MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers won’t be the only Division I football team hosting a game in Minneapolis this week. North Dakota State will become the first Division I school ever to play at Target Field on Saturday, Aug. 31, two days following the University of Minnesota home opener at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota and the Bison, who have played against each other nine times over the years, won’t be matched up to determine a winner on the scoreboard but it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in attendance. Look for the Gophers, who are the only Division I team in the state of Minnesota, to announce a larger crowd at their Thursday night game against South Dakota State than Target Field will announce for the NDSU-Butler game. But the Bison may well have more fans actually in attendance than the Gophers do—with a higher percentage of ticket buyers showing up at Target Field than at the Bank.
Expect the U to announce a crowd of more than 40,000 for the game at its 50,805-seat stadium. The Gophers have been in the 22,000 range for public season tickets in recent seasons and while the total for 2019 hasn’t been announced it’s likely to be similar. Minnesota marketers, needing to boost interest in the South Dakota State opener, promoted a 24-hour flash sale to the public several days ago resulting in 7,127 $10 tickets being sold. Also, an athletic department official texted on Friday that about 9,000 tickets will be distributed to students for the game.
A year ago the announced crowd for the Gophers home opener was 41,291. That was the third consecutive year the announced attendance for the opener trended down.
However, it’s common for announced attendance in college football to be different than the number of tickets scanned at the game or customers going through the turnstiles. A Wall Street Journal article last August reported actual number of attendees at games was typically about 30% less than reported. In recent seasons at Minnesota games, not only are there sections and sections of seats empty, but many of the best seats go unoccupied even though they have been sold.
Per a Star Tribune article last November, the turnstile counts of 15,434 and 15,160 for late season Minnesota home games against Purdue and Northwestern contrasted sharply with the announced attendances of 35,774 and 32,134. What will the numbers look like Thursday night? Well, if the Gophers distribute 45,000 tickets and 30 percent are no-shows, which means about 31,500 customers in the stadium.
The Minnesota Twins are promoting the Target Field game and club president Dave St. Peter is confident there will be minimal unused tickets next Saturday. He already has experience with the first college football game played in the downtown baseball park, and that, too, was a hot ticket. In 2017 St. Thomas and Saint John’s renewed their rivalry before a Division III record crowd of 37,355.
“That was not a manufactured number,” St. Peter told Sports Headliners. “That was the real number. I think that number would have been higher, if it had not been so hot that day (late September).”
The football capacity at Target Field is about 35,000 but the 2017 game exceeded that figure because obstructed view and standing room only tickets were sold. St. Peter is predicting a turnstile count of 33,000 to 35,000 paid admissions for Saturday’s game. As of late last week the ticket total was about 32,000, with St. Peter saying “any of the good seats are going for significant dollars on the secondary market.”
Bison Nation travels in large numbers to watch its teams that have won seven of the last eight Division I FCS national championships, a remarkable achievement. St. Peter estimates 99% of the tickets sold are to NDSU fans, with perhaps 80% of customers living outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
That means economic impact on the local hospitality industry including for bars and restaurants near the stadium. “I expect downtown Minneapolis is going to be humming both Friday and Saturday evenings with North Dakota State fans,” St. Peter said. “There is no doubt about it.”
The Twins promoted the St. Thomas-Saint John’s game on a Saturday that the Gophers had a bye on their schedule. This week there is an opportunity to stage the Bison against Butler game because the Gophers are playing on a Thursday, instead of their usual Saturdays. The Twins don’t want to give the impression they’re out of step with the university, who almost always has the big-time college football spotlight in the state to themselves.
“We’re sensitive to that relationship,” St. Peter said. “We have a great partnership with the University of Minnesota. (Athletic director) Mark Coyle and I have a great relationship. Mark knows where we’re at it, and he’s support of our efforts to play football here.”
There’s no doubting this is a showcase game for the Bison program and its fans. Butler is a mediocre team but Saturday’s game means an opportunity to play in the big city at an acclaimed ballpark in front of a packed house. NDSU gave up a home date on its schedule to play this game but per St. Peter will receive a financial guarantee and potential additional income based on attendance.
The Bison, ranked the No. 1 FCS team in the nation going into the season, have built much of their success on rosters populated by Minnesota natives. This year’s roster has 36 players from the state of Minnesota. The FBS Gophers, by contrast, have 41. Bison coaches have excelled at finding players in the state, including prospects that the U either ignored or offered preferred walk-on status, but not a scholarship.
The Bison have won two of three games against Minnesota this century. NDSU also has earned impressive at Iowa and Kansas State.
Whether the Bison could week after week win games against Big Ten and Big 12 teams is an argument for another day, but a college football authority told Sports Headliners the passionate NDSU fan base thinks so.
“They believe they can beat ‘Bama,” he said of the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide who has dominated the FBS landscape for years.
Target Field opened in 2010 and was designed to accommodate football and others sports beyond baseball. St. Peter said conversations with NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen about a Bison game at Target Field go back years, even before negotiations started for the St. Thomas-Saint John’s game.
Because of their on-field success against FBS teams, the Bison apparently feel locked out of those opportunities. The Target Field game provides an attractive alternative. “They were looking to play a game in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said.
This likely isn’t the last college football game that will be played at Target Field, and there could even be a Bison return. “We’re very open-minded,” St. Peter said. “We definitely want to do future football games. Preferably we play them in November outside of the baseball window but we’re open-minded to future opportunities. We’ve already had dialogue with other schools, other opportunities about the future. As of right now, we don’t have anything that is on the docket.”
St. Peter is University of North Dakota alum and the Hawks have a great fan following of their men’s college hockey team. A first-ever hockey game at Target Field fits in with the varied events strategy for Target Field and inviting north Dakota is a favored option. No college hockey program travels like the Hawks.
With decades of experience as a sports reporter and columnist covering professional and college sports, Twin Cities-based sports columnist David Shama not only shares his perspectives, but he also quotes many of Minnesota’s biggest newsmakers among players, coaches and owners.