Friday, October 6, 2017

Why Is the Gopher Football Atmosphere So Anemic?

Had a good discussion with some of the Gopher Illuminati last night about how jealous we were of the atmosphere around programs that haven't exactly been paragons of success over the last 25 years. Specifically, we were marveling at how rowdy NC State's fans were during their game against Louisville, though the same applies to Iowa State and a number of other middling-at-best programs. 

NC State is a good comparable program as they've consistently been a fringe bowl team (RIP in peace MV) for most of the last 40 years (my lifetime, which is all that matters on my blog). They've had four 9+ win seasons in that time, including one 11-win season in 2002 where they finished ranked 11/12 in the polls. Other than that, they've consistently been in the 5-8 win range; kind of like us, with a slightly higher average win count (I didn't do the math, so "slightly" is probably the wrong qualifier) and no tire fire seasons like we had in 1983 and 2007 (/cuts). But their game-day atmosphere is orders of magnitude better than ours. Same for Iowa State, the Mario Mendoza of college football. How? Why do fans go all out for college teams that are comparable or worse than we are when we can't get close to filling the stadium while undefeated on a beautiful fall day?

In my esteemed opinion, there are four possible reasons, which I'll lay out below and then try to find an answer that satisfies the seven of you brilliant readers who visit the site once a week:

1. Other entertainment options, including pro sports: We live in a major metropolitan area with a thriving arts scene and the full gamut of professional sports. It's a Vikings town and every other sports franchise plays second fiddle, regardless of how well they're doing. Basically, people have a limited amount of disposable income and Gopher football doesn't crack the top four or five options. 

2. The team hasn't won enough: Let's be honest: the team has mostly blown for the last 50 years. The last decade has been an exception, with a few eight-win seasons and last year's niner. But there have been a LOT of 3-5 win seasons in most of your lifetimes. I'll show up regardless of how good the team is, but I've been corrupted. People without an affinity for the program just haven't seen any reason to get excited.

3. The media: Jackals. They're beholden to the pro-sports franchises who largely pay their bills and use Gopher football as a foil. They take cheap shots at every opportunity which results in a biased perspective from their readers toward the program: Gopher football has always sucked and even if they're doing well, they'll disappoint you in the end. Why bother getting excited or investing any time and money in an activity that will ultimately leave you sad?

4. The U: Sometime in the early 1970s, the U admin made a bet: college football wasn't going to be important and effectively decided to stop investing in the program. Holy eff were they wrong. When, in the early 80s it became clear they had made a bad bet, they doubled down and shucked the team off to the Metrodome. It wasn't until the approval of TCF Bank Stadium that that was corrected, meaning the program was effectively neglected for 40 years - two generations of fans.

There are probably more, but I think that captures the essence of the issues. In reality the lack of passion around the program and enthusiastic atmosphere at games is probably a function of all of the above; but that's a pretty cheaty way to do a blog: "oh, hey, reasons, peace."

The yarn about the Vikings strangling any broader support for the Gophers doesn't knit a sweater for me. There are 2MM+ people in the Twin Cities area - there are plenty of people to go around. 

I do think there is merit behind the argument that people are unwilling to spend disposable income on an inferior product - so a combination of reasons one and two. The team hasn't been good throughout the lives of what you would consider to be the typical Gopher fan. Further, every time there looks like a breakthrough on the horizon, we do the most Gopher things ever (hi, Michigan 2003, Wisconsin 2014, Penn State/Nebraska/Wisconsin 2016).

Which leads us to the media. Yeah, they're snarky and take unfair shots at the program. But what do you want them to write about? There's not really a triumph of the human spirit narrative to be formed around the program, is there? People like Reusse and Souhan don't have any real influence over the minds of readers and potential fans. They're provocateurs for web #hitz and everyone knows it. The team has failed to cross the threshold into decency, so the local scribes and talkers write about it. We shouldn't expect the media to be fluffers for the program.

From my perspective, most of our issues relate to the U's neglect of the program. 40 years of bad - horrific, even - decisions relating to supporting Gopher football is going to take more than a decade to repair. Look, we have no culture, no brand and our only original fan tradition is doing the Gopher which, while fun, isn't exactly 'Enter Sandman' or (fuck me) 'Jump Around.' As a program and fanbase, we're essentially starting from zero. I'm not sure there's another Power 5 team that has so little in terms of fan culture. Inertia ain't just a province in Canada. This is going to take some time and energy from the team, U admin, students and fans to fix.

This is why I think Fleck was an important hire. We weren't going to establish that identity and basis for passion under Claeys, bless his heart. And, like his shtick or not, Fleck brings the thunder when it comes to passion and selling Gopher football. That's critical, because he's got 40 years of neglect and bad decisions to make up for. 

1 comment:

  1. For some reason the media will talk endlessly about non playoff bound Vikes team but when the Gophers are still in the Big Ten championship hunt late in the season we might get 1/8th the coverage, if were lucky.

    The U will say year after year "were gonna change the pre-game atmoshpere" and we get maybe 2 food trucks and a bouncy house.

    I also like that with Fleck we get the "thunder" but for now it's not showing up at the stadium. If he gets us winning then maybe he can hold onto some fans during the mediocre years.