Can Twins Learn From Gophers’ Challenges?

I read with some interest this Star Tribune article concerning the University of Minnesota’s plight with regard to their athletic department funding and couldn’t help but wonder if it holds some lessons that the Twins might want to heed.

As I’m sure all of you who actually live in Minnesota are well aware, the Gophers opened their brand new TCF football stadium about a year before the Twins cut the ribbon on Target Field. You’re probably also well aware that big-time college athletic programs essentially live and die based on the revenues generated by their football programs. You can talk all you want about how great your basketball, hockey (either ice or field varieties), and wrestling programs are, but at most universities you’re lucky if any of those sports manages to just generate enough revenue to pay their own share of the bills. It’s football that pays the freight.

And as great as it is to get TV revenue and other income generated more because you happen to be affiliated with football factories like Michigan, Ohio State and, now, Nebraska, if you’re going to field competitive teams consistently, you need to have reliably high attendance at football games. That’s where the Gophers are staring at some pretty bleak realities for next season, when they’ll have exactly zero regional rivalry games on their home schedule.

The University is discovering that there’s a limited honeymoon period that comes with a new stadium. I made my first trip up to a game at TCF this fall when my Hawkeyes played there. It’s a beautiful facility. But if the Gophers don’t start doing some winning on a regular basis, and soon, it’s going to be a beautiful half-empty stadium on game days and that’s going to eventually have a negative effect on the rest of the Gopher athletic programs.

But the Twins are a different story, right? After all, the Gophers haven’t had a consistently competitive football team since Murray Warmath paced the sidelines while the Twins have been regular participants in MLB’s playoffs (the first round, anyway) for the better part of the past decade.

Many of you young whippersnappers aren’t old enough to remember the dark days of Twins baseball. Actually, there were several stretches of dark days. The last few years at Metropolitan Stadium were awfully bleak, as were most of the 1990s in the Dome. As hard as it is for us to imagine, given the crowds we’ve become accustomed to joining at Target Field the past two years, the fact is that Minnesota fans will not show up to watch bad sports teams. That doesn’t make them terribly unique, of course. Not many communities routinely sell out venues even when the local team stinks.

(I’m proud to say that Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium is one exception. We’ll just about fill that place every game day, even when the Hawkeyes are painfully difficult to watch. Then again, there really isn’t much else to do in these parts on the weekend and we’re all more than happy to have an excuse to party for a few hours with 70,000 of our closest friends.)

What’s my point? That’s a fair question.

An empty Target Field (photo: Minnesota Twins)

I guess my point is simply that the Twins shouldn’t assume that their beautiful ballpark guarantees butts filling the seats. They sold out nearly every game during a very bad 99-loss season largely because nobody expected a 99-loss season. Most of those tickets were sold when fans still believed they’d be watching a winner. Not many fans still believe that’s going to be the case in 2012.

The Twins seem to grasp this. They’re smart people and they know a bad team brings less attendance and less revenue. It’s their reaction, thus far, to this realization that troubles me.

They seem to be simply acknowledging the likelihood that fewer fans will be showing up and plan to downsize their payroll accordingly. They’ve given Terry Ryan the job of rebuilding the team and most fans, myself included, applaud that move. But if the plan is to start over… to rebuild through the draft and through acquiring other minor league talent through trades, while letting your best free agents walk away… then my applause is muted.

The Gophers have no choice but to sell “hope” as they rebuild their program from scratch. They can’t take steps to immediately field a competitive team by spending more money to get better football players. (Well, they COULD… but the NCAA tends to frown on that approach.)

But the Twins are not bound by NCAA rules, so here’s an idea… instead of running up the white flag and admitting defeat while you cut payroll, why not spend the money to become competitive again in 2012 and, in the process, keep fans filling those Target Field seats?

I know Jason Kubel isn’t the perfect fit for Target Field (though that’s the fault of design flaws, not Kubel, and those design flaws could be fixed easily if the Twins would just do it). I know Michael Cuddyer can’t hit righthanded pitching well. I know neither of them are gold glove outfielders. I know Jim Thome’s obvious limitations made it difficult to carry him on the roster. But those three players have accounted for a LOT of the Twins offense lately and the Twins seem more than happy to let them all go without showing any indication, so far, that they’ll replace them with anyone similar.

Then again, when you overpay for an aging middle infielder and a back-up catcher who has trouble catching, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to pay for guys who can actually contribute offense daily.

During the first few years after Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark was built, tickets were a tough thing to come by. I had friends there who were season ticket holders and I remember using that connection to get some pretty nice seats for my family on one trip there and again for the benefit of some friends who made the trip to Baltimore the following year. The stadium was sold out almost every game.

For the past several years, I’ve been able to walk up to the ticket window 10 minutes before game time and get very good seats whenever I’m in Baltimore during an Orioles home stand.

It can happen in Minnesota, too. In fact, it will happen in Minnesota… if ownership doesn’t make good on their promise of using the increased revenues to assure a competitive team occupies the new stadium and that, at the very least, they make good on their commitment to keep the best of their own free agents.

The offseason isn’t nearly over yet, so there’s still time for Terry Ryan to work his magic. But I encourage Twins fans not to let Ryan and his bosses off the hook. Don’t let them convince us to lower our expectations to fit their payroll. Don’t let them keep slashing until medocrity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

– JC