Sunday, October 14, 2012

UNO Arena Plans Too Small, Too Expensive

Trev Alberts and UNO plan to propose a 7,500 seat arena south of Aksarben Village for Maverick hockey, basketball, and volleyball.  If approved, UNO could begin play in a campus-adjacent facility in 2015 or 2016.  The cost of the project would be $65 to $80 million, and would not require direct funding from the state of Nebraska or city of Omaha, except for street and utility improvements.  UNO could, though, lease the facility from a private entity, who could use tax-increment or state turn-back financing, where revenues from the surrounding area are used to fund the project.

Let's make one thing clear:  this is NOT an on-campus facility.  It's certainly closer to UNO's campus than the Century Link Center in downtown Omaha...but it's not on campus.  It's approximately 2 miles south of the main UNO campus on Dodge Street, and about a half-mile from the south campus where UNO's Peter Kiewit Institute and College of Business Administration sit.  It's actually closer to the College of Saint Mary than any UNO facilities.

The idea of a UNO arena at 64th & Center Street has some advantages.  It's gives UNO a facility they cannot be bumped from, which has been a problem at times for Maverick hockey.  They can have a practice facility adjacent to the arena so that the team doesn't have to lug their equipment across town from various facilities to practice, even when the arena is being used for something else.  It makes it closer to campus and more likely for students to attend.

But the size is too small for UNO hockey.  UNO has averaged 8,000 fans a game the last couple of seasons; a 7,500 seat arena creates artificial sellouts by limiting attendance below actual interest.  The World-Herald reports that UNO only sells about 5,000 tickets, on average, per game. Some of those are freebies that are distributed to supporters.  Many of those are student tickets, which really should continue to be free in a new arena to develop the atmosphere, which is one of the reasons why some fans clamor for a new arena.

Some UNO fans still clamor for the "good 'ol days" of playing in the Civic Auditorium and the days of raucous crowds.  There were some raucous crowds at the Civic.  The "Tuesday Night" play-in game in UNO's third season may set the bar.  Alex Nikiforuk's 6 second skate through Michigan's Jack Johnson nearly blew the roof off.  But those were the exception, rather than the rule.  UNO's "Red Army" "first rose against the tyranny of silence" at the Civic Auditorium.  Yes, at the Civic.  Meanwhile, there have been some fantastic crowds at the CenturyLink Center that have rivaled the atmosphere at the Civic.

How will UNO pay for this?  My guess is that UNO will find a private owner for the facility, and UNO will rent the building from this private owner.  The private owner will use tax revenue generated by Aksarben Village (thus putting some of the cost on taxpayers through a tax shift) to help pay for it.  Ticket prices will undoubtedly increase, though Alberts steadfastly assures that "We're not going to double ticket prices to pay for it."  They will go up.  Period.

And they will sell beer.  Yay, beer.

The devil is in the details, but from what I've seen, I see more negatives than positives on this.  7,500 puts an artificial cap on UNO hockey and is an admission that UNO hockey is as big as it can ever be.  That's disappointing.  I don't know how the financing is going to work out, but it looks like a negative as well.  More expensive for fans, more expensive for taxpayers.

Some UNO fans are extremely happy to hear these plans are finally moving forward.

I am not.

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