This year, despite Minnesota’s recent resurgence to get into the NIT, fan interest has waned. That has translated into fewer fans showing up to games and has been a major hit for local bars on game nights.
The Gophers’ 77-65 first-round NIT victory over Colorado State on Wednesday night at Williams Arena, which drew even fewer fans than expected, was no exception. The game was shown on television in various different campus watering holes to small, largely uninterested crowds.
It was a far cry from the frantic scene that local drinking establishments experienced just 12 months ago with the Gophers sweeping through the NCAA tournament.
“For the tournament we had standing room only, and we made a lot of money,” said Dave Neuman, one of the managers at BW-3 in Dinkytown. “All I remember is huge crowds and a lot of excitement and a lot of people, but this year it was like people didn’t really care.
“That first game in the NCAA tournament last year it was so packed. I guess it was just because Minnesota was a No. 1 seed and it was the beginning of the tournament (against Southwest Texas State). You couldn’t even walk in here that Friday night because it was so crowded. It was basically like that through the rest of the tournament and the Final Four.”
Other local bars also experienced a major boom in business last year that was nowhere to be seen Wednesday night.
“In 25 years of being in that area there was nothing like last year,” said Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub & Herb’s in Stadium Village. “It was unbelievable. Have sales gone down from last year? Yes.”
Jeffers estimates that Stub & Herb’s business has dropped 15 percent on basketball game nights this year compared to last year. This season Stub & Herb’s has generated more revenue on days when the men’s basketball team doesn’t play than on days that it does.
Several area beer suppliers even recently held a staff meeting to try to find out why all the bars near the University have been selling less beer this year compared to last year.
The answer was simple — not enough fan interest in Gophers men’s basketball games, especially during March Madness.
Ticket sales for Wednesday’s Gophers game also lagged behind the interest in the team a year ago.
The men’s athletics department announced Tuesday that it had extended student ticket sales for the game to include all students at high schools or colleges with valid student ID cards. The announcement came after only 5,000 of the team’s 10,000 season-ticket holders and just 1,000 single-ticket holders had purchased tickets for Wednesday’s game as of Tuesday night, leaving about 8,600 tickets unsold a day before the game.
Officials in the Gophers men’s athletics ticket office said Wednesday afternoon they were expecting to sell between 10,000 and 12,000 of the 14,623 available tickets for the game. The game’s attendance was a mere 8,058 fans.
But some people in the ticket office said that the numbers would have been higher for Wednesday’s game if the office had been given more than three days to sell the tickets.
“Given the interest, I really believe if we had a week to sell this game, we could probably sell it out,” men’s athletics ticket manager Ken Buell said. “It takes a certain amount of time to move volume, and three days isn’t quite enough to get everyone into the flow. You can only push so much sand through the hourglass.”
The Gophers averaged 14,047 fans per game during both the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons. Despite winning the Big Ten and advancing to the Final Four last year, Minnesota’s average overall attendance actually dipped to 13,887 per game. Through 17 games at Williams Arena this year the Gophers are averaging 14,023. But attendance figures only take into account how many tickets are sold and don’t reflect the number of no-shows per game.
There were almost as many no-shows at area saloons Wednesday night as there were at the game itself, leaving local bar owners hoping for an extended NIT run this season, while at the same time keeping an eye on next year.
“If you have winning teams, you have winning crowds,” Jeffers said.