Friday, September 23, 2011

The WCHA's Attendance Problem

Now that St. Cloud State and Western Michigan have accepted their spots in the NCHC, it's re-introduced all the arguments and conversations that we had upon the league's "formal" announcement.

("Formal" gets quote marks because that event looked about as formal as a pig roast. Just didn't strike me as the kind of event I thought we were going to get when these details started coming together.)

This move is seen as either the latest inevitable turn of events, or another sign of the end of college hockey. All depends on your perspective.

I'm not here to say that people shouldn't be worried about the futures of programs that have struggled. I'm also not here to insult anyone's intelligence. However, one of the major arguments that has been brought forward deals with attendance at home games for the teams not involved in either the Big Ten or NCHC.

Let's look at the list of teams we're talking about.

Bemidji State
Bowling Green
Ferris State
Lake Superior State
Michigan Tech
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan

I'm not an expert on all these local markets. However, I have talked to a few people, and I have looked at attendance figures for recent seasons.

More than anyone else, I think Minnesota State stands to be hurt the most when it comes purely to gate revenues. Bowling Green could also run into some issues there, but I'm mostly concerned about Minnesota State.

(None of this takes into account conference tournament revenue, where I think all the WCHA teams will suffer, and I question the NCHC teams until we know what their tourney plans are.)

Minnesota State averaged 3,711 fans per game last year at Verizon Wireless Center. The Mavericks drew five crowds of over 4,000 fans. Two came against Minnesota, one against North Dakota, one against UMD, and one against Bemidji.

Games against other WCHA teams averaged roughly 3,500 fans per game (estimate). There's no doubt that a struggling MSU program will have issues drawing fans with the home slate becoming what it will become in the new WCHA.

What we don't know is how Minnesota State would draw in this new WCHA if it becomes a perennial top team in the league. The Mavericks haven't had a winning season since 2007-08, and that was the team's only winning season since its only NCAA Division I Tournament berth in 2002-03. We don't really have any idea how the Mavericks would do at the gate if they could contend for an NCAA berth every year, and that's something that could become a reality in the new WCHA.

No matter the market, winning draws. Field a winning hockey program in any of these markets, and you'll put butts in the seats. No one wants to pay to watch a team constantly get its ass kicked by Michigan, North Dakota, or whoever.

Bowling Green averaged 2,169 fans per game last year. Early-season games against Michigan only averaged about 1,600 fans per night. Notre Dame averaged 2,300 or so. Miami drew 2,700 per night. A series against Ohio State averaged 2,500. Two versus Alabama-Huntsville drew an average over 2,000. With a team that hasn't won in years, it's really hard to figure out Bowling Green, largely because I don't live there and all. It seems they have struggled to draw for certain opponents you would think they might draw better for. Part of that might be because the Falcons simply haven't won much lately (again, what fun is it to watch your favorite team get stomped?).

The problem here is that you're taking Bowling Green out of a conference that has in-state programs Miami and Ohio State, and nearby Notre Dame, and big-timers Michigan and Michigan State. I think they'll have some issues that could only be cured by winning more games.

Alaska-Anchorage hasn't drawn well in years. That won't get taken care of until the Seawolves taste some serious success. Alaska does a'ight, from what I can tell, no matter who they play.

I think the Upper Michigan teams (Lake, Tech, Northern) will do better because of the regional rivalry they now have no choice but to develop. None of them have drawn appreciably better for "big-time" programs in their respective leagues in recent years.

In the end, the WCHA will be fine. It will be a competitive league that produces at least one NCAA team each year. But there is a lot of money that has to be made up for some of these programs to survive long-term. There lies the challenge for Bruce McLeod and the league's members as we move forward.

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