On Gophers hockey game nights, the Buffalo Wild Wings across the street from Mariucci Arena still draws a lively crowd. But on a recent Friday, all it took to kill the lighthearted mood was one innocent question: So, how do you like Big Ten hockey?
Even though most of the bar’s crowd was headed to the Gophers’ game against Penn State, table after table wished they were going to cheer against North Dakota or Minnesota Duluth. Those decades-old rivalries still burned bright, nearly three years after the Gophers’ move from the WCHA to the Big Ten. Penn State, on the other hand, didn’t raise the room’s temperature one degree.
“It’s Hockey Day Minnesota, and we’re playing these guys?” said Adam Holten, wearing a Gophers jersey bearing the old WCHA logo. “I’m not a fan [of the Big Ten]. Give me the old rivalries, the old traditions.”
University athletic officials acknowledge that a major chunk of their fan base shares Holten’s opinion. In the Gophers’ third season as a member of the six-team Big Ten, they still are working to win over people who believe the new league offers inferior competition and who miss being part of an elite, history-laden conference that included the state’s four other Division I programs.
There is no going back. Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said the league is committed to hockey for the long term. The Gophers are obligated to stay the course, enduring the growing pains that come with such a monumental change.
Sales of season tickets rose slightly in the first year of Big Ten play but have fallen in each of the past two years, from 7,394 in 2013-14 to 6,732 this season. Announced average attendance this season is 9,788 — 98 percent of capacity — but has dropped to its lowest level since 2011-12.
The actual number of tickets scanned per game also has fallen since the Gophers left the WCHA, from 8,162 in 2012-13 to 7,604 last year. Scalpers outside Mariucci say they are getting $15 for tickets with a face value of $45, and many go unsold even at that price.
The Big Ten tournament has been a disappointment, too, with attendance a fraction of the 87,295 that packed Xcel Energy Center for the last WCHA tournament in 2013. Traviolia, the league’s liason for men’s hockey, said the conference is assessing everything — including the tournament logistics and the Big Ten Network’s coverage of the sport — and called its first three seasons “a learning experience.”
Traviolia expects Big Ten hockey to evolve, with potential expansion and cooperative ventures with other leagues among the options being discussed. He also anticipates that programs such as the Gophers and Wisconsin will return to national prominence, which he views as a key ingredient to the league’s prestige. Only No. 6 Michigan is ranked among the top 10, and the Big Ten is 39-39-11 against other conferences this season.
Holten, a Minneapolis native who now lives in Fargo, said he is optimistic the conference will find its footing eventually. But that doesn’t fill the void he still feels, three years after the disintegration of the old WCHA.
“I bleed maroon and gold, so I still support [the Gophers],” Holten said. “But it’s not as easy as it used to be.”
Messing with tradition
It’s no surprise that the transition to the Big Ten has been challenging for fans. College hockey remains a largely regional sport, with its appeal deeply rooted in geographic rivalries, long-running traditions, history and nostalgia.
That heritage permeates Mariucci Arena, which overflows with photographs and display cases chronicling nearly a century of program lore. The night of the Gophers’ 4-1 victory over Penn State, four U seniors sat in the student section and reminisced about the good old days of their freshman year.
Joe Budenske of Edina spoke wistfully of a North Dakota-Gophers game, calling it the most fun he ever had. At the Penn State game, there were pockets of empty seats, and the best insult the band could muster was to play “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“I remember games against UMD when they had standing-room tickets, and you could barely see the ice because there were so many people,” said Nick Omodt of Edina. “Now, a lot more students are selling their tickets to Big Ten games. We had better competition and more rivalries in the WCHA, and [the Gophers] gave that up. It’s disappointing.”
Senior associate athletic director Tom McGinnis, who oversees Gophers hockey, emphasizes that the school did not choose to end an affiliation with the WCHA that dated to the league’s founding in 1951. Penn State upgraded its club program to varsity status in 2012-13, giving the Big Ten six members that sponsored the sport — enough to form its own hockey conference and hold a tournament that offered an automatic NCAA tournament berth to the winner. Existing Big Ten members were required to go along.
The loss of long-standing conference rivalries has been the biggest fan complaint. Others include a schedule that places some games outside the traditional structure of Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., and unhappiness with coverage on the Big Ten Network.
It hasn’t helped, either, that the league has not had wide national success. Two Big Ten teams made the NCAA tournament in the conference’s first season, and only the Gophers — who won the Big Ten tournament — got in last year. Some fans said the Gophers’ two Big Ten regular-season crowns are not meaningful, because the conference isn’t as difficult to win as others.
Traviolia believes that has been the greatest obstacle to acceptance of Big Ten hockey. “Unfortunately, we haven’t brought home those national titles that our schools are accustomed to having,” he said. “When [fans’] teams aren’t faring as well as they would like, it’s, ‘Well, Big Ten hockey hasn’t lived up to its expectations.’ If in three years we would have had three different national champions, then creating Big Ten hockey would have been the greatest invention ever.
“We’re not where we want to be. But I’m very confident we have the right people and places, and the right support from our campuses, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Traviolia said those competitive struggles have had a major effect on the Big Ten tournament as well. In 2014, the five-game event drew a total announced crowd of 42,610 to Xcel Energy Center; last year, it moved to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, where the announced attendance was a dismal 16,144. The announced total for the 2013 WCHA Final Five — the last before conference realignment — was 87,295.
The Big Ten tournament returns to Xcel this season, with little apparent buzz. Tickets are not being sold for the upper deck, indicating limited interest. One Gophers fan group has rechristened its annual league tournament party as the “B1G Mistake tailgater,” mimicking a banner displayed by spectators at the first tournament.
McGinnis said the U surveyed fans earlier this season to hear their grievances and is trying to address issues within its control. While he understands their ire, he is heartened by those who are willing to see if the league grows on them.
“There are some frustrations, because this isn’t what they were used to for so many years,” he said. “But some have acknowledged that in time, hopefully we will have some of the same type of rivalries within the Big Ten that we experienced in the WCHA.”
And, perhaps, some rivalries that are reawakened. Gophers coach Don Lucia noted that Michigan and Michigan State belonged to the WCHA in its early years, and the Gophers’ history with the Wolverines dates to 1923 — a longer span than the rivalry against North Dakota.
“Change is never easy,” Lucia said. “And we’re only a couple years in.
“These are good teams. People just aren’t used to us playing Penn State or Ohio State. Let’s not complain just because it’s different. Let’s embrace the new.”
The bottom line
Many fans assume Big Ten hockey was a money grab, created primarily to bring more riches to the league and its schools. That hasn’t happened — at least, not yet — for the Gophers.
Ticket revenue last season increased slightly compared with the final year in the WCHA, and announced attendance is second only to North Dakota among Division I schools. But the downturn in actual attendance means fewer fans are in the arena to spend money on concessions and souvenirs. McGinnis said the conference switch also means the Gophers no longer receive the annual $400,000 to $450,000 they used to earn through a TV deal with Fox Sports North and their share of WCHA Final Five revenues.
The program’s total revenue was $5.73 million last season, compared with $5.98 million in 2012-13. On the other side of the ledger, McGinnis said the move to the Big Ten caused the Gophers’ travel expenses to rise by about $380,000 per season, because they are flying more often.
Men’s hockey is still profitable, and McGinnis said its financial outlook is “very positive.” But he noted that changing leagues did not bring any additional money from the Big Ten, which shares revenue equally among member schools regardless of the sports they sponsor.
The economic impact has been felt keenly on the corner outside Mariucci. Two longtime ticket scalpers who declined to give their names said the Big Ten change has decimated their business. When the Gophers played North Dakota or other Minnesota schools, the pair sold hundreds of tickets to fans from both sides. Now, demand from Gophers followers is down — which they attributed to the conference move — and supporters of other Big Ten schools aren’t traveling. Before the Friday game against the Nittany Lions, the two were largely ignored as they stood hawking tickets in the cold.
“Penn State? No one comes from there,” said one seller. “And no one [locally] is interested in seeing Penn State or Ohio State. They need to go back to the old league.”
Despite all the angst in Minnesota, the Big Ten is a big hit on the one campus that had no Division I hockey history. Penn State’s announced attendance of 6,093 per game at Pegula Ice Arena — 105.4 percent of capacity — is seventh-highest in the country.
“Any time any Big Ten team comes to Pegula Arena, the fans go nuts,” Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We play the Big Ten in anything, and they’re drinking it up.”
Gadowsky, who played in the WCHA at Colorado College, said the potential for Big Ten hockey is “tremendous.” He believes the league’s national reputation will benefit college hockey in the long run.
Traviolia agrees, pointing to last month’s Big Ten Super Saturday, a basketball/hockey doubleheader, that drew 13,479 fans to a Penn State-Michigan hockey game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden as “one example of the Big Ten being able to leverage our resources.” The event, he added, “presented Big Ten hockey and college hockey to a larger group of people that wouldn’t have watched that game had it been kept on campus.”
To further promote the sport, the Big Ten must mature as a conference. Traviolia said the league is examining areas such as scheduling, tournament operations and telecasts on the Big Ten Network. The Gophers have drawn an average rating of .4 in their six most recent conference games on BTN, including a January game against Michigan State that barely registered at .1. By comparison, Wild games on FSN routinely draw ratings four or five times as high.
Traviolia acknowledged that initial viewership did not meet the network’s high expectations. This offseason, he said, league officials will meet with BTN representatives to discuss scheduling, presentation and non-game programming. The league also is seeking greater distribution on Canada’s cable networks.
Lucia said he believes the only thing the Big Ten is missing is more teams, and it is considering its expansion options. Traviolia does not anticipate any current members adding hockey, unless they receive a $100 million donation to do so, as Penn State did.
But the Big Ten opened the door for affiliate membership — inviting a school to join the conference in one sport — when it added Johns Hopkins lacrosse in 2014-15. Traviolia said all six Big Ten coaches believe expansion would strengthen the league. While it is not imminent, he added, affiliate membership “is something we can consider” going forward.
The Big Ten also will reevaluate its tournament, whose current deal to rotate between St. Paul and Detroit will end after next season, and consider a “super tournament” format that would feature multiple conferences playing their tournaments on the same weekend in close proximity. A nonconference series with other leagues patterned after basketball’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge also is a possibility.
New ideas like these might be needed to dethaw the current fan-conference relationship.
“They’re in the third year, and it’s not getting better,” said Matt Warhol of Andover, among the crowd at Buffalo Wild Wings before the Penn State game. “I used to want season tickets, but now, it’s not worth it.”
One thing, however, is indisputable: there is no turning back the clock. Lucia hopes that eventually, fans of a sport wrapped so tightly in history will be able to look to the future.
“I think if the Big Ten adds a good quality team or two, and you look five years down the road, it will be the new norm,’’ Lucia said. “It’s not going to be the new conference forever. I still think in the long term, it can be a good thing. But people have to embrace it.’’