Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Nebraska Basketball's Sell-Out Can Be a Lesson to UNO Hockey

Last Friday's news that Nebraska had sold out the first season of basketball at Lincoln's new Pinnacle Bank Arena was quite the eye-opener. I wasn't surprised as much by the interest as much as the speed that it occurred.  It's early May, and it's a done deal. It reminded people of the best days of Nebraska basketball 20 years ago, when players like Strickland and Piatkowski regularly beat teams like Kansas in front of packed, sellout crowds.

Tim Miles' teams haven't done that yet, but fans are optimistic that Nebraska basketball is heading that direction. Then add in the interest in a new arena: bigger, shiner, newer.  People buy tickets to get in on the ground floor and to see the new place.  As the interest increases, people on the fence quickly realize they too have to join now or be left on the outside. It snowballs from there, and suddenly Nebrasketball is the hottest hoops ticket in the state.  When all is said and done, Creighton will sell more because of the bigger facility, but the momentum is on the Huskers' side at this moment.

That's what a new sports venue does for attendance. Sarpy County's "Trailer Park" is the exception to the rule, where attendance has only increased slightly.  The new, cool factor is offset by the smaller ("right-sized", "undersized") capacity.  It hasn't increased attendance as much as it's increased revenue, thanks to a sweetheart deal from Sarpy County and higher ticket prices.

UNO has plans underway to build a new 7,000 seat hockey arena near the site of the former Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. The goal is to downsize the building to better fit their current attendance, which averaged 7,233 last season.  That was down from nearly 8,000 fans a game the last couple of seasons, apparently because UNO cut back on promotions this season so that future capacity was not significantly less than current demand.

There is an important lesson to be learned in Lincoln.  Nebraska basketball used to regularly draw huge crowds to Lincoln, but times got tough.  Fans dropped away, and some realized you didn't need to buy season tickets.  Tim Miles and the new arena changed that dynamic.  Hope for better basketball, and a surge of interest made basketball a hot ticket again.

UNO used to sell out every game in hockey, and then attendance increased even further initially when UNO moved to what is now the CenturyLink Center ten years ago.  But that also was UNO's worst season on the ice.  New fans realized that UNO hockey wasn't very good, and stayed away.  Some fans saw plenty of empty seats and realized that they didn't need season tickets either.  So season ticket sales fell.

UNO's hockey fortunes have improved dramatically in recent years.  An NCAA tournament appearance two years ago, and strong starts the last two years give Maverick fans hope that something big is going to happen with UNO hockey.

Except there is that little issue of the "too small" arena that UNO is planning to build. Yes, 7,000 seats would have held UNO's crowds most games last season.  Just like a 10,000 seat basketball arena would have held most of Nebraska's basketball crowds last season.

Boom... once the final student, faculty, and club seats are sold, Nebraska will have sold out their new 15,000 seat arena for the entire inaugural season.

Yes, I understand that UNO is unlikely to ever fill up the 17,000 seat CenturyLink Center on a regular basis. The availability of single game tickets is always going to be a disincentive for committing to an entire season ticket.  But the other extreme is just as wrong: assuming that interest in UNO hockey is all that it can ever be isn't correct either.

If you believe like I do that Dean Blais is going to make UNO hockey a national power, then 7,000 seats is laughably too small for the Omaha market.  UNO's attendance was 8,314 for six seasons in the Civic Auditorium with some rather uncompetitive teams playing.  There's no reason to think that UNO couldn't draw that, and a few more, in a new arena near campus with a championship contending team playing.

The example of what happened in Lincoln with Nebraska basketball ticket sales this year is just more evidence that UNO's building plans are way, way too small.

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