Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Snail's Pace of Ticket Sales

Penn State hockey has been well supported for decades - so why has moving tickets for the first
NCAA season been such a struggle?

As an undergrad, I went to every Icers home game for free (don't be too jealous, it's hard to watch the game from the merchandise stand or booster hospitality room). From graduation through 2010-2011, I never bought season tickets - I live in Ohio, and there simply wasn't any reason to do so. When I was around for my one or two weekends per year, I'd make sure to arrive at the rink early enough to ensure that I would be able to walk up and buy tickets.

I changed that pattern last year by purchasing season tickets, even though I ultimately didn't use them any more than I would have any other season (actually less, since I'm once again getting in for free thanks to somehow being considered media). My thoughts were along the lines of "everyone at Penn State is pumped for NCAA hockey, that building is tiny, it's going to be an impossible ticket especially for the opener, and they're saying that Icers season ticket holders will have priority." Since my first introduction to Penn State hockey, I've pined for this moment, and I was going to do everything possible to make sure I didn't miss the puck drop on the NCAA era. Incidentally, in a related thought process, the urge to obsessively follow the ACHA-NCAA transition and ensure that I didn't miss a single development was the major factor in my starting this blog about a month after Terry Pegula's donation was announced.

It turned out that I was right to buy season tickets. Only Icers season ticket holders were allowed to buy season tickets for 2012-2013, so I did receive something I would not have otherwise by jumping on board in 2011-2012. My scarcity-based fears, however, could not have been more off base.

The Ice Pavilion's listed capacity is 1,350. Before going further, let's engage in some educated guesswork as to how that breaks down.

Dividing the total seating by the rink's five seating sections yields 270 (I don't believe standing room is counted in the 1,350 number, since the list of the Icers' best-ever crowds include throngs more than 200 people greater than 1,350). However, Section C, the middle one, is smaller than the other four due to the tunnel connecting the locker room area to the ice and to accommodate media at the top. So let's say Sections A (the student section), B, D and E have roughly 285 seats each, with Section C including the remaining 210.

Using that breakdown, it follows that there were about 855 student ticket packages available for this season, since there were three different packages of five games sold for those 285 seats. They went on sale September 12th for an insanely-cheap $20 each, and after one week are still available (two of the three packages are sold out while Package B, highlighted by the November 10th game against Air Force, is not). Fifty-six zealous students were in line before the ticket office opened on the first day of the sale which is certainly better than nothing, but also a far cry from similar lines at more traditional NCAA hockey schools like RPI, whose lines more closely resemble Nittanyville than PSU's hockey ticket queue:
“The hockey line, the passion of the students just really makes this a unique hockey program and one that’s special to be a part of,” RPI head coach Seth Appert said.

The distinctive event, which dates back to the early 1970’s, began at the Rensselaer Student Union where both students and fans alike, fully clad in RPI's trademark cherry and white, mingled with players on the current roster.

“To be here and to see how much passion the students have for athletics, for their hockey program is really a great feeling,” Appert said. “I know its humbling for our guys to know the kind of support they get from their fellow students.”

“It means a lot to us,” said sophomore defensemen Luke Curadi. “If you’re a new student you get to see what RPI hockey is all about and to just get excited about the next couple months.”

The school’s popular pep band kicked things off playing a number of signature tunes heard inside Houston Field House at home games. As a makeshift clock counted down the time until tickets officially went on sale at the box office, the student body, led by the team, paraded from the union to the Field House to select their season tickets before the night culminated in a party outside the arena.
Ticket campouts are a staple at many schools, including RPI and this one, at Denver.

Back in June, the same three five-game packages offered to students were sold to the non-student public for an extremely reasonable $55. The total number of packages available was a little bit over 200 (the team tweeted that there were "less than 200 left" about 90 minutes into that sale). Since we're estimating most of this stuff anyway, call it 240 total, or 80 seats per game. Those did sell out, although it took about two weeks.

On Tuesday, a public single-game sale began with "fewer than 100" tickets left over for each of the 15 home games - to keep the math simple (and without further information anyway), we'll say 1,500 total tickets. To be fair, it's only been one day since those went on sale, but they're still available as well.

If you added everything together and discovered 885 seats per game left over, presumably those are renewals by Icers season ticket holders and other obligations (visiting team, media, etc.).

A fair assessment of all of that, in my opinion, is that Penn State will eventually sell out all games at the Ice Pavilion this season. "Eventually" being the key word there - it certainly wasn't the mad rush predicted by myself and others.

In fact, take away my season ticket and my press pass for a second. Assume I'm just some random guy interested in PSU hockey, and who wants to attend the first NCAA hockey game in the history of Penn State men's hockey. Without resorting to the secondary market, and in a rink seating 1,350, I would be able to do so even if I had completely neglected the June sale of five-game packages and also forgot about the single-game ticket sale until (at least) the second day. That's mind-blowing to me.

The Penn State community, when motivated, is fantastic at moving tickets. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, but just to hit a couple:
Yes, all of those things have some context in their favor. Football's football and is the alpha sport, both in our society and at Penn State. Wrestling was the defending national champion (and would be on the way to going back-to-back) and was opposing a program with 23 national championships in the last 38 years. That women's soccer match was the first major sporting event with students on campus since the NCAA sanctions hit over the summer and had a unique atmosphere as a result - and it didn't hurt that the opponent was ranked no. 1 and the defending national champs. Swift is hugely popular, not at PSU every day, a native of Wyomissing, PA, and had not yet released "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." I get all of that.

Gratuitous photo of Taylor Swift, taken at her BJC show.

But hockey is not without context as well. After all, Penn State has waited forever for NCAA hockey. The Icers already had a built-in fan base that filled most of the Ice Pavilion for each game. Surely I'm not the only one who felt a sense of urgency because of those two facts and because of the rink's size. There's an NHL lockout (if you haven't heard) and therefore a decent chance that Penn Staters won't be watching Penguins and Flyers games anytime soon. A very visible reminder that the program exists is under construction across from the Jordan Center. Given all of that, the overall sluggishness of Penn Staters in grabbing about 7,000 of the 20,250 total seats at Greenberg this season is discouraging.

Speaking of that reminder, yes, I do believe that the Pegula Ice Arena will contribute to the demand for tickets in 2013-2014. However, the history of new sports venues (including PSU's Medlar Field) indicates that the attendance spike will only last for one year. After that, it will just be a venue with more seats to fill in four games than the Ice Pavilion has for an entire season. Can we do it? It's still too early to say, but I'm less confident in success than I was even six months ago.

In June, I wrote a post called "Cause For Concern?" discussing the relative lack of buzz about hockey at "mainstream" PSU as measured from different sources. It wasn't my intent to duplicate that post - apologies if I have - but rather to update it with new data.

That data, to me, reads something like this right now: "Penn State is a new market for NCAA hockey, and is therefore going to require some building time, just like most new markets. It's not the automatic that some (again, guilty) assumed it would be, and it will have to find a solid niche in a landscape already pretty saturated with big-time college athletics in order to draw at a level appropriate for a large-conference program."


  1. I'm not sure how well it's been marketed so far. That women's soccer game you mention was hyped up. The team passed out flyers. Maya Hayes did morning radio, etc. They haven't gotten nearly as many people for subsequent games, so clearly these big pushes make a difference. Wrestling is well-established and gets coverage across the state. Of course football gets loads of attention in every conceivable media outlet and is the sort of thing that many people go to even though they don't really care about the sport.

    We hear a lot about the hockey ticket sales, but we're already on every mailing list, twitter feed, and facebook group related to PSU hockey. I don't know how well the students pay attention to those things and certainly people outside of State College haven't been hearing much unless they went to one of the coach's caravan things with the hockey coaches.

    There are not, as far as I know, any billboards on 322 or 80 advertising the hockey season and none of the papers outside of State College have given us much, if any, ink. This will improve as the start of the season approaches and of course, once it begins.

    The results probably won't be too good to begin. That could be a hindrance. Perhaps breaking the tickets into different packages hasn't gone over well. That might just confuse people.

    Friends of mine are still asking me basic questions about what's happening this year. They know the new rink is going up, but there's still uncertainty about what this year will be. Plus, people are distracted by a lot of other stuff right now.

    By contrast, at RIT, hockey is the only big thing going on.

    1. Yeah, it's tough to separate from all of the stuff you mentioned and see things as an average person...the other day on Twitter, I said something about the student tickets moving slowly and got a few replies, which I retweeted. A couple of them said they were unaware of tickets being on sale. Initially I was like "whaaaa?!?!" but like you said, if you're not obsessing over this stuff constantly, I don't know that the "mainstream" picked up the slack. "Non-football" is almost invisible in the weekly NLC emails, as one example. I think the main athletics social media accounts mentioned things once, but that's not sufficient - most people don't read every single tweet, so they needed to toss a few out there, staggering the time of day. The Collegian ran an article either that day or the day before, Onward State did something as well I think.

      Is lack of marketing an explanation or an excuse? I'm not sure.

  2. I don't think it'll be a problem selling out the Pegula Center next season. I will be getting season tix next season when my son is there. (I need to look into what packages are available for next season. Haven't made the time to do so, but am still excited about PSU hockey.)

    1. I think more than anything, I was a little disillusioned...I mean, who *wouldn't* be excited about this? The Pens and Flyers are obviously huge at PSU, the newness of everything, the big time (finally)...I just kind of figured people would be beating down the doors a little more.

      I do think it'll get there. Even if it takes a little longer than expected, this season will sell out. The arena next year will pull a lot of people in by itself. 6,000 for every single game is a lot to ask, so I don't know that the season will sell out, but the crowds will be good. Hopefully, by the time the drawing power of the arena wears off in 2014-2015, we won't need it.

      I'm not ready to give us the "another Ohio State" label some have thrown our way since the beginning, but we will need a little more effort and patience than expected.

  3. I don't know if there's been a lack of marketing, just that it needs time and repetition to sink in. I don't think they'll have any trouble evenually selling out all of the games this year and, from what I understand, BTN isn't going to really start pushing hockey until next year, so there's time to ramp up.

    I think the scandal is a big hindrance, not for the reasons people keep asking Gadowsky about, but simply because it's occupying a lot of inches in The Collegian, etc, and in the minds of alums and locals. If this were a year with no scandal and no football coaching change, the birth of the hockey team would be the most exiting and interesting thing happening on campus. Next year, it could be that.

    Perhaps we've put too much emphasis on the "The Penguins and Flyers are huge" aspect. Yes, they are and I think hockey will continue to grow in PA, but a lot of NHL fans don't know much of anything about college hockey because they've never been exposed to it. They don't understand the difference between ACHA and NCAA, etc. I imagine the Tomahawks are having the same issue in Johnstown trying to explain junior hockey.

    It would be nice for Pegulaville to be like the camp out at Denver or RIT, and maybe it will be, but that's kind of a Catch 22. Most people aren't going to camp out for tickets if they aren't very scarce, and they won't be scarce unless there are people camping out (or at least, lining up early) to buy tickets. That's something that has to develop over time.

    I think for now, it's great that there are at least 100 or so hard core student fans. They'll set the atmosphere and that will get other kids excited about going.

    I think it will be like what I witnessed in DC following DC United (soccer, for those who don't know.) In the late 1990s, the Screaming Eagles - the loud supporters group that is always in shot on TV - was only about 100 people, but over time the loud, singing, drum-beating part of the crowd has gradually grown to take over that whole side of the pitch.

  4. So, I called for tickets to the first home game. As a non-student, I was worried they'd be sold out. After all: FIRST NCAA DI GAME. So I fretted and called at 9:58. Their system wasn't set to open until 10, so they told me I'd have to call back. After fretting and cursing at my phone, I got the ticket agent voicemail until 10:08 am when I finally got a real person. Perhaps because of the fact that I'd gone to camp out for Cornell-Harvard tickets my senior year a few hours early and by the time I'd gotten halfway through the line, both games for that weekend were sold out (roughly 10 minutes after sales started...and that was only when it got back to me in line). So 8 minutes in, when people can buy in person or on the phone? I was worried I wouldn't be able to see the first game. Turns out: I needn't have worried at all. The guy was all la la la sure you can have a ticket to this and we definitely have 5 together for the Friday Air Force game. It just was odd to me that not only was the ticket office not flooding with people calling for hockey alone and people in person flooding BJC for hockey, they were calm, relaxed, and didn't seem to be pressed at all.

    I hope that they sell out, but for a 1,350-seat venue to not sell out this quickly at a 45,000 student campus does not bode well. Hopefully I'm just being Miss Doom and Gloom here, though.

  5. I hate to belabor a point, but I do think that it is cultural. I pointed that out on the discussion of the last post "Cause for Concern." Pennsylvania is not a hockey state in the classical sense. I reject any and all arguments from within and without the B1G that claim that because Pennsylvania is not a hockey state that Penn State will not be successful. Recruits come for campus life, facilities, and coaches. Penn State excels in all of those. Also, with players like BC's Milner and Penn State commit McAdam among many others, Pennsylvania has proven that it has a few pockets of excellence in hockey. On the other hand, so does Florida with Cornell’s Ferlin among a few others, and no one is about to label Florida a hockey state.

    Pennsylvania being a non-traditional hockey state has the drawback that hockey is not ingrained in the culture in such a way that people feel a social compulsion to attend games. That social compulsion exists for college football in Pennsylvania, but not for college hockey. It is much the opposite of New York, where people are drawn to the ten NCAA Division I programs in Upstate New York in droves, but college football is all but forgotten. The same is generally true of the Northeast. If UConn football plummets back into the abyss, I have little doubt that it will not have a following long after. Penn State football on the other hand, began the great tradition of the White Out during down times and continues to support a program valiantly even during these trying times for the University, program, and student-athletes. I do not want to disparage hockey fanbases in Pennsylvania, but I know that friends from Michigan, Minnesota, and New York quip often that the Penguins and Flyers would not have a single fan remaining as soon as they must endure an abysmal season. When I see Flyers fans boo their own teams after one period of poor play habitually, I hate to admit, it seems as though they have a point. When one considers that the vast majority of undergraduates at Penn State hale from the Pittsburgh or Philadelphia regions, this conception of hockey fandom is most likely ingrained into how they view the sport. There seems to be fickleness and lack of social passion for the sport. I have no doubt that the loyal Penn State hockey fans will be among the best in college hockey, but I do fear that it might be a task for Penn State hockey to breach the necessary threshold of getting sufficient interest in the program to fill a building as large as Pegula then, once that occurs, keeping that interest will be difficult because Pennsylvania hockey fans tend to lose dedication if their team is not performing well.

    For comparison, Brittany's senior year at Cornell, Cornell did not break 0.500 until the very end of the season. It was an extreme rebuilding year after losing three 100-point scorers, a first-round draft pick, NHL forwards, and an NHL goaltender and Cornell legend. However, Lynah Rink was never below 90% occupancy in that span. I hope that such a loyal mentality will emerge in the Penn State hockey culture but the inability to sell tickets and the suspect hockey origins of the pool of might-be Penn State fans makes me question if Penn State is not rolling each season in what will be the most competitive conference in the nation, will the fans show up?

    Also, the unrealistically high expectations of some fans pain me. I have talked to fans, both adults who work at the University and students, and they think that Penn State will return an ACHA-like/Icers-like record in this and future seasons. I think that Penn State can break 0.500 even in its first year in the B1G, however, to think that it will amass records with 20+ wins regularly, as they seem to imply, sets themselves up for major disappointment. Which does not bode well when combined with possible fickleness.

  6. Reed, I don't mean to be contrary, but in some ways, I wonder if one can conclude the causation of the between interest and coverage that you do. You are right. It might be true that there is little interest because there is little coverage. However, the opposite might be true. As I have said, I think that this might be cultural. There might be little coverage because there is less latent social interest in covering a college hockey program in Pennsylvania. So, it might be the natural, social status of a non-traditional hockey state like Pennsylvania to tend not to cover college hockey. Papers tend to cover what they think their readership will find interesting. The readership in Pennsylvania might not find college hockey interesting. It might be a hard reality, but it is a distinct possibility.

    Don't undersell RIT and Rochester. I think that RIT-Rochester provides a great point of comparison for my premise that it is a hockey state vs. non-traditional hockey state mindset. RIT sells out Ritter Arena almost every game. Ritter holds 2,100 fans. That is approximately 160% the size of the Ice Pavilion. Penn State has 265% more students than does RIT. However, Penn State is having difficulty selling out its smaller building. Ritter can hold approximately 12% of the RIT campus population. Pegula will be able to hold 13% of Penn State's campus population. So, the two will be comparable. However, their current arenas are not comparable at all. I find it very alarming that the Ice Pavilion has not sold out. As for the “there's nothing else to do at RIT,” that is partially true, but Rochester is a vibrant city, so there are many alternatives and RIT makes most of them fairly accessible (I have friends who have gone there). And, if you ask people at the University at Buffalo, they would rather go see the Bills (don't ask me why) or the Sabres over programs there. So, the draws in Rochester need not be institutionally based. So, I think, for hockey-specific reasons, compare the alternatives for hockey interest in the RIT-Rochester area to those in the Penn State-Central Pennsylvania region.

    The nearest NHL teams to Central Pennsylvania are the Flyers and Penguins. Philadelphia is farther at the distance of a 3 hour 48 minute drive while Pittsburgh is a 2 hour 40 minute drive. Buffalo is closest to Rochester. The distance from Rochester to Buffalo is 1 hour 20 minutes. This is not to mention that the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Sabres, play in downtown Rochester which is readily accessible by RIT buses. The Syracuse Crunch are within 1 hour and 30 minutes of Rochester. The Binghamton Senators, the AHL affiliate of the Ottawa Senators, play 2 hours and 43 minutes away. The two AHL affiliates in Pennsylvania are not much closer in distance to State College than are the NHL programs in Pennsylvania. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are 2 hours 30 minutes away while the Hershey Bears are closer at a distance of 2 hours 10 minutes. If we drop down one more level to the ECHL, the Elmira Jackals are 1 hour closer to Rochester than State College is to the only Pennsylvania ECHL team the Reading Royals at 2 hours and 3 hours respectively. Finally, we arrive at college hockey for the last comparison. Pennsylvania will have three NCAA Division I programs beginning on October 12. The distance from Penn State to Mercyhurst is 3 hours 45 minutes. The distance from Penn State to Robert Morris is 2 hours 48 minutes. New York State has 10 NCAA Division I college hockey programs. Five of those programs are all within three hours of Rochester [RIT, Canisius (1:18), Niagara (1:36), Cornell (1:53), and Colgate (2:28)]. That is not to mention all the SUNY campuses in the Western New York region that sponsor NCAA Division III hockey that have loyal followings as well.

  7. I think that these figures are somewhat indicative of my premise that it is a cultural difference between hockey states and non-traditional hockey states. Two of the five programs within three hours of Rochester sell out every game. Two of the remaining three have respectable attendance figures. New York State is the home to three of the most loyal fanbases in college hockey (Cornell, RIT, and RPI). So, despite vastly more programs and hockey alternatives in Western New York and Upstate New York that are far closer, the programs in New York do not suffer from dilution because the cultural and market demand is still ample. Penn State, as the distance indicate, is the only major program in the region, and should be able to tap into what hockey demand there is. Its inability to do so seems to indicate that there might not be such latent demand in the first place within Pennsylvania. This is one of two key reasons why I wished that the student section in Pegula would be bigger. Penn State students, if they can overcome any learned fickleness, will follow and love their team. However, I doubt that Penn State hockey will be able to rely on non-alumni, non-student regional fans to fill the building because I doubt that such interest exists. So, unlike programs like Colgate, RIT, and Union that rely upon regional and community support to fill their barns, I doubt that Penn State will ever be able to do the same. I hope that I am wrong, but it seems that each passing example seems to reify that point.

    On another note, historically, it takes time. Cornell and Michigan are viewed as the two most rabid college hockey fanbases in the world of college hockey. Lynah Rink at Cornell averaged filling less than half of its occupancy from 1957-62. In 1962, that all changed and the Lynah Faithful have been filling the building ever since then. Yost Ice Arena at Michigan was almost devoid of Wolverines fans from 1973, when Michigan hockey moved into the building, until 1991. Yost was typically filled during that era, however, its primary occupants were those of the opposing team, most often those supporting Michigan State. However, a game atmosphere like that won’t be seen any time soon at Michigan. So, it might be just a matter of time for Penn State and Pegula. The lack of interest combined with the lack of competition in the hockey market in the region does worry me that much-needed latent regional interest might be lacking.

    Bryan, we hope to see you at the game. If you are available November 9 or 10, I would recommend either getting single-game ticket(s) to the Air Force-Penn State games or purchasing the packages that include those. It should be exciting.

  8. "So, it might be the natural, social status of a non-traditional hockey state like Pennsylvania to tend not to cover college hockey."

    They don't cover college hockey because there hasn't been much college hockey to cover. RMU is a relatively new program but is starting to get coverage in Pittsburgh. But it's a smaller school without a big alumni base. Division III and club teams are never going to get much interest off campus regardless of which sport they play. Mercyhurst is small and in Erie, which is mostly cut off from civilization.

    It's a catch-22. People won't be interested in something if they don't know anything about it, and yet the newspapers won't spend much effort telling us about something if they don't already know we're interested in it.

    Pennsylvanians have, for the most part, only ever seen pro hockey or high school hockey. There's a difference between pro hockey and college hockey. The standard of play is lower in college and there's no fighting - which a lot of fans like - but there's a better "college atmosphere." It's going to take a while to get fans used to pro hockey to understand the benefits of college hockey.

    So for now, I think the hope is to get a strong core of "ultras" to set the atmosphere for the games and then as time goes on, word of mouth will do a lot of the on-campus marketing while TV, hopefully, and some good results, will sell it to people further away who might come up for a few Saturday games.

    I totally disagree that Flyers and Pens fans would abandon the team if they did poorly. Both teams have had lean years and still managed to remain very popular - albeit in a "what the hell is wrong?" sort of way - in their cities, especially in Pittsburgh (which has no NBA team nor will it ever). Even during the period between Lemieux and Crosby, the Pens were a big deal in Western PA. If they hadn't been, they wouldn't have been able to build the new arena and save the team.

    And the Hershey Bears have been there for 75 years. 75 years. In a league that seems to have at least one franchise move or fold every year, that's amazing. No other minor league team - even in the hockey hotbeds - has that track record of consistency. The Amerks come the closest, I believe.