Minnesota's Golden Ticket can lose luster fast

A unique promotion will leave 81 Gophers basketball fans with a tough decision Thursday.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's basketball team clung to a narrow lead late in its Dec. 31 game against Michigan State, there were plenty of nervous fans at Williams Arena.

Perhaps none were wringing their hands quite as tightly as the group of 41 cheering on Minnesota from Section 203.

Each of those Minnesota fans had purchased what is called a Golden Ticket, a new promotion from the school's athletic department, in partnership with AudienceView Ticketing, used to generate interest and push ticket sales. The premise of the Golden Ticket is that it grants admission to all Gophers home basketball games during the Big Ten season for the low, low price of $75.

But there's a catch: If Minnesota loses while the ticket holder is at a game, the ticket is deactivated and no longer valid when the bar code is scanned at the gate. If the Gophers continue to win — and the No. 9 Gophers are 15-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten — the ticket lives to see another game.

It's a unique twist intended to pack more fans into Williams Arena.

"The thought being is that can we help move people to come to the games that we're already struggling to sell the ticket," said Brent Holck, director of ticketing at the University of Minnesota. "The reality is that we don't have a problem with selling the No. 2 team in the country. As it kind of worked out here, our team got better and kept winning. Part of fighting the battle of getting people to come isn't as big of an issue right now, but I think what it's creating is a different type of person to possibly come through our doors who maybe normally wouldn't have thought to buy a $35 ticket to a game."

The Gophers sold 81 Golden Tickets to watch their men's basketball team this season and an additional 18 to see the top-ranked hockey team. Of the 81 fans who purchased the ticket for basketball, 41 took a risk by attending the Big Ten opener against then-No. 18 Michigan State. The gamble paid off, as Minnesota topped the Spartans 76-63. But Golden Ticket holders were surely anxious in the final minutes, when Minnesota led by just one point with less than three minutes to play.

At the following home game, 77 of the 81 Golden Tickets were used for the Gophers' 69-51 win against Northwestern. Each of the 81 Golden Ticket holders has used the pass at least once during the two Big Ten home games, Holck said.

Now comes the real test: Second-ranked and undefeated Michigan is coming to Williams Arena on Thursday.

So do those Golden Ticket holders watch what should be a great game — and a sellout — or play it safe and miss out on the battle of two of the nation's best teams?

"If I would have told you at the beginning of this, I would have assumed most people wouldn't come to Michigan just because they don't want to risk it," Holck said. "But I have a feeling that a lot of people will say, 'Especially if I've got two games under my belt, we're probably going to be a top-five team or at least a top-10 team, there's no way I'm going to miss out. If we beat Michigan, how can I not be there to do it?' It's going to be very intriguing."

Those who do take the risk could be rewarded with not only a Gophers win and an exciting game, but also a chance to return for the team's next home game, Jan. 29 against Nebraska. If Minnesota loses, however, there is a chance for a mulligan: Each Golden Ticket holder can re-activate his or her pass one time for a $25 fee.

"Technically for us, it's another way for us to make an incremental revenue on it," Holck said. "It's an ability to kind of give someone a second chance, so to speak."

The system has only been in place for two games, so Holck said it's too early to get a feel for whether the idea will be revisited during next year's Big Ten season. He added that the university will meet with the Golden Ticket holders later in the year to get a sense for who is buying the tickets and why they are buying them.

The tickets went on sale in November as part of a Black Friday promotion — a perfect time to purchase the ticket for a Christmas gift. The Golden Tickets are not necessarily aimed at students. The ideal demographic, Holck said, is fans between ages 22 and 40.

"Maybe someone who's a little more price conscientious, (or a) younger fan who's looking to experience something in a new way," he said. "Sometimes you just have to try something and see if it works. So far, I think it's been pretty positive."

Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe was asked about the promotion Friday and admitted he hadn't heard about it yet, but he liked the idea. Now the pressure is on him and his teammates to beat Michigan on Thursday and keep the Golden Tickets alive.

"We want to bring fans here. We want to give them as cheap of tickets as possible, so it's a great promotion by the marketing department," Mbakwe said. "Hopefully they keep coming up with more and keep bringing people here. … We've just got to keep winning."

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