BSU athletics: Money talks

I had some other musical options for this one, but considering the fact that Sir Paul is apparently becoming a member of Nirvana today and that most of the other songs about money that I enjoy are made by the Wu-Tang Clan and thus have swears aplenty in them, I’ll give you this. It fits the theme well anyway:

Obviously this song is not about the high cost of competing in college sports these days, but in particular the line, “Out of college money spent/ See no future, pay no rent” has tenuous connections to Bemidji State’s financial difficulties as college hockey goes through a transition period.

My two-part series on the BSU hockey program examined just that: Why did the Beavers lose so much money on hockey the past two seasons? And how can they get back to where they were before?

(Find part one here and part two here… also be sure to check out Pioneer education reporter Bethany Wesley’s examination of the athletics budget as a whole… she wrote one a few weeks ago and has another scheduled to run in the next few days that focuses more specifically on Division II sports.)

With the reformation of the WCHA into more of a mid-major conference next season, there are may questions and few answers about how BSU can get back to where it was a few years ago.

Chris Dilks of the Western College Hockey Blog had perhaps the best take on the situation the other day:

From a purely hockey standpoint, I’ve had zero concerns at all. The new WCHA is going to have a lot of quality, hard-nosed, blue collar teams that should make for some fun conference match-ups. The real issue, as evidenced above, is going to be whether or not these teams can continue to make things work financially.

 

Bemidji State is in a particularly precarious position because they’re bound by a 20-year lease to the newly built Sanford Center. The Sanford Center was probably a little too big and expensive for a program the size of Bemidji State to handle financially, but it was the type of arena schools like North Dakota and Denver demanded they get in order to join the WCHA(and subsequently save their program), shortly before those schools stabbed them in the back by leaving to form their own conference. With the brand recognition of their competition dropping significantly next year, it seems very likely to see the trend of decreasing revenues to continue.

That seems to be the general consensus from everyone involved: It’s not really BSU’s fault that the program is losing money. It’s not the team’s performance, or fans not showing up, or the Sanford Center, or the athletic director, or boosters, etc.

The college sports landscape, as it stands now, is set up to fail. Unless you’re a major BCS school you’re probably going to lose money – and even if you are in a BCS conference, you might lose money, too.

Back in August, the Arizona Republic did a similar piece on Arizona State and found that the Sun Devils’ athletic program has needed nearly $80 million from the university since 2005 to stay afloat.

When you look at it this way, that makes the institutional support BSU has given its athletics department in the past five years (around $16 million) look like chump change.

But as WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod told me the other day, at places like Bemidji, which have smaller revenue streams to begin with, even losing a little bit of money can have a huge impact on the health of a program.

The positive thing about the new WCHA – if you can call it a positive – is that many of the schools in the newly-configured conference might be in the same boat. All, save Bowling Green, play Division II sports in everything else. Minnesota State and BSU are both in the NSIC, while Michigan Tech, Lake State, Ferris State, and Northern Michigan are all in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Alaska schools (Fairbanks and Anchorage) compete in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

I haven’t done extensive research on this, but it seems that all of the D-II schools in the WCHA share similar athletics budgets. As McLeod said, they’ll no longer be trying to “keep up with the Joneses” (i.e., with the Minnesotas, Michigans and North Dakotas of the world).

A few of the comments I’ve read said that Bemidji is a hockey town and if the Beavers are good, people will come even without the “marquee” teams that are in the WCHA.

I think that’s partly true, but the fact of the matter is that the Sanford Center is an expensive place to play hockey. It’s a great place to play, and watch hockey, too, but sometimes it feels too big. For example, BSU played Lake Superior State in its opening series – a team that has and will be one of BSU’s conference rivals. The two even have a traveling trophy.

And yet? Reported attendance for the Friday home opener was 3,005. For Saturday it was 2,070. The Michigan Tech series was around the same, while the Anchorage series had the largest announced attendance of any of the three series BSU has played so far this year. And that was when BSU ran a $12 ticket promotion.

I guess my biggest question, as an outsider, is this: Is the Bemidji market too tapped out? Are there enough fans to fill the Sanford Center for 18 games every season?

Maybe someone who’s more of a lifer can discuss this in the comments. What do you think? Bemidji is obviously a great hockey town with a passionate fanbase. But maybe the Sanford Center is a tad too big for the size of the community? The Glas was obviously a tad too small, but is the Sanford Center is a tad too big?

We will know more at the end of this season what BSU does to sort of “recapture the excitement” of the first season in the Sanford Center. But for now I’ll be interested to see what attendance figures look like for the rest of the season in light of this athletics report.

Denver comes to town this weekend. They’re ranked No. 10 in one rankings and No. 11 in another. I’ll try and blog about that series Thursday or Friday. Until then, I’d love to hear from readers about the attendance issue.

9 thoughts on “BSU athletics: Money talks

  1. When you look at the capacities of the other future WCHA arenas the SC isn’t that different: Mankato 4800, Anchorage 6200, Tech 4200, NMU 3700, etc. Is it too big? I think it’s about right and similar to everyone else. It’s helped recruiting which will help BSU remain competitive. BSU is in a better position because of the SC than most of the other future WCHA teams. Ever been to Ferris State? Their arena is like a bigger Glas just with seating on the ends and the other side.

    Another point is the building the SC was not necessarily contingent on BSU being in the WCHA if I remember the time line correctly. I think they broke ground on the SC before BSU even applied for admission into the WCHA.

    We took the family to the opening series against LSSU and my wife commented “where is everybody”. Both my wife and I attended grad school at UND (me undergrad at BSU) so we’re used to seeing loud, packed arenas and obnoxious student sections (remember the old REA? – that metal building got loud like the Glas did). Anyway….it was kind of bummer on the opening weekend against a former and future rival to see the empty seats.

    Putting a competitive team out there will certainly help attendence. The obvious answer perhaps. Even though they’ve been holding their own in the present WCHA a lower half team doesn’t attract the casual or bandwagon fans. If Bemidji can become perennial top three team in the new WCHA I think you will see addenence up tick a bit. Selling out might not be realistic but if you can get 3700 or so that’s a pretty decent crowd in there.

    I enjoyed your articles about the BSU athletic department. Keep up the good work.

    • I think you’re right that they did break ground before they applied… but there’s no QUESTION it was a big part of even being considered. I seem to remember Serratore being quoted as saying, basically, it wouldn’t have happened without a new facility of some kind.

      Either way, it’s a great place to watch hockey and a great place to play. And it doesn’t seem to have hurt them at all in the first year… when they made the Final Five run. So I think you’re right that a good team will help out immensely.

  2. I have some thoughts on this as a BSU Alum:

    1. Winning. As the Beavers proved in the Glas with the CHA teams, it doesn’t really matter who you are playing, consistent winning will put butts in the seats. The average sports fans are fickle and want to watch winners. Us diehards will show up no matter what, but bottom lines are determined by the average or casual fans.

    2. Ticket prices. Had BSU priced themselves out of the market? I could argue yes. If you look at tickets at Michigan Tech and Lake State, their tickets for the non-big boy games are around $12-$15. And if you go online and try to buy tickets for a BSU home game, Ticketmaster throws almost another $10 at you in fees. Those of us that are not in the Bemidji area, that makes it tough on the old pocketbook and the number of games they may attend, especially if you buy the tickets in advance at $22 a piece before they got knocked down to $12.

    3. Creativity in ticket plans. We had to let our season tickets go this year as Fridays just got to rushed with the family trying to make it up to Bemidji from the Alexandria area. We are just making up to Bemidji for Saturday games now. Take a look at plans at Lake State, they have a Friday season ticket, a Saturday season ticket, a full season ticket and a “Snowbird” plan (Home games through December 15).

    4. Atmosphere. The band is not there, the students, although down on the end of the opposing goalie, are below the glass and that drowns out their sound, and a half filled building with fans sitting on their hands kills the atmosphere. This place is not an intimidating place to come and play like the Glas was. Outside of the travel to Bemidji, opponents aren’t real fearful of the Sanford Center like they were the Glas.

    I think moving forward there is going to need to be some creativity in the ticket offerings. When Minnesota and UND come to town, there won’t be an issue getting butts in the seats. When the new WCHA teams come to town, it is going to be another story unless the Beavers are winning on a consistent basis. The last year at the Glas, tickets were under $20, it may take going back to those prices to get some crowds.

    Also, hopefully some flexibility/conflict resolution in scheduling can be worked out. Why do they schedule Basketball Games and Hockey games on the same weekend? You are splitting your student fan base.

    • Interesting points, guys, thanks for responding.

      I do think that winning will help out a lot. And I think they will be contending every year in the new WCHA.

      I like the idea behind season ticket plans though. I wish I would have known about some of those before I wrote the story so I could have included it. I will look into that more (see what all the other schools offer) and maybe do a blog post about it…

      Does anyone know what happened to the band? I know that three of the series have been on weird times for students (fall break, Thanksgiving break and upcoming with X-mas break), but I was expecting to see the band at the Tech series. Seems weird that they’re no longer there and I agree that it really adds to the atmosphere… the music that they play at games now is honestly a bit much and sounds more like a low minor league game than a college game.

      As far as the student atmosphere, the Tech series struck me as really good as far as turnout, but the rest have been lacking. That’s why I’ll be interested to see the student turnout this weekend. It may not be great with finals week but Denver is good so maybe they’ll get some kids needing a study break. (It’s kind of unfortunate, too, that both Denver and Western Michigan are coming in when they are… I don’t know if the students will be back from break when Western comes through Jan. 4 and 5.)

      Also, I wonder how easy it is to schedule games for hoops and hockey… I mean, the NSIC surely has a lot to do with how hoops games are scheduled. It would be nice if they could schedule basketball games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or Thursdays and Fridays, but the whole conference would need to do that and I’m going to guess that the non-hockey schools would not go for that since Friday and Saturdays are the easiest from a “not missing class” perspective.

    • To add to Millsy’s point #1

      Yes – fans will show up for a winner. In the new WCHA it will take a regular season championship and/or the conf playoff champ (autoqualifier) to make the NCAA. So the games become very meaningful especially if your’re in the top 3 or 4 of the league. A Bemidji-Tech series in February could be very meaninful in terms of conference playoff seeding or the NCAA at large bid bubble. Once fans figure out what the implications of a game or series are it will not matter if your’re playing Ferris or Denver – fans will still show.

  3. This comment is clueless “Center was probably a little too big and expensive for a program the size of Bemidji State to handle financially, but it was the type of arena schools like North Dakota and Denver demanded they get in order to join the WCHA(and subsequently save their program), shortly before those schools stabbed them in the back by leaving to form their own conference.”

    I am not sure why UND and DU are the ones that keep getting put out there as the bad guys, why is no one blaming PSU for college hockey blowing up? No one likes the I pretty sure that all that 10 team in the WCHA wanted BSU to get a new facility for hockey.

    • No one is blaming Penn State because that would be stupid. You’re really going to rip on a school for starting a hockey program when we’ve seen like five programs fold in the past 15 years? I’d rather see the sport expand than contract.

      It stinks that Minnesota and Wisconsin had to leave the WCHA, but the Big Ten is already an established conference. It’s not like they were deserting everybody else for some weird conference that doesn’t even exi… oh, right.

      In all seriousness, people blame UD and UND because they absolutely didn’t have to leave the conference. Even without Minnesota and Wisconsin, it would have been a pretty good 10 team league. I’m still not sure I’ve gotten a decent explanation as to why the NCHC needed to happen.

  4. Where is the band at hockey games? They were told they could no longer be accommodated because the music “interfered” with the media coverage of games. This in spite of the fact that there is a complete monitor/communication system set up, so that the director knows exactly when to start-stop the band. Either someone was too greedy to allow the band to continue to occupy seats, or it was just another feeble attempt to get rid of everything associated with the “old” hocky setting and focus on the shiny new Sanford Center.

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