Since Penn State's elevation to NCAA Division I hockey, there have been numerous reasons to be excited. The shiny, new arena sought by the school for about 100 years - call the Ice Pavilion a temporary fix in that regard, as even it was scaled back from original DI-ready plans - is slowly emerging from a dirt pit on University Drive. The two coaching staffs have begun building programs worthy of that arena. Penn State hockey now gets semi-regular shoutouts on NHL telecasts and free publicity in news articles almost any time Terry Pegula is mentioned in his capacity as owner of the Buffalo Sabres. Other than a handful of people bitter about conference realignment and such things (mostly North Dakota fans), the response from the hockey community has been overwhelmingly positive.
I'm a little concerned, though. And not about any of that.
Men's hockey ticket packages for 2012-2013 went on sale last Tuesday morning. Shortly after, presumably, the initial burst, the team tweeted that fewer than 200 packages remained. By Monday morning, nearly a week later, the number was down to fewer than 70.
It should be pointed out that we're talking about the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, which has a listed capacity of 1,350. Take out full season ticket renewals, take out student seats (which will probably number about 300), take out whatever tickets will be set aside for single game sales and it's fair to wonder just how many seats were reserved for the not-yet-sold-out packages in the first place.
But regardless of that, we do know this: roughly 130 packages in six days during the first week they were available. Where's the interest?
There are a couple of reasonable objections to my query:
- The packages are less than flexible. They're essentially groups of five games chosen for balance, but with no commonality like "all Fridays" to them.
- The home schedule is...not that good.
- One of the packages includes the October 12th game against American International, the first game in PSU's NCAA history. The other two include games against Air Force, an NCAA Tournament team last season. All three include two games against NCAA Division I teams.
- The packages cost $55, including a processing charge. That's not a horrible deal, even if only considering that price as being for the two DI games. If you can't or don't want to attend one of the games, it's not like you're getting hosed.
- This is PSU's first NCAA season. We've waited forever for this moment in time. It's history in the making. Suck it up.
Yep, it's worth repeating: there's a 6,000-seat arena that needs filling after the coming season. And right now, it doesn't seem as if the interest is there to move a very limited number of places in line for that venue in short order. That's concerning.
If the ticket issue was isolated, I probably don't write this post. But...
In my observation and to this point, there has been minimal engagement among Penn Staters outside of the already-defined hockey circles. Fight On State, the only one of the major-network PSU sites with a dedicated hockey message board, has seen a total of 19 posts since the Icers' loss to Oakland at the ACHA tournament. Sure, it's the offseason I guess, but consider all that has gone on since then:
- The entire NCAA hockey tournament. Granted, there was not direct PSU involvement, but that's something that draws the attention of dedicated college hockey fans regardless of team affiliation.
- The commitments of forwards Alec Marsh and Chase Berger for 2015.
- The announcement of 11 Icers who will play on the coming season's NCAA team.
- The signing and subsequent (official) announcement of two incoming players, one of whom is an NHL draft pick (!) transferring from Minnesota.
- The announcement of the sites and dates for the first four Big Ten tournaments.
- The Pegula Ice Arena groundbreaking ceremony and the continued progress of the construction.
- The reveal of next year's schedule.
- The Penn State Coaches Caravan, which produced a glut of media coverage - including the idea of an outdoor game at Beaver Stadium - and included both Guy Gadowsky and Josh Brandwene.
A Fight On State issue, you say? Okay, let's slide over to Lions 247, the major site that (by far) offers the most hockey coverage, thanks to the work of Andrew Dzurita. That site doesn't separate boards by sport, so it's fair to assume that a hockey discussion thread draws the eyeballs of those there to discuss football. When the news of Penn State's participation in the Pittsburgh College Hockey Invitational broke, Dzurita started a thread. It drew three responses from two individuals. Meanwhile, a thread on Euro 2012 was up to 97 as of late Monday night (not a criticism of the event, I'm a fan, but it has nothing to do with Penn State, and there are better places than a PSU message board to discuss it).
Taking things offline, it doesn't seem as if the NCAA program resulted in a spike of interest in the Icers. While the Ice Pavilion saw some large and raucous crowds this past season, it wasn't anything above and beyond what existed prior to Pegula's donation. It certainly wasn't an impossible ticket, despite the coziness of PSU's home facility.
I'll also admit to being a little disappointed with the attendance at the outdoor game with NCAA Division III Neumann at Citizens Bank Park. With what was a de facto limitless supply of tickets in the largest city in Pennsylvania - and over winter break, with PSU's large Philadelphia-based student contingent at home - a unique event and with unprecedented media coverage for a Penn State hockey game, an estimated 3,000 Penn Staters hardly seems like the overwhelming success portrayed by school officials. It was a number nearly matched by NU, which has roughly 10,000 total living alumni. Philadelphia and adjacent counties (Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks) alone have about 81,000 PSU alumni, according to the alumni association, and again, students at home.
There's an argument to be made that people will show up once the NCAA teams officially get rolling. That's fair, I suppose. Maybe expecting overflow crowds for the same old, same old at Greenberg is unreasonable on my part. But guess what? It's here. On the men's side, the roster is set. The schedule is known. There's a PSU page on USCHO. Penn State is an NCAA program now, in every sense of the word. And before we know it, there will be an NCAA-sized arena to fill, and there will need to be a large number of attendees who didn't go to Icers games needed to do so. Right now, it doesn't seem like they're beating down the door.
My sense as someone fairly well engaged in the Penn State community is that there are a ton of people out there who are sincerely happy that NCAA hockey is finally coming to PSU and that a nice arena is being built to host it. Certainly no sane Penn Stater doesn't approve. At the aforementioned Coaches Caravan, I observed people approach Gadowsky with sticks and pucks for autographs meaning, of course, that they planned to talk to him, they didn't simply read his name tag and grab a free autograph card. There is, generally, interest out there. There are not, however, a lot of people who are plugged in on anything beyond the most superficial of levels. At the Coaches Caravan, I also observed several people accidentally pick up hockey ticket interest slips, then toss them back when realizing they weren't entry forms for the autographed Bill O'Brien football. In aggregate, the sense one gets is along the lines of "Hockey? Awesome. Love the sport. Glad to have it. It's about time...oh, tickets? No thanks. Where do you sign up for the football?"
It's not uncommon to see comments from mainstream PSU asking basic questions like "When does the Big Ten start?" and "When does the arena open?" If they're not minimally informed or even interested enough to look it up on their own at this crucial formative stage, will they be there later? Suffice it to say that a lot of those "average" Penn Staters, the ones who live for football Saturdays but follow other sports much more casually, if at all, are going to be needed to fill the Pegula Ice Arena. The challenge for the foreseeable future will be to engage those people, to convert them to those willing to fill out both the hockey ticket and autographed football slips.
|This picture of Value City Arena wasn't labeled, but I assume there's a hockey game happening below.|
Penn State is, without a doubt, a fantastic sports school. Then again, so is Ohio State, which averaged 3,799 fans in 15 games at its home Value City Arena last season despite climbing as high as second in the polls after a 14-4-1 start (Michigan State, the second lowest of the Big Ten programs, averaged 5,364). Oh yeah, and the Buckeyes are based in a metropolitan area of 1.8 million people where the university is the primary sporting entity in town (sorry I'm not, Blue Jackets). Sure, people travel from all over for Penn State football, but the isolation of the campus has proven detrimental to sports with more than seven home games per season over the years (men's basketball drew 6,937 in 2011-2012, on the heels of an NCAA tournament bid).
Given the immense popularity of wrestling and women's volleyball at PSU - not the case everywhere, obviously - the resurgent women's basketball program and the potentially resurgent men's basketball program, how much time, money and interest will be left for hockey - particularly those 5,000 non-student seats (I'm not all that worried about the student section attendance, they'll show up) at the PIA, suite sales, advertising, et cetera?
Unfortunately, and despite the early indications that led to this post, that question will have to remain unanswered for now. But it is time to ask it.