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Target Field football game hopes to break D-3 attendance record

MINNEAPOLIS--Earlier this month, 17,535 people turned out to watch a Division III football game in Wisconsin, a number that caught the attention of fans in Minnesota.

Target Field is show during a Minnesota Twins game on Aug. 12, 2016. The St. John's and St. Thomas football teams will renew their long-time rivalry at Target Field in 2017. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports.
Target Field is show during a Minnesota Twins game on Aug. 12, 2016. The St. John's and St. Thomas football teams will renew their long-time rivalry at Target Field in 2017. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports.

MINNEAPOLIS-Earlier this month, 17,535 people turned out to watch a Division III football game in Wisconsin, a number that caught the attention of fans in Minnesota.

The game between Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Wisconsin-Whitewater broke a national attendance record of 17,327 set by the 2015 St. Thomas at St. John's game, an annual rivalry that produced the three biggest crowds in Division III history until Oct. 8.

But Johnnies and Tommies fans won't have to wait long for a chance to reclaim their record.

The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rivals will play their annual game at Target Field in 2017, occupying the Twins' home stadium on Sept. 23.

As officials from the two schools and the Twins admired the field Monday in a news conference announcing the game, they didn't shy from lofty expectations for next season's big game.

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"I personally would like to think that we can break the all-time Division III attendance record," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. "I hope we could sell at least 20,000-plus tickets. Time will tell. But I expect there's going to be great interest within the alumni bases from both schools that maybe haven't gotten to a game in recent years. I think it will be bring some new people to the dance, and I also think there will be a curiousity factor of what football will be like at Target Field."

The end zones will stretch from the left-field wall to the home dugout along the first-base side. While officials are unsure about blocking off the upper-deck seating, the 39,504-capacity ballpark will offer a chance to break the attendance record set 10 days ago in Whitewater, Wis.

"Who knows ... we could get 30,000 people," St. John's coach Gary Fasching said.

Of the past eight regular-season game played between St. John's and St. Thomas, since the 2009 season, six rank among the 15 best attended Division III games of all time.

St. Peter first threw out the idea of bringing the game to Target Field when he bumped into St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso at a Kenny Chesney concert hosted by the Twins in 2013.

The biggest stumbling block was the Twins' schedule. A football game would have to be played while the Twins were out of town, but not in October in case they made the American League playoffs. It had to be played during a Gophers football bye week, a promise St. Peter said he made to Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle. And it had to occur on the Saturday of the already-scheduled game between the Johnnies and Tommies.

"That's just luck," St. Peter said. "I'm not thrilled about having a 10-game road trip at the end of September (for the Twins in 2017). If your team is in the hunt, that's far from ideal. But one of the advantages of that from a business perspective was it opened up this possibility."

The game originally was scheduled to be played at St. Thomas, and will be a home game for the Tommies. With first choice of amenities, they claimed the sideline along the third-base line, closest to the fans. The St. John's sideline will be in right-center field, far from spectators. The Twins will pay St. Thomas the money they would have earned hosting the game.

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"We'll write a healthy-sized check to St. Thomas," St. Peter said. "But bigger than that for them is the platform this creates from an alumni perspective, a recruiting perspective, and from an overall brand value perspective."

The game at Target Field adds another chapter to the storied rivalry, which has gained steam in recent years. In 2015, ESPN's SportsCenter spotlighted the game.

"Somebody told me that it's like a Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, just on a little bit smaller scale," Fasching said. "I said, 'I'm not sure it's on a little bit smaller scale.' "

St. Peter said the Twins have been interested in bringing a football game to Target Field, though he added the Gophers wouldn't play there given their stadium has more seats. The Twins had discussions with other regional schools - the Fargo Forum reported one was North Dakota State, whose roster is filled with Minnesotans - about hosting a game at the ballpark.

But all sides said there was enough interest in the Johnnie-Tommie game to justify the 2017 meeting at Target Field.

"Regardless how many people are at the game on game day - which I think in itself is impressive - the number that pay attention to it is huge," Caruso said.

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