Almost 2 good to be true

Todd Zolecki

From merchandising to ticket sales to media requests, the demand for the Gophers men’s basketball team has increased tenfold since last November, when it began its sharp rise in the national polls.
The crush won’t ease up any time soon, especially because Minnesota became No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll released Monday. It’s the highest ranking in school history and has generated expanded interest in a team that is close to winning its first Big Ten championship since 1982.
Minnesota is also No. 2 in the latest USA Today/CNN coaches poll released Sunday.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins said the extra attention is fun, but also stressful. The local media are no longer the only ones hounding him. The national media is, too. When the coaches poll came out Sunday night, Haskins said he got about five phone calls in 15 minutes just trying to get his reaction.
“The local pressure is always there, but from a national standpoint it’s been unbelievable,” he said. “For the program you welcome that. You need that to help your recruiting and to attract players in the future.”
Haskins said he’s now getting word from distant relatives and old friends who just want to catch up on old times.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “How are you doing? How’s the family? And can you let me get two tickets for the first round of the NCAA tournament?’ That’s just human nature. Everybody loves a winner.”
But although the Gophers can only move up one more spot in the polls, others involved with the team — on the sales, marketing and ticket side — say they don’t see themselves reaching the apex of opportunity anytime soon.
Minnesota’s success on the court should far outlast this season. Next year, the men’s athletics department hopes to see an escalation in school exposure. This includes apparel sales. Things like hats, T-shirts and sweatshirts should not only be available in the state, but regionally and nationally.
Recently, most Gophers merchandise has been available in the state and the surrounding region of North and South Dakota and western Wisconsin.
That should expand after this season.
“The potential certainly is high,” said Bob Hicks, director of licensing and athletic properties. “We’re hoping to keep this roll going because we have a number of things set up to accommodate fans and the people in the state to really get on the bandwagon.”
Hicks is working ahead. Even though Haskins insists the title race isn’t over yet — the Gophers have four fewer losses than any other team in the Big Ten with six games to play — Hicks must believe it is.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I have seen Final Four artwork in my office to approve with our name and trademarks on it for the last three-and-a-half weeks. And I’ve had Big Ten championship stuff on my desk, and discussing how we would put that together for at least the last month.”
Haskins doesn’t want to talk about that. The Gophers play Ohio State at Williams Arena on Wednesday night, and he’s concentrating on the game.
But Hicks can’t keep people off his voicemail. National companies, ones that have never called him before, are inquiring about manufacturing Gophers merchandise.
Champion, which outfits the Gophers with uniforms, has said Minnesota is becoming one of its premier schools. If Minnesota can go far into the tournament, Hicks said the possibilities are endless.
And if the Gophers win the conference title, it will definitely last through next year.
“We will be the Big Ten champions until somebody would dethrone us a year from now,” Hicks said. “As of today, Purdue is still the Big Ten champion at basketball.”
While apparel will be more available, tickets won’t be. But Ken Buell, the assistant athletics director of internal operations, said a handful of obstructed-view tickets are still available for three of the last four games at Williams. The Indiana game on March 1 is the only one completely sold out.
The Gophers ticket office has already received calls for tournament tickets. Buell said the best bet for fans is to call the arena where the team plays. That won’t be decided until Mar. 9 on Selection Sunday.
Pat Forciea, assistant athletics director of external operations, said the men’s athletics department is sure to let everybody in the state be a part of its future plans, but doesn’t want to get too far ahead of itself before it happens.
“We’ll take a lot of direction from Clem,” he said. “When it comes to Gophers basketball, I think the most difficult thing we do each night is making sure the doors open up on time.”