Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Man Advantage... College Hockey on the Rise

When discussing revenue sports in the NCAA, the conversation has begun and ended with football and men’s basketball, largely. The day may be close where another sport joins the discussion with more regularity: men’s hockey.

A number of factors, including the rise of College Hockey Inc., improved talent, increased donor support, and the NHL contribute to this. Both SportsBusiness Journal and ESPN made mention of Mike Snee, former executive director of Minnesota Hockey, becoming the second executive director of College Hockey Inc (CHI). CHI works to promote hockey at the Division I level, encouraging elite athletes to go the college hockey route to further their careers.

For the longest time, elite young hockey players chose the CHL route to the NHL. As Adrian Dater of the Denver Post profiled, the college route is growing to be as attractive and high-quality a product as the CHL junior leagues, and as such have a great deal of NHL scouting attention at their games. Not only are NHL teams drafting players out of the college ranks, but they are also stowing players at traditional powerhouses like Denver, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado College, etc to develop.

This increase in talent also has led to a spike in financial interest. In an era where non-revenue sports are being cut and few schools are adding programs, Penn State actually has upgraded their club men’s hockey team to Division I level. Chris Botta of SBJ recently profiled PSU’s financial successes in their first season as a D-I program. The team has played to a capacity crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, as well as in front of impressive crowds at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center earlier this season. The team has also brought in financial support from Penn State graduate Terry Pegula (who also owns the NHL’s Sabres), who donated a total of $103 million, most of which is funding a new rink on campus. An additional $5 million has been raised toward their stated goal of $10 million in private gifts for the program. The future looks bright for Nittany Lions hockey, especially with the 2013-14 season beginning the era of Big Ten Conference hockey.

All of this could continue to weigh in the favor of college hockey—the NHL lockout, while damaging for the game as a whole, provided an opportunity for college hockey. Even before the lockout season, NBC Sports had signed on the previous year to broadcast 16 college hockey games leading up to the Frozen Four: with the lockout, NBC Sports likely had been looking to pick up more college games to offset the loss of programming. Furthermore, during the lockout, there was discussion about changing the minimum age requirement to play in the NHL (similarly to the NFL and NBA age requirements). These requirements would be a major boon for college hockey, as young athletes would be required to play elsewhere until they meet whatever new requirement. Increased quality of players increases competition, which can increase fan (and sponsor) interest. It all adds up to the growth of the sport (which can only be a good thing, right?)

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