Sunday, July 23, 2006

Mav Hockey: Success on Ice doesn't extend to the Ledger

Today's Omaha World-Herald featured the latest installment in the horror story of UNO athletics. In 2001-02, UNO earned $927,856 in profits from hockey. In 2004-05, UNO's profit had dropped to $1,990, and for the recently completed 2005-06 season, UNO expects to show a loss. Contrast that with the on-ice performance: in 2004-05, UNO returned to "the Joe" for the CCHA playoffs for the first time since the 2000-01 season. In 2005-06, UNO earned their first NCAA tournament appearance in just their 9th year of playing hockey.

Where is the disconnect? What is the problem? Even UNO fans can't agree on it. Many blame the move to the Qwest Center, though the evidence isn't clear there. UNO does pay a higher rent at the Qwest Center, which doesn't help UNO's budget issues at all. But UNO's attendance woes started long before the move to the new arena. The World-Herald's financial numbers showed the revenue slide in UNO hockey beginning the season before the arena move. In that last season at the Civic, actual attendance (fans on site) dropped significantly. UNO's paid attendance stayed the same because UNO "bought up" the remaining unsold tickets, but the revenue numbers plummeted.

Once UNO moved to the Qwest Center, the "sold-out" situation ended with the addition of 6,000 new seats. And while some fans bought new season tickets with the move, some fans dropped their season tickets. Myself included.

I've held hockey season tickets for years, first with the Lancers and then getting UNO tickets just before they capped ticket sales when the program started. At first, I shared the tickets with 3 other people. Over the years, the other folks dropped out of the ticket splitting arrangement until finally I was the sole ticket user. I dropped the Lancer tickets, and then sold the UNO tickets to others. For the first few years, finding a taker for extra UNO tickets was never a problem. Until the last season at the Civic, that is. That season, there wasn't much interest in my extra tickets with UNO struggling on the ice. Several games, I was late to the game hoping I could find a buyer for my extras, and usually unsuccessfully, I might add. So, I dropped my season tickets with the move to the Qwest Center. I did express an interest at that time in purchasing a partial season ticket plan, but nobody from UNO followed up on it.

For the next 2 years, I bought tickets at the window or from scalpers, which certainly wasn't terribly convenient. I still showed up that first season at the Qwest Center, when UNO only one 8 games. But I saw the potential of the program, with young players like Scott Parse and Alex Nikiforuk leading the youth movement. I did come back on board last season when I found out UNO was actually selling a partial season ticket package. How did I find out? Other fans told me; it certainly didn't come from UNO's ticket office. Heck, I asked UNO about it 2 years earlier with no response.

I know other fans who have dropped their season tickets because of issues with the ticket office. Some were billed for priority seating fees without giving them alternatives. Others found their section converted into a "general admission" student section. In every case, UNO did not contact the ticketholder and explain the changes that were going on, and making sure that each ticketholder understood the changes that were being made and what their alternatives were.

When UNO started their hockey program, ticket sales were easy...too easy. The ticket base was sold out within 2 weeks, and they never had to think about how to promote ticket sales. Even as the ticket base dwindled over the last few years, the problem was ignored.

UNO hockey attendance isn't bad. It's 7th in the nation. It simply could be better. It has been better. It can be better. And financially, it needs to be better.

Moving back to the Civic isn't an option; the lease for the Qwest Center runs another 7 years. And moving back doesn't mean attendance would go up either; it would likely fall as the amenities of skyboxes and club seating, not to mention abundant parking, would disappear.

UNO hockey is a great sport, and I'm looking forward to a good season. Maybe even great if Hobey Baker candidate Scott Parse returns for his senior season. But UNO can't simply treat hockey like another sport like women's basketball or soccer. It's the only division 1 sport at the school, and it has the opportunity to fuel the entire program.

If only the administration will unleash the handcuffs that have been in place.

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