New conference, new goals: Realigned league gives BSU hope, energy
The second in a two-part series examining the finances of the Bemidji State hockey program. Read part one here.
BEMIDJI – Bemidji State has seen a steady decline in both ticket revenue and attendance since the hockey program played its inaugural season in the Sanford Center.
The men’s program lost more than $90,000 in ticket revenue last season, compared to the initial 2010-11 season, the Beavers’ first as Sanford Center tenants and as a Western Collegiate Hockey Association member. Attendance also dropped, from an average of 3,876 per game to 3,521.
Now, getting fans to return – and restoring revenue to 2010-11 levels – becomes the paramount issue for BSU officials.
Selling season tickets – especially after seeing a dip of 26 percent in two years – is the starting point.
“There’s no doubt that season tickets are important,” BSU director of marketing and communications Scott Faust said. “They’re a real rock for us.”
But with a massive reshuffling of the college hockey landscape that will see the WCHA lose eight marquee teams, drawing fans back to the Sanford Center may be more of a challenge.
Starting next season, Minnesota and Wisconsin depart to the Big Ten Hockey Conference, while six other schools, including BSU regional rivals North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State, will help form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).
Joining the WCHA will be the likes of Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and Alaska Fairbanks – hardly the big-name teams that BSU fans were expecting to play when the Beavers joined the conference. WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said selling the new conference will be something he and member schools will have to overcome.
“That’s the challenge for us,” McLeod said. “I can see where people may be concerned. For Bemidji, it’s something the institution and Beaver Pride are going to have to look at, but I think we have some good ideas going forward.”
BSU officials said they are developing a plan to attract and retain fans, but selling an “experience” unique to BSU will be at the forefront of those efforts. The university also wants to keep its athletic alumni connected with each other and BSU, and increase its regional appeal.
“Success will require a wide-ranging effort, including event promotion, ticket marketing, social media, sponsorships, fundraising and student engagement, among other things,” Faust said in an email Monday.
Selling the Experience
Single-game tickets for BSU men’s games are priced differently depending on the opponent, but generally cost between $20 and $60 per seat.
For this weekend’s series against Denver, the cheapest ticket before fees is $22 and the most expensive is $32, according to Ticketmaster. After fees, those tickets end up costing $34.52 and $44.73, respectively.
If you want to see the Gophers, however, it’s going to cost you more. When Minnesota comes to town next Feb. 8-9, the cheapest tickets cost $32 and the most expensive costs $42. After fees, those tickets cost $44.73 and $54.94.
That’s nothing new – sports teams have always priced games differently for different opponents.
Games against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other have always been hot tickets.
But there’s a delicate balance at play, between making money and pricing out fans. In a smaller community like Bemidji the donor base – and potential season-ticket-holder base – is already smaller than it would be in a larger metropolitan area.
“We’re optimistic that we can grow our resources in this community,” Faust said. “But we’re still taking a new look at how to best package and market hockey tickets. We’re not very far along.”
One way to grow those resources is to find ways to attract people to the arena who haven’t been able to come in the past.
“What we want is to reach people with new opportunities to attend games,” Faust said. “We want to reach the people who, for whatever reason, have not been attending games. We want people to have a good experience at games and we want them to come back.”
That idea – of selling “experience” – worked well during a recent promotion in the Beaver men’s team’s last home series, Nov. 23-24 against Alaska Anchorage.
Tickets were $12 for both nights of the series against the Seawolves.
A total of 3,199 fans watched the Friday night game while 3,305 came on Saturday. And fans that weekend were treated to two very close games. The two teams tied Friday night while the Beavers won the Saturday night game 5-4 with a game-winning goal in the final minutes.
Faust didn’t have exact numbers, but said that promotion was a success, with approximately 600 additional tickets being sold each night.
“We may do that kind of thing from time to time,” Faust said. He made it clear that the discount was not the main idea behind the promotion, but it helped.
“We want to put an emphasis on the experience rather than the discount,” he said. “But every time we can get someone back to the arena, it’s a good thing for us.”
Faust said the fan experience focuses on entertainment.
“We appreciate that our fans have choices in how they spend their entertainment dollars, and we want them to attend as many games as possible,” Faust said in Monday’s email. “We will (be) taking the same approach to the fan experience for BSU football and other sports, as well.”
BSU plans to do more to reach fans across northern Minnesota, he said. “We believe there is appreciate for and pride in BSU in communities beyond the Bemidji region, especially when it comes to hockey,” Faust wrote. “We are eager to establish a greater connection with this ‘Beaver Nation.’”
Season Tickets a Goal
This year, hockey season ticket prices range from $295 to $845 apiece and include season tickets to the women’s hockey team.
Tickets at $445 and above include benefits of Beaver Pride membership – such as priority parking for football and hockey, season tickets to Division II events, participation in special events and discounted fitness memberships to the Gillett Recreation Center on campus.
According to the BSU ticketing website, better tickets in the arena’s “Beaver Pride” areas also required additional per-seat donations to Beaver Pride in addition to the base ticket price. Those per-seat donations range from $100 to $550, depending on location.
Currently, men’s and women’s hockey season tickets are linked – with men’s season-ticket holders automatically get women’s season tickets.
The women don’t generate ticket revenue like the men – projections this season are $10,000. And average attendance at women’s games is below 400 this season.
The budget for the women’s team is just shy $1 million, while the men’s team spends $1.63 million.
Finding a way to get the most out of both programs is something Faust said is in the works.
Faust said the school is looking into various options with regards to the women’s program – which expects to need $854,150 in institutional support this season.
One option is no longer packaging the men’s and women’s season tickets together. But BSU officials said they still don’t have concrete plans on that front.
“We’re looking at the whole operation of how we position, market and promote both programs to close the gap,” Faust said.
But it won’t be entirely up to fans to help fund its sports programs.
BSU wants to generate revenue for all its sports – including hockey –through contributions by its athletic alumni. The B-Club, launched last February, is open to all former Beaver athletes and designed to keep them connected. Members are encouraged to make financial contributions to the program in which they participated, or the athletics department in general.
“A related ongoing initiative is the establishment of national alumni committees for specific sports, beginning with hockey and football,” Faust said.
“We will look to these B-Club and committee members for future support as we continue to build the hockey program and stay competitive within the WCHA and Division I nationwide.”
Faust said that “recapturing the excitement” of that first year in the Sanford Center is the main goal.
But it’s hard to quantify how much of that excitement was because the Beavers joining a conference with powerhouse teams like Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. It didn’t hurt BSU was also coming off its second-straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
After this season, the WCHA will part ways with the Big Ten and NCHC schools. The conference will absorb five teams from the soon-to-be-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association (another casualty of conference realignment) to form what will essentially be a “mid-major” hockey conference.
WCHA commissioner McLeod said that’s an image the conference is working hard to counter.
“It’s certainly something we have to overcome,” the commissioner said in a phone interview for this article. “We’re still figuring out how to be successful from a marketing standpoint.”
Teams joining BSU in the conference next year include Minnesota State Mankato, Michigan Tech and Alaska Anchorage from the current WCHA and Bowling Green State, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Alaska Fairbanks from the CCHA.
The new-look league might take some getting used to. But McLeod said part of developing the new conference’s identity will revolve around what he calls “roots hockey.”
“We’re still working to develop an identity,” he said. “But the main thing is, this is what college hockey is all about. All of the schools in the league are smaller schools who have figured out how to be successful.”
Bemidji State and Ferris State have both been to the Frozen Four in the past five years. And other schools – Lake Superior, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Bowling Green – have won national titles before.
“The new WCHA is part of the story we need to tell,” Faust said of how the school plans to market the upcoming conference realignment. “There are a bunch of outstanding, competitive programs that are coming. And we’ll continue to play games against other teams that are part of our hockey tradition.”
So while the Beavers won’t regularly play many of its regional rivals, BSU believes it will still play good teams.
Outgoing athletic director Rick Goeb said the tentative schedule for next year includes North Dakota and Minnesota in nonconference play, and that it’s been the plan all along to schedule some of those regional rivals that will no longer be a part of the WCHA.
“We’re right down the road, so we’d like to play those regional teams that we’ve been playing for a long time,” Goeb said. “It doesn’t make much sense to hop on a plane when they’re close to us.”
Many other schools seem to realize that.
North Dakota and BSU are scheduled to play a home-and-home nonconference series next season, just like they did before the Beavers joined the WCHA.
And the creation of the “Minnesota Cup” – a tournament between the five Division I hockey schools in the state – is in the works. The Beavers aren’t scheduled to be in the tournament this season, so instead Minnesota will come to Bemidji.
Goeb said the new lineup of schools is “pretty exciting.” While the league might not have the glamour teams it once had, he said there’s a more realistic shot for BSU making the playoffs.
“I think the real upside to this is that people love to follow a program that’s doing well,” he said. “We hope that’s one of the products of a new conference.
“There are better opportunities for Bemidji State to host playoff games and make it to the national tournament.”
McLeod agreed, but acknowledged that it might be a challenge.
“If you look at how the teams are doing right now, the actual records of teams who will be in our league next year, we have a better than .500 winning percentage against the Big Ten and about .450 against the NCHC,” he said. “Perception is not reality. I mean, we’re trying to change the perception in a positive way.
“It might take a while to get used to it, but we’re going to be pretty damn competitive.”