Tuesday, December 21, 2010

UNO Taking a Wait-and-See Position on New Arena

Over the weekend, the hardest working sports reporter in the area, Chad Purcell, checked in this weekend with Trev Alberts on the long rumored UNO arena at Chili Greens. My initial take is that Dean Blais may have inadvertently scuttled those plans with the Mavs hot start to this season.  The rumors had UNO thinking that a 7500 seat venue, but with UNO averaging over 6900 fans for games played during football season, it's become clear that 7500 is ridiculously small.  Said Alberts:
"We're in this new league, and we're winning at unprecedented levels. What happens to our crowds? I mean, let's not limit ourselves. We do have a 16,000-seat facility. Would I prefer to have 16,000 people every night? Absolutely. So is there some merit to some patience? Probably. We're (ranked) eighth in the country, and historically our first-half crowds have been impacted by Husker football, and that's understandable. But we have increased our attendance both years that Dean has been here -- what's going to happen here in the second half? Let's say we're a top-10, top-five program, and we're playing Denver and Wisconsin -- what's the impact of that? Can you grow to 16,000 consistent fans?”
A lot of UNO fans have wanted a UNO arena of their very own, if only to spite MECA for bumping UNO hockey for rodeos, wrestling, and concerts, but that's short-changing the program. Alberts recognizes that the focus needs to be to develop the overall program to be everything it can be, and then worry about what the right facility for it is.  A lot of people point out that a 7500 seat facility would still be one of the largest facilities in college hockey, and could be a great atmosphere.

Which is true....but could UNO hockey be even more?  Look at Creighton basketball; the old Civic Auditorium was fairly comparable with the rest of Missouri Valley basketball programs. It may have been about 10% smaller than average, but comparable.  The moved to the Qwest Center, which held about three times as many fans as usually attended Bluejay games in the middle 90's.  The Bluejays developed into a regular winner, and soared to 15th nationally in attendance last year.  Ten Big XII schools trailed Creighton last year in basketball attendance.

Dean Blais is making UNO hockey nationally relevant; they've been ranked in the top ten for nearly two months now, and show no signs that they'll slip down the line.  How many hockey fans will show up in January and February?  Hard to say, but if UNO plays in January like they did in October and November, I foresee sellout crowds in February.  How could UNO downsize their crowds and shoehorn them into a small arena?

A wise UNO fan said that last year, all the old assumptions about what UNO could do went out the door when Trev Alberts was hired. Right now, we don't know what UNO can do down the line, but it appears the finances don't support the size of arena that UNO leads at this time. In fact, Alberts even mentioned that UNO is going to need a partnership, and that any arena has to support the community. That's well and good, but this community is currently spending over $150 million to build two baseball stadiums (when one would have been sufficient).  Is there going to be any support to build a new UNO arena, even though the Mavs currently play at an NHL-caliber arena that's under 10 years old?  I just don't see that as viable at this point in time.

So for now, I think UNO's arena plans are on hold.  UNO needs to wait and see where Blais takes this program, and how fans react to a national contender in hockey.  Then, UNO needs to take the pulse of the community to see if a new arena makes sense for the Mavs and the community. That's something that isn't clear today, and frankly, isn't possible. So waiting is the logical step for the time being.

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