Friday, September 13, 2013

Dropping The Deuce

Does this prove that men's hockey is Penn State's number two sport?

Following the incredible turnout that overwhelmed Tuesday's student ticket sale, one popular discussion was men's hockey's potential to become the second-most-popular team at Penn State. It was initiated by two of the best journalism products PSU has to offer - Rob Greissinger, who first broached the topic, and Darian Somers, who felt through it a bit further with a column in the Daily Collegian.

Football, of course, is number one. But how do we know that? Sure, it's easy to point to the 90,000-plus in Beaver Stadium on a handful of Saturdays per year and say "there you go." But it's more than that. It has to be, otherwise men's hockey as the number two sport can't even come up, since men's basketball drew 7,672 fans per game last year, well over Pegula Ice Arena's capacity.

For possibly biased reasons, I believe that blogs are the truest, most easily-studied window to a fanbase. Generally, they're written by fans and not professional media types, but blog writers and readers/commenters - in my experience -tend to read a few rungs up on the evolutionary ladder (don't get mad, message board guy - I was a huge board guy before TYT, and the issue is the medium combined with a minority of those present, not most of you).

Look at Black Shoe Diaries, purportedly a Penn State all-sports blog. As I write this, the front page of BSD include an analysis of the football team's third down efficiency, a Q-an-A with the author of a book involving Penn State football and a preview of week three in Big Ten football. Over at Victory Bell Rings, it much of the same: PSU's upcoming game with Central Florida and college football generally are broken down from all angles imaginable, including a parody of head coach Bill O'Brien picking games from around the nation. Onward State is a general PSU blog, not a sports-specific one, but all four of its sports posts on the front page as of this writing were football-related. There is nothing at all on the highly-successful and in-season Nittany Lions women's soccer or volleyball teams on the front page of any site.

If you really want to wade into message board territory, you'll see more of the same, I promise.

I don't point that out to criticize, but as an illustration of Penn State football's dominance in the university sports landscape. Attendance counts for a lot, sure, but it's just one measure of "interest," that vague measurement we're really after here. TV ratings (or appearances for some of the smaller sports), donations, media coverage, advertising and the like all play a role as well - as does something I'll call "engagement," which is closely tied to interest and drives most of those bottom-line factors. Absent full data in some areas and under the assumption that you know how to look up attendance numbers, that slippery concept of engagement is what I'm really trying to nail down because it leads to most of the other things.

Football is obviously the top of just about any measure one can devise. But underneath that, I'm looking for the same things, just in lesser degrees. And that's precisely what hockey's lacking, for the most part.

Photo inserted to pump my stats - it almost always works

Through last season and into this preseason, Pegula Ice Arena moves the needle. There's little doubt about that. It's the focus of an overwhelming proportion of stories that hit major media outlets, possibly more than 90 percent, and the media, generally, is trying to respond to public interest. It's also my opinion - and no, I don't have a scientifically-conducted survey in hand - that it was the major driver for robust ticket sales both with the students and the general public. When a major story hits that has little to do with PIA, the NHL Entry Draft for one, there's interest as well.

But for the "regular" day-to-day stuff, it just isn't there. Other than a few die-hards, nobody wants to talk about the new uniforms (yes, they're slightly different this year), the just-announced outdoor game between Minnesota and Ohio State, the brand-new commitment of Scott Conway for next season, some of the exciting lineup battles on tap, where they think PSU will finish in the Big Ten this year, or the fact that former Icers and Ice Lions player Brandon Russo is now on an NCAA Division I roster at Canisius.

Things of that nature always receive plenty of discussion from the mainstream in football and men's basketball. And most of the time as well in wrestling, women's volleyball and women's basketball. Even Somers who, in disagreement with my opinion, pegged men's hockey as the current number two, seemed to acknowledge that.
The reason Penn State hockey will be the most popular team behind football this season, at least at first, will have nothing to do with the product on the ice. It will have everything to do with the novelty of a new arena and a new conference.
Where my opinion differs: I think it's important to draw a distinction between the arena and the team. Sellouts early in the history of Nittany Lion basketball's Bryce Jordan Center, after all, meant nothing in terms of the team's long-term position in the PSU sports landscape. Yet if the men's basketball team underperforms this year, people will be upset and individual players, coaches and strategy will be analyzed. If men's hockey suffers the same fate, people will say "wow, Pegula Ice Arena is amazing!" That, to me, proves that hockey is not number two. It might not even be number three, but it's not really worth drawing those lines.

Is there potential for more? Absolutely. PIA is, first and foremost, a hockey venue. One that's generated a ridiculous amount of attention. So I suppose it could be said that PIA proves the potential for interest. But the engagement, the nuts and bolts stuff that leads to sustained, long-term interest well after other schools have built newer and nicer arenas, is lacking in my view.

When that comes along, probably with the team winning something (because whether you admit it or not, that's how it usually starts), Penn State will truly have made it as a hockey school.


  1. While hockey is #1 to me, I'd argue it's at best 4th on campus and maybe 5th. Football for sure. Wrestling sells out about the same capacity as the PIA. Men's basketball draws more and has some healthy message boards (haven't found anything active for hockey yet). It remains to be seen how hockey will compare down the road, but Women's basketball also draws a decent number of fans and might be #4.

    What hockey has is a bunch of rabid fans who love the sport. We might be small in numbers compared to football. But we are arguably more passionate. Let's hope enough of us are PSU fans and we continue to fill the PIA for years to come.

    1. Agreed...after saying I wouldn't do it in the post, I'd go 1. Football, 2. Men's basketball, 3. Wrestling, 4. Women's basketball and men's hockey are probably pretty close to even, 6. Women's volleyball (thrown in because a guy on the original discussion called it #2).

      There's sort of an insecure hockeyguy tendency to do things like this (they're usually the same people who come up with "soccer/basketball players are pussies compared to hockey players" memes). But let's just dial it back, enjoy the arena and what should be a pretty good team as well, and we'll see where it sits in five years. I have to think it will be pretty much evident by then. Not that it even really matters - you shouldn't need something like "second most popular at PSU!" to justify your love of hockey.

    2. I snatched up the domain name a couple of years ago (right after the Pegula gift rumors started). I was very surprised to discover that, while the team had been using the expression forever, no one had secured the domain for some reason, so I went ahead and bought it. I did it with the intention of starting a site where I could curate PSU hockey news but the job that Kyle does here for excedes anything I could have done - so the domain sits idle.

      However, I am tempted to create a forum site, since, as you mentioned, there does seem to be a void there. There is a forum on FightOnState but it gets fairly little traffic since the site is dominated by football fans. If things seem to pick up in the next couple of weeks, I may go forward with my plans. Perhaps there's enough interest to support a site similar to the one, that you alluded to.

  2. I am completely impressed! Keep stuff like this coming.