Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cause For Concern?

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:
  1. 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.
  2. The home schedule is...not that good.
Just to address those:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Even if a buyer doesn't want to go to any of the games, they're getting priority on tickets at Pegula Ice Arena in 2013-2014. That alone is probably worth $55, considering the $100 minimum donation to the Nittany Lion Club required for football ticket privileges.

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.
Those are major, discussion-generating topics. The subject matter is there, but the fans are not.

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.


  1. Great write up. I almost wonder if this is one of those cases of "I know that tickets will be available, so why should I buy them now" or "It's summer and unless I'm an absolute fanatic I don't even know ticket packages are on-sale". I, personally, would have been all over them, but like every other PSU athletics event (sans the occasional away game) will be more interested in the TV coverage announcement for next season than ticket packages. Such is life 1,500 miles away from University Park.

  2. Very well said. It captures my worries well. I might be ever so slightly more pessimistic about the student section than you are, but we agree that there is cause for concern with the interest level. I was shocked when I saw the tweet from PSU Men's Hockey that there were ticket packages still remaining. It is very disappointing. I mean none of this as an offense to Pennsylvania, but I am not sure if those in administrative and promotional positions realize how difficult it will be to cultivate the requisite passion and interest for a successful college hockey program in an atypical hockey market. It seems like many, from my few conversations with them, take for granted that because Beaver Stadium is full on Saturday that Pegula will be full on Friday and Saturday nights.

    As I have said, programs like Cornell and Michigan that sell out their venues regularly now began with droughts of attendance. Sparty fans outnumbered Michigan fans in Yost regularly for decades until Berenson resurrected the program in the early 1990s. Lynah Rink at Cornell was dead and barely garnered crowds of 2,000 from 1957 until the 1962 Harvard game when it was over-capacity. If something is not done to bolster greater interest on campus and in the community, Penn State will be headed toward the same existence. However, unlike Cornell and Michigan, that were building or resurrecting their programs when the recruiting markets were regional. Now, recruiting is international. The options for potential recruits at Penn State are greater than those available to potential recruits to Cornell or Michigan. Most recruits to major hockey schools cite a tradition of winning and zealous fans as why they chose a given school. Penn State is brand new for all intents and purposes, so it has not the former. If the Ice Pavilion cannot sell out, then things do not bode well for the latter. No one wants to play in front of an empty building, no matter how state-of-the-art it is. This situation will be exacerbated only when play moves to a 6,000-seat arena.

    The panic began for me with the fact that the benched student section is limited to 17% of Pegula. That figure bothers me. Penn State is the second largest university in terms of enrollment that sponsors NCAA Division I hockey but it will have a smaller percentage of its seats dedicated to students in its arena. 37% of Yost is dedicated to student season ticket holders. 48% of Lynah is dedicated to student season ticket holders. Cornell offers ~500 student season tickets than will Penn State with Cornell having less than 35% of the undergraduate population of Penn State. So, if you're right that there should be no alarm or concern about student interest, then, it seems like having a plan that would have created a larger student section would have alleviated some of those concerns.

    I would tend to blame other odds choices for a nascent program and too few public campaigns not the weakness of the home schedule. As we discussed on Pride of Pegula Forum regarding the Vermont game at Wells Fargo, the new fans who are not already devoted college hockey fans would not realize that the home schedule is that weak. Sure, they know that there's not a name brand like Michigan, but they probably do not realize whether AIC or Air Force is great or abysmal.

    The catch-22 of college hockey is that one cannot build a large and passionate fanbase unless one's university team is successful, but in the modern recruiting era, one cannot gain commitments from the players who will make a program successful without a large and passionate fanbase. There are few exceptions to this rule. I am sure you know which one that I have chosen to avoid mentioning. Something novel needs to be done. The lack of clarity about student tickets and the fact that, unlike football, everything cannot be done online so people may be unsure how to get tickets or dislike the unfamiliarity with a different process has just aggravated the process of building a fanbase.

  3. I'm not terribly concerned about the sales of the 200 packages. It's summer. PSU fans are, needless to say, a bit preoccupied with other news and there hasn't been a ton of marketing about it. There should be a billboard on 322 and the turnpike about the coming of PSU hockey. Is there? I don't think so.

    Clearly more needs to be done to market the program and clarify all of that to those outside the core Icers audience. The Caravan was a good start, but it needs more. Also, it needs to be explained better. Pennsylvania is a good hockey market, I'm confident, but has little to no experience with *college* hockey and that makes a difference. It's going to require a bit of "College Hockey 101"-type promotions.

    I've had the same experience talking to people about it that you have had. They're excited about the idea, but just don't understand what's happening or when or how. You'd think they would just look it up online, but most people are not, for reasons I don't understand, like that. I find a surprising level of ignorance about other sports things happening in town, like, for example the Spikes. "We have a professional baseball team here? Really? And there's one in Altoona you say? Never heard of it."

    It just never occurs to people to proactively seek information. Especially people over a certain age.

    The student section needs to be bigger. 1000 is way too small. It will be deeply distressing if the student section sells out quickly and there are still empty seats. It's also plausible that they could designate 1000 as "The Student Section" but still offer students seats in other parts of the rink at a reasonable price.

    (On the other hand, I've had people ask me "How come it's only going to be 6000 seats?" As if that's really small. I think that PSU is always going to have a bit of trouble getting fans to drive from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh for anything other than football, especially on week night. It's simple geography. Minnesota and Michigan can fill 10-12k rinks largely because most of those people live nearby.)

    Some things that haven't happened yet will definitely improve marketing. The construction of the arena will be the most important. Just seeing it in all its glory on university drive will draw a lot of curiosity (by contrast, there are still a lot of people who don't know the location of any PSU sports venue other than Beaver Stadium or BJC). Having games on the BigTen Network will help, playing teams that most people have heard of will help, promotions during time-outs at football games will be a huge help, write-ups in the newspaper, etc. I'm not sure how much winning there's going to be, unfortunately, so there is a Catch-22 there.

    I think it's the lack of name brands on the schedule more than the weakness of it that is hard to market. I think that most fans will respond more to playing Ohio State than playing North Dakota, Miami, or Denver even though the latter are actually better opponents.

    Something that concerns me is the lack of coverage in the papers around the state- Post-Gazette, Inquirer, Patriot, etc. They have no history of covering college hockey, so will they be willing to put a beat writer on PSU? I sure hope so. The Patriot at least covers PSU wrestling and basketball, but the big city papers don't really. How is PSU going to build awareness of the team in the big cities?

  4. Wait until 2 years from now, PSU will have only 2000 fans who will care about their crapy team.

  5. Everyone (except the last guy): good points... I'm struggling a little, because I do recognize the arguments the other way and tried to keep the tone of the post "here's why I'm worried" and not "OMG, we're totally screwed." I bought tickets last year specifically to guarantee them for this year, and then in the PIA, so right there, you can tell where my expectations were: "there's going to be a ridiculous crush for tickets in the tiny arena for a historic season, I'd better plan ahead." It seems as if anyone who really wants tickets will get them, which is stunning to me.

    Obviously it's not too late, but I hope that the powers that be recognize that people liking the Penguins and Flyers and seeing a shiny new building won't be enough. A parallel situation isn't enough for PSU baseball, anyway. Long-awaited? Built-in advantage of having the Icers' history and following? Sure. But there's a lot of work yet to be done. Every other Big Ten hockey program is within 90 minutes of the center of a major city. Someone employed in Detroit can leave work on time Friday and be in East Lansing for a 7:30 puck drop with little issue, then be back home before midnight. Minnesota and OSU are IN major cities (somewhat flexible definition on Columbus). Penn State needs to have a hugely engaged population relative to size to make up for that. Or expand the student section. Given the realities we've all discussed, PSU's best chance for great crowds rests in the students, not from the townies, and certainly not from people like me driving in from Ohio.

    There were a lot of points I left out to keep the length somewhat reasonable, so thanks to all of you for getting at some of those (again, except the "crapy" comment just above mine).

  6. Troll can't even spell "crappy" correctly.

  7. If I'm not mistaken, 6000 is about what UVM has, which might be a more comparable geographic situation.

    They're going to face the same problem that Penn State basketball has always faced with getting people to come very far. The key will be students and then if they can get some success maybe some people will come from a bit further away, but never many.

    You know people in the PSU hockey world, perhaps you should write a strongly worded letter saying they need to raise their game on this.

    Hockey is probably more popular than basketball around here overall, and certainly the people who care about hockey tend to care about it a lot, but it's still going to be a chore to get people up to speed on college hockey, whereas college basketball is familiar even to those of us who don't really care about it.

    Also, for a long time, PSU basketball has carried an aura of hopelessness with it that deters people from taking an interest. Hockey won't have to fight that for at least a few years and hopefully never.

    I don't know what the NCAA rules are on this, but one way to put butts in seats and draw crowds is to sell/give tickets to youth hockey organizations from around the state. I've noticed at PSU lacrosse games that it appears the entire Carlisle HS team (or a big chunk of it) comes to ever game and I always see lots of groups all wearing the same team jackets, often from places several hours away. I've seen the same at PSU soccer and volleyball That's a built in audience for whom travelling a few hours for even a mediocre team is no hardship, it's fun.

    1. Gutterson Field House, where Vermont plays, is around 4,000 seats. Its average attendance was 3,573 for 2011-12. So, it was 89% full on average. That would be equivalent to 5,355 showing up for Penn State games on average. Average attendance at B1G Hockey programs is 7,295 in terms of attendance and 74% of capacity. Those numbers are skewed because Wisconsin and Ohio State play in what are pro arenas for all intents and purposes. I will avoid a rant about how pro-sized venues are absurd for college hockey. That's why Red Hot Hockey at The Garden for BU-Cornell feels somewhat amiss each time that I go. I digress. The average attendance will drop somewhat with the reduction in size of Yost Ice Arena that is occurring this summer. So, if Penn State manages the pull of Vermont with 89% occupancy, then it will compare favorably to the average attendance at Munn and Yost.

      I think that Vermont benefits from the fact that it is in a solidly hockey-orientated region. Pennsylvania is still an atypical hockey market. The problems that plagued the early varsity program at Penn State indicate why. Sure, Pennsylvania is not SoCal or Alabama, but it is also not Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, or New York. So, I think that some of the latent repositories of hockey interest that exist in those hockey states might be lacking. I go to games commonly at Lynah Rink and many of the people in the general admission section are from as far away as Syracuse (60 miles), Hamilton (72 miles), Hornell (85 miles), Rochester (90 miles), Buffalo (150 miles), and Schenectady (160 miles). So, the notion that someone would not travel long distances for quality hockey to me creates somewhat of a cultural shock. All of those cities of origin have college hockey programs far closer too. That leads me to one benefit that Penn State has that Vermont.

      Vermont has the benefit of geography because, well, hockey is ingrained in New-England culture. However, because it is ingrained in New-England culture there are many more programs in the region that have far better histories of success. Vermont has its rare moments, but generally, as it was in the ECAC, is not a national power. Meanwhile, Dartmouth is 90 miles away, Clarkson is 140 miles away, Union is 140 miles away, RPI is 150 miles away, UMass is 200 miles away, UMass-Lowell is 200 miles away, and that is not to mention that within three hours are BC, BU, Harvard, and UNH as well as other Atlantic Hockey teams that I did not mention. Mercyhurst is almost a four-hour drive from University Park. RMU is 140 miles away. So, Penn State has nowhere near as large of an issue with regional competition for fans or alternative for those who want to see quality college hockey. So, I think that the comparison with Vermont is apt. Penn State might have a regional/cultural disadvantage, but it benefits from its brand in the region, its lack of a well-established history of a lack of success, and its lack of nearby competitors.

      I am no expert on the NCAA rules but I think as community outreach most teams give tickets to regional teams. I am not positive, but I see no reason why it would violate any rules unless one frames the ticket as an illegal gift. That might be the case. However, if such gifts are allowed, I see no reason why Penn State should not outreach to schools with hockey programs in Pennsylvania. I think also that Penn State should take advantage of the Pegula connection and cultivate ties with Western New York. A large portion of recruiting classes for BU, Cornell, Harvard, and Union are now coming from Western New York. So, it is a market ripe with talent that has not ossified with loyalties to specific programs like some regions in Canada and other American hockey markets have.

  8. Somehow I thought Vermont seated 7k. No idea where I got that number.

    Some people will travel to see PSU hockey, especially on a Saturday, but the closest city of any size is Harrisburg, and that's 90 miles. A lot of those people are already plugged into the Hershey Bears.

    I think PSU will recruit heavily in the Buffalo area. No doubt.

  9. PSU will be fine. It will just take some time. Next year's home schedule is extremely weak. They will draw significantly better once the new arena opens. The vast (if not all) of their games will be on the weekend, which should help with attendance. Plus, once they start to gel on the ice and become competitive, fans will fill the seats. Lastly, let's not underestimate the importance of the new building. It is going to be a great place to watch a game!