Prior to the UMD Bulldogs regular season home opener at Amsoil Arena on October 9, a contractor bored into an underground cable cutting off power to the facility. Due to deteriorating ice conditions, the game was postponed and rescheduled to Tuesday, February 9. Working in Duluth on the 9th gave me the opportunity to stop for a pre-game meal at one of my favorite Asian restaurants in Duluth and then take in the 7:05 PM game at Amsoil Arena prior to heading back to St. Cloud. Having departed St. Cloud at 6:00 AM would make for a long day. But, with UMD being my alma mater and having known Bemidji State coach Serratore for years gave a good excuse to attend what is typically a competitive and interesting non-conference contest between the squads.
Let’s face it – being that it was a Tuesday evening with single digit temperatures it was a given that purchasing a ticket would be no problem. As a matter of fact, the thought crossed my mind that there had to be some type of ticket “promotion” just to get people into the “house” for this makeup game on a very cold evening.The conversation at the UMD ticket window at Amsoil went like this:
Me: “Hi, I’ll take the least expensive ticket you have. Do you have standing room tickets?”
Ticket Booth: “We don’t have standing room tickets for this game”
Me: “Well, just give me your least expensive ticket as I rarely sit at games and will find a place to stand”
Ticket Booth: “We only have one ticket price”
Me: “Really? And, how much is that”
Ticket Booth: “$29”
Me: “$29 for a Tuesday night non-conference game?!”
Ticket Booth: ” (smiling) Yes, but for the North Dakota games the ticket is $40″
Me: ” (grumble) I guess I’ll take a $29 ticket”
Anyone who knows me can vouch I’m not a penny pincher. My preferences at this point in my life have changed. I prefer the more expensive wine than “Two Buck Chuck”. I prefer porterhouse vs flank steak. I prefer the Broadmoor Hotel vs the LaQuinta on road trips to Colorado Springs. I prefer the St. Paul Hotel to the Holiday Inn for the North Star College Cup. I’ll pay the extra $200 annually to arrive late to SCSU games but still have parking within 50 yards of the entrance to the HBNHC. At this point of my life it’s a matter of preference…not a knock at the LaQuinta, Holiday Inn or a $9 bottle of cabernet.
But, on this particular evening, a $29 ticket price for a Tuesday night non-conference college hockey game had me thinking. As an economics minor in college, I still remember a few concepts discussed in basic economics 101 classes. Things like “utility” and the “indifference curve” – what value an individual or society places on their preferences for some set of goods or services and at what point do you redirect your resources to another good or service. Simply put, at a $29 ticket price, $20 for a pre-game meal and $5 for parking at what point do I as the consumer redirect my resources to another form of entertainment? At what point do I decide to direct that $54 to something else? Or, do I just sit at home in the man cave and watch the game via stream, national or local cable or satellite broadcast?
Performing a “google” search for “college hockey attendance” makes one realize that the college hockey game is stressed and in trouble from an attendance standpoint. Outstanding college hockey resources such as College Hockey News and USCHO routinely do attendance comparisons. However, the numbers presented are those calculated from official box scores. But, can you really believe these numbers? North Dakota routinely leads college hockey in average attendance and percentage of capacity. They are an anomaly and their attendance numbers are probably fairly credible. But, attending games at other venues makes you wonder just how accurate the creative reporting of average attendance figures are at venues such as Minnesota (9737), Wisconsin (8690), Colorado College (6020) and Denver (5200). I’ve been at these venues many times and the “in the seat” attendance rarely seems to match up with the official attendance from the box scores. Minnesota, for example, does not have 9737 in average ” in the seats” attendance. Perhaps that’s the number of “sold” tickets which only means the ticket holders are not showing up to the games. The numbers may be representative of tickets “sold” but not an accurate representation of game “attendance”. The recent North Star Cup had flagging attendance. I’ve read the venerable Beanpot has “less lively” crowds and lower attendance and some folks are calling for a format change. UMass, for example, is concerned about all their winter sports attendance. Wisconsin Badgers hockey has seen a significant drop in season ticket sales. Both the BIG TEN and WCHA Final Five post season tournaments have had sparse crowds. NCHC Frozen Four attendance is buoyed by the attendance of North Dakota fans without whom would be stressed as well. These are just a few examples. Even here at home, SCSU hockey (according to USCHO attendance figures) has dropped from a high water mark of 6110 in 2005-06 to 4293 in 2015-16. Again, these are not “in the seat” numbers as that would mean attendance at the HBNHC would be over 80% capacity for all home games.
Are these attendance issues due solely to ticket price? Absolutely not. That would be an oversimplified knee-jerk answer. It’s much more complicated than that. However, ticket prices are one of the factors in combination with changing demographics, team performance, conference alignment, competition from other entertainment choices, technology, more internet streaming, local / national broadcast of college hockey games and increased ancillary costs (parking, concessions etc).
I’ve talked with many local fans who have made the decision to stay at home on a cold Friday night and watch the local or national broadcast of the game – beer and snacks in hand in front of a 60″ flat screen. Why do they do it? A combination of convenience, increased ticket and ancillary costs and the quality of the live broadcasts. And, if the game isn’t on locally or nationally, one just needs to plug their HDMI cord into the flat screen and get a generally crisp stream of the game through a league broadcast subscription site. It becomes a self propagating problem. As fewer fans attend the games, the notion of ticket scarcity disappears making it more appealing to buy a single game “walk up” ticket for select games as opposed to a season ticket. Broadcasting a non-sellout game “Live” locally has never made sense to me unless the rights for the broadcast and ad revenue are extremely lucrative. I’ve never known that to be true. And again, that’s puts stress on ticket sales.
The baby-boomers are beyond peak earning years and are retiring to places like Florida,Texas and Arizona. Those boomers that came on board with SCSU hockey and other schools in the late 80’s are quickly becoming fewer and fewer in numbers at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center and other venues. That population (but not the seats) is being replaced by the millennials who have grown up on technology, different spending habits and alternative sports.They’ve killed the CD/DVD industry, cut the cord on land lines and cable TV and are doing a number on the newspaper industry. They think differently and purchase differently and marketers are trying to figure out how to sell to that new demographic. It’s obvious that appropriate strategies need to be created to persuade this new group of consumer to attend live events and replace the boomers in the seats. They demand a more interactive experience and new facilities such as the Minnesota Vikings US Bank Stadium has been forward thinking enough to pay great attention to that.
Most collegiate athletic budgets these days are under pressure. It’ll only get worse for those college hockey schools that now have to budget for the cost of attendance stipends. Some schools are relying on private fundraising to close that gap in their budget. Those that can’t will have to squeeze their budgets in other ways in order to compete with the “power conferences”. An easy way to deal with this is to raise ticket prices and ancillary costs to help fund these stipends. But, that’s a double-edged sword. At what point does the consumer decide a $29 ticket for a non-conference game on a cold Tuesday night (or a $40 ticket for a conference game) is more than they want to pay? Well, it’s already happening in many college hockey venues.
There isn’t an easy solution here. But, it is the new reality. And for me? I’ll still pay the $29 for the game ticket but pass on the $5 hot dog at a venue one-third of capacity despite an official box score attendance listed at 5843….