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Puck drops on new conference
For the first time in nearly 50 years, the UMD men’s hockey team will not be competing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) when it hits the ice in October.
With Minnesota and Wisconsin jumping from the WCHA to a new Big Ten hockey conference (and, presumably, to Big Ten Network television money), UMD and several other schools also chose to abandon the league in favor of the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).
With a new conference comes a loss in playing long-time rival opponents and, potentially, reduced revenue as teams such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, which generally bring lots of fans to Duluth for those games, are no longer on the Bulldogs’ home schedule.
Yet officials at UMD and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC), while acknowledging that some marketing challenges may lie ahead, are mostly optimistic about the new conference and the new season, and don’t anticipate a significant drop in ticket sales.
“We’ll certainly miss Minnesota and Wisconsin, but we don’t expect the move to the NCHC to have a negative revenue impact,” says Josh Berlo, UMD’s new director of intercollegiate athletics. Berlo, who arrived on the Duluth campus in May, brings a savvy sports marketing background from 12 years at the University of Notre Dame as senior assistant athletics director. “While it will be different and we are losing some historical rivals, we’ve got some great teams coming in here.”
Dan Russell, executive director of the DECC, agrees, acknowledging there will be changes ahead, but the future looks bright.
“Obviously, (not hosting Minnesota) hurts because we’re a sister school, but I believe we’ll be playing Minnesota either here or there in years to come.” UMD does play non-conference games at Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena Nov. 22 and 23.
Russell believes there won’t be a drop-off in attendance because, simply, “People in Duluth love great hockey.”
As Berlo and Russell point out, from a pure, college-hockey fan perspective, the eight-team NCHC will offer match-ups that will arguably be better than many other college hockey conference offerings, especially when you consider how often these teams in the new conference make it to post-season NCAA tournament play.
Besides UMD, the new conference includes former WCHA members Colorado College, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, plus Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan. According to the NCHC, since 2000, the new conference’s teams have produced four NCAA champions and made 15 Frozen Four appearances. All eight schools have been participants in NCAA tournaments at least once since 2010.
Strong Fan Base Helps
Another element working in UMD’s favor is a strong existing fan base. Through the decades, UMD hockey has become not only a major sporting attraction for locals, but a popular social outing, too. AMSOIL Arena is a cool place to see and be seen. The sport’s status also received a giant boost in 2011, when the Bulldogs won the national championship (see history sidebar).
UMD hockey has had a “great history of superb attendance,” says Berlo.
Previous ticket sales illustrate that loyalty. UMD has ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance each of the last three seasons. Average attendance for the 2010-11 season was 5,810 per game; in 2011-12 it was 6,328, and last year UMD was ranked 7th nationally with an average attendance of 6,206 per game. Capacity at AMSOIL Arena, which opened in December 2010, is 6,600.
Season ticket numbers also are holding steady, says Berlo, with numbers totaling 4,100 each for this year and last year.
For the coming season, single-game ticket prices remain the same as last year: $23 per game, and $30 for premium games (St. Cloud State and North Dakota).
The Fan Experience
These days, sports marketers talk a lot about “the fan experience.” No longer, it seems, is the game itself enough. As Russell points out, “Nationwide, people go to sporting events for the experience along with the game.” People expect high-definition scoreboards and video screens, high-end food choices, corporate suites and so on.
The $80-million AMSOIL Arena mostly delivers on that so-called fan experience promise, though, perhaps with at least a slight nod to the conference change, Russell and Berlo both say that plans are underway to improve it further. Russell says DECC staff are considering “bringing in a consulting firm” to do an analysis of the building. At UMD, Berlo says plans call for, “(ramping) up our marketing across the board, and not just for hockey…more marketing, more creativity, more emphasis on the fan experience. In today’s world, where dollars and time are precious, we appreciate the fans’ support and want them to have the best experience possible.”
Regional, national exposure
The hope also is that the new hockey conference brings greater regional and national exposure. For example, though there are no conference schools located in the Twin Cities, the conference’s tournament will be played in March at the Target Center. The Twin Cities area is an important regional market for the conference, says Josh Fenton, commissioner of the NCHC, who is a Minnesota native and previously worked as an athletics administrator at Miami of Ohio.
Plus, both Fenton and UMD’s Berlo emphasized the conference recently signed a national television contract with CBS Sports Network, which will broadcast weekly NCHC games throughout most of the hockey season. “So you’ll see an NCHC match-up that hits 50 million homes each week,” Fenton says. “We’re excited about the partnership and exposure.”
From a Duluth perspective, however, UMD is only on CBS Sports Network twice during the season: on the road Oct. 18 at Colorado College and at home Dec. 13 against Western Michigan.
UMD Women’s Team
Meanwhile, the women’s hockey team, winners of five NCAA national titles (2001, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2010), will continue to compete as members of the WCHA.
Angelo Gentile is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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