For sports fans, Minnesota offers competitive teams in all major sports as well as a lineup of first-class venues.
With teams in all the pro leagues – baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer – the Twin Cities have as much to offer as any metro area in the country.
OK, so we don’t have a NASCAR track and we can’t brag about as many championships as Boston. While the Vikings have come close, the only 21st century champions are four WNBA titles won by the Lynx.
If pro sports don’t excite you, local sports fans can cheer for the nation’s top-ranked college hockey team (at least until the postseason) and Division II national champion wrestlers at St. Cloud State University. At Collegeville, St. John’s fields a nationally ranked Division III football team year after year.
While a Lombardi Trophy or Stanley Cup eludes local teams, at least fans can wallow in mediocrity in fancy stadiums.
In the last 10 years, Gopher football, Twins, Vikings and St. Paul Saints have new homes. Significant remodeling at Target Center improved the fan experience for Timberwolves and Lynx fans.
This spring, another new venue joined the list with the opening of Allianz Field in St. Paul. It’s the home of Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United. After two years playing at TCF Bank Stadium, home of Gopher football, the Loons moved to their new stadium at Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94 this spring.
The excitement about Allianz Field reminds me of the buzz when Target Field opened in 2010.
The Twins sold out the new outdoor stadium as fans were eager to see baseball in the sun after years in the gloomy Metrodome. That first year, 3.2 million fans filled the seats. The Twins postseason campaign ended quickly in the Division Series against the feared Yankees. After two losses at home and one in New York, the season was over.
In 2011, with hopes for a longer postseason run, attendance held steady with 3.1 million paying customers.
Then, as the shine wore off the new stadium and the Twins sunk in the standings, so did attendance. With only one postseason appearance – a one and done wild-card loss in 2017 – and two last-places, attendance dropped to 1.9 million last year.
Now with a new manager and new lineup, the Twins are in first place with the best record in baseball. The fans returned for a couple of sellouts over Memorial Day weekend.
Over in St. Paul, Minnesota United continues to fill its 20,000-seat capacity stadium. Will fickle fans keep coming if the team doesn’t produce? The Loons missed the MLS postseason during their first two years. An improved team this year finds itself above the line and they haven’t lost at home.
When the team played at TCF, around 22,000 people showed up and for the last game there last year, about 50,000 fans attended.
Meanwhile, baseball in general is suffering from dropping attendance. Leaguewide attendance in 2018 declined for the sixth straight season, to 28,659 per game, down 13 percent from its 2007 peak.
Fans say the games take too long and the pace is too slow. Despite minor changes to speed up the game, the average nine-inning game has taken 3 hours 2 minutes so far in 2019, just a few ticks below the 2017 record of 3:05 and about 15 minutes longer than it was 30 years ago.
Soccer doesn’t have a pace problem. The action continues for two 45-minute halves with no time outs or breaks for television commercials. Leave your seat for a beer or a trip to the restroom and you will surely miss something. With halftime figured in, the match is over in two hours.
While baseball leaders mull moving the mound back and limiting relief pitching changes, baseball may have another long-term problem.
As a regular fan of both teams, I’ve observed a younger and much more diverse crowd at Allianz Field than at Target Field.
A Gallup poll found that 7 percent of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport to watch. While that may not sound like much, the figure represents a significant, three-percentage-point gain from just four years ago. Baseball scored 9 percent, down from 13 percent four years ago.
Among adults aged 18-34, soccer was the favorite sport of 11 percent. Six percent chose baseball as their favorite sport.
The Twins’ challenge may be demographics, not numbers on the scoreboard.