As the Lock-Down Eases What Does this Mean for College Hockey

(Photo Prout)

St. Cloud, MN – There is no less than twenty-three companies in the United States that are working on coronavirus vaccines and treatments. The announcement within the last week by Moderna Inc. that they completed a successful Phase I trial of their RNA-based vaccine immediately created a rally in the US stock market. It was truly an indication of the optimism over treatment for this devastating virus. With a windfall of $10-13 billion annually at stake, the winner in this contest to develop a treatment is what capitalism is all about. It’s times like this that we appreciate capitalism and the strength of life sciences/biotechnology research and development that exists in this country. The ability to solve what appear to be insurmountable problems is what makes this country great. More promising news will continue to surface over the next month making this story outdated. That’s how quickly things happen.

Several months of stay-at-home orders with various degrees of enforcement in most states has created an insatiable desire for sports fans to gobble up anything resembling a live event including virtual horse racing, spectator-less NASCAR racing and UFC mixed martial arts. As things move forward, we’ll see plans from the NFL, NHL, NBA and College Football take the lead in assembling some versions of a live sporting event. It’s complicated and will require a collaborative effort of Federal and State government officials, the CDC, and a myriad of governing bodies and committees representing their respective sports. For intercollegiate athletics, the NCAA Medical Advisory Panel and NCAA committees will be active players in formulating their return to live events.

Keep an Eye on College Football

NCAA Division I football is scheduled to begin on August 28th. A huge divergence of opinions as to when campuses will re-open has some university presidents placing a priority on opening in the fall (University of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Boston University, Harvard) and others (California University System ) closing fall semester just add to the complexity and uncertainty of this start date. Obviously, Universities make more money when students are on campus as opposed to online learning so there is a revenue incentive but it has to be done in a safe and controlled manner. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) stresses a “need to ensure a certain level of physical distancing, proper cleaning and disinfection and the protection of workers and customers (students and fans).”  They further suggest limiting “non-essential travel” creating havoc with athletic schedules requiring non-regional travel.

Specifically, for college football, the consensus is that it takes about two months of physical conditioning to prepare the athletes to play in a game. For collegiate hockey, if the players have dedicated themselves to staying in shape under these unusual circumstances, St. Cloud State head hockey coach Brett Larson estimated the players could be ready in a month. An NCAA vote on May 19 cleared the return of student-athletes to campus in football and men’s and women’s basketball for voluntary workouts from June 1 through June 30. The Division I Council is expected to address sports other than football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball (including hockey) very soon. That will be essential to getting athletes prepared for competition should the schools open for fall semester.

Will the Fans Return

A recent poll by Seton Hall University indicated 72 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t attend games before there is a vaccine for the virus. Texas Tech football coach Matt Wells commented “the pageantry of football and the fans are so much intertwined with the players and the game. I just know how much it means to the players and how much it means to the fans. I think it would be really hard to do.”  Add to that university budgets stressed by the lack of 2019-20 playoff and tournament play for football and basketball makes it almost prohibitive to afford a season of game events without a reasonable amount of ticket revenue. That’s in addition to an already preexisting trend of declines in college football attendance over the past ten seasons. From a high watermark of 44 million in 2013, NCAA Division I football has seen nearly a two million (5%) drop in attendance since that time. College hockey too has seen significant “in-seat” declines over the past decade.

With record unemployment through the first quarter of the year, how much discretionary income will be available for dedicated fans to purchase single game tickets as opposed to a season pass this fall. Will the fans forgo the investment in a season ticket and take a wait and see approach and take it game by game? These are the uncharted waters athletic departments face as they attempt to get their budgets in order.

If games are played, what demographics will be attending? Ben Sutton of Teall Capital, an innovator and manager of several companies in “game day participation” and a former President and CEO of IMG College raised some interesting points in a recent CollegeAD podcast. He commented ” the baby boomer generation is the largest generation in the history of America and if those people weren’t buying up the tickets for college football the sport would have seen declines 10-15 years ago. That hasn’t kicked in until now”. See my February of 2016 posting. The Baby Boomer, born between 1946 and 1964 consists of an age group between 56 and 74 – one of the most vulnerable groups to the coronavirus. How anxious will this age group be to attending a live event without the availability of a vaccine? Sutton states “we haven’t done a very good job in college sports of building the next generation of fans. In fact, we’ve missed a generation and a half already in the college space based on research at IMG College. It was astounding.”

Now more than ever Sutton says “the product matters – but, all the things you do around game day need to be worked on. You need to lure people there and have things that make it so that the Millennials (ages 24-36) and Generation Xers (ages 41-55) want to come because we need to develop that next generation of fans. You need to do things to get students to not only come but to stay. The one thing we know about the Millennial/Generation X consumer is they cherish community more than any generation since the 60’s Love Children.”  And, it’s this age group, the demographic that seems to be least vulnerable to the corona virus that will be counted on to be a ballast to live events as things move forward.

So, for the collegiate athletic marketing teams now is the time to develop strategies to lure this demographic to campus.

Other Considerations

With over twenty percent of men’s and women’s collegiate hockey players from foreign soil, second only to tennis, it creates another issue for the sport. On March 11, President Trump signed a proclamation suspending entry into the United States of foreigners who were physically present in any of the 26 countries that make up the Schengen Area within the 14 days preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States. This “area” includes hockey countries such as, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Slovakia and Sweden. With International students presenting themselves to campus earlier than the general student population, the hope is by August these entry rules will be eliminated or at the very least relaxed for international students.

Should the college hockey season start in October as scheduled, there will be adjustments. To what extent is unknown at this point. However, the CDC’s suggestion that “non-essential” travel be limited leads one to assume the first two months of the season which is top-loaded with non-conference games will be affected. Can the sport react fast enough to create pods of regional non-conference games to replace the non-regional non-conference games or delay the start of the season to December or January? That’s another question for the coaches, administrators and leagues to contend with.

The Need for Innovation

In addition to physical distancing and disinfection, venues need to get innovative and according to AMD Sports and Entertainment which manages Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium “It’s incumbent on all of us to think hard from the fan’s perspective. Don’t try to launch it half-hearted, go all in.” Venues need to embrace cashless technology such as wearable payment devices such as RFID payment bracelets, reverse ATM’s (exchange cash for debit cards) and contact-less payments such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

Being a small player in the landscape of collegiate sports, Division I hockey will have the advantage of following the lead of the fall sports, primarily collegiate football to see how much success they have in jump-starting their season. They’ll also be able to study what works for the NHL as they take a measured approach towards the start of their schedule. They’ll be able to use their strategies as a template for the opening of their venues. With 60 teams at the Division I level, they are a small, cohesive group allowing them to react quickly and make the adjustments necessary for an organized start.

I’m confident in 12 to 18 months, we will be in a dramatically different environment than we are today. The economy will be much stronger, travel restrictions will be lifted and most importantly, medical technology will have responded appropriately to this pandemic. In the meantime, as the lock-down eases, we’ll have to adapt to the changes necessary to be able to enjoy some of the live entertainment choices as we begin to venture out.

 

 

 

 

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