To be a Minnesota Vikings fan is to enter each fall bloated with high expectations, only to watch them deflate by the time the snow begins to fly in earnest. To be a University of Minnesota Gophers fan is just the opposite.
The school last won a Big 10 football title in 1967. The subsequent half-century brought occasional moments in the sun, interspersed with elongated expanses of misery. Success was measured in bowl games named after oil change and tire shops, played in places like El Paso and Detroit.
This leaves Gophers fans knowing how to prepare: Start with basement expectations, realizing even those may be too high.
Yet this sentiment now appears embedded in the fan base. Last season brought the lowest attendance since 1992. Factor in no-shows, and the average was less than 23,000 a game – not even half of TCF Bank Stadium’s capacity. The program is tied for the biggest drop in major college attendance over the past three years.
Prospects appear poor again this season. Go to a map of the available seats, and nearly every section of the stadium is brimming with vacancies.
So the university is doing something wonderfully drastic. Beginning Thursday morning and running for the next 24 hours, the Gophers will be offering $10 tickets for their home opener August 29 against South Dakota State.
Okay, so the ferocious Jackrabbits aren’t high on anyone’s must-see list. And the U really didn’t have much choice: Tickets for the first two home games – the other against Georgia Southern – are already selling for below face value on scalper sites like StubHub.
But it is a sign that the state’s premier school belatedly understands that it's badly overpriced its fare. It's beginning to reach out, rather than assuming the state should do the reaching.
If you don’t mind a corner rafter seat, you can catch other games for as little as $20. Whether that buys you quality football remains to be seen.
The sporting press doesn’t have much higher expectations. Big 10 writers are picking the Gophers to finish 6th in the West, ahead of only lowly Illinois.
Yet there are signs of improvement. The team seems on the verge of providing at least competent quarterback play, a rare sighting at the U. Coach PJ Fleck’s recruiting classes have generally ranked higher than teams past. And in last season’s finale, the Gophers ended on a high note by beating Wisconsin.
Yes, Virginia, there will always be Wisconsin.
Fans might assume such modest signs may still be an illusion. That mediocrity will soon take up residence. That any promise will be encased in concrete by the time Nebraska comes calling in November.
Yet this is August, when reality has yet to intrude on what could be. And this year, hope is priced to move.