Pike, Saints and Thunder bring us summer madness

The date was Nov. 15, 1995. Taking a look back through one of the local newspapers, I was struck by how many “major” sports teams were playing at one time.
There were the Minnesota Vikings, Twins and Moose representing the professional sports. Fans could also watch some Gophers football, hockey or an exhibition basketball game. The metro area was a veritable gold mine for sports addicts.
Or was it?
Fast-forward to the May 22 edition of the same newspaper. The Twins are at the top of the list. There are no Gophers sports. In place of the so-called major teams are funny names like the Pike, Thunder and Saints.
At first glance, this hardly seems like a star-studded list. It certainly doesn’t have the same glamour as its November counterpart.
A person taking a quick look may think that, with the exception of the Twins, these spring and summer teams are no more than stand-ins, sent to slug it out in this sports-hungry town until the real competitors are ready to play again.
But take another look. When was the last time someone camped out for Vikings tickets, as dozens do for Saints games? When was the last time the Target Center was louder than a library during a Timberwolves game? It was for the Pike’s arena football opener. When was the last time the Gophers football team won its 59th consecutive home game? That’s what pro soccer’s Thunder did last weekend.
All of the sudden, the big dogs don’t look so mighty. The “other” Minnesota professional sports teams — and the Gophers teams as well — may not be stealing the spotlight, but they’re gaining fan support every day.
The Twins, once the darlings of the country after their worst-to-first run of 1991 and supposedly the area’s major summer sports team, are being given a run for their money by the Saints, an independent minor league team.
Why? Because they actually seek out fans and make it worth a person’s while to attend a game.
The Saints, already a hot commodity, signed a couple of aging but popular former stars in Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry to make the team an even hotter ticket. Likewise the Pike, using the cliched but surefire combination of cheap beer and fast action, turned the Target Center into a 15,000-person party for their home opener.
The major pro teams like the Vikings, Timberwolves and Twins continue to think that people will pay obscene amounts of money to attend games just because the teams pay the world’s “best” players equally insane salaries.
The Vikings and Twins could — and, in fact, once did — own the hearts of Minnesotans. But when the Twins and Brewers play in a half-full Metrodome and when a local television station or department store has to bribe fans to buy Vikings tickets to avoid a citywide blackout, something is seriously wrong.
It has nothing to do with the teams playing in the Dome. That building is as loud as any when fans are interested in what’s happening.
Part of the problem this year is that none of the big three — the Vikings, Twins and Timberwolves — are winners. The Moose were so bad and fans were so apathetic that they up and left for Winnipeg.
But plenty of teams have fielded mediocre teams and still sold out stadiums. They do it by instilling a sense of pride in the team, and by convincing fans that the teams really want them in attendance.
That is why it’s critical for teams like the Vikings and Twins to get back in touch with their fan bases.
Now, I’m not asking for insane promotions. I’m not looking for “Guess which Viking will be arrested night” or the “Great recycled jockstrap giveaway” at the next Twins game.
But a little more innovation wouldn’t hurt. Neither would a more humble approach to attracting fans. Go out and get them; don’t rely on them coming on their own because right now they’re more inclined to stay away.
The less glamorized sports teams are delivering the goods that the major teams aren’t producing. They’re becoming the only place that a fan can kick back and be entertained.
If the gap between the “major” franchises and the “minor” ones continues to shrink at its current rate, Twin Cities sports fans may soon look to the fall and winter as the secondary season that holds them over until the real teams return.