Empty seats at DU’s Magness Arena/Photo: University of Denver
In October of 2010, Defending NCAA Champion Boston College came out to Denver to kick-off the DU hockey season with a weekend series. Capacity crowds of over 6,000 people jammed Denver’s Magness Arena on both Friday and Saturday nights. DU was swept in that series, but the DU crowds were rabid and engaged. It felt like playoff hockey.
Fast forward six years to October, 2016 – another opening DU weekend. Fifth-ranked Boston College, coming off a 2016 Frozen Four appearance, and Ohio State, a big sports name brand, were in town to face the Pios for the Icebreaker Tournament, with Denver also coming off its best season in 10 years with its own Frozen Four appearance and sporting a top three national ranking.
You would think that Magness would be rocking with a sellout crowd, right?
Not even close.
More like moribund.
The Friday night game attendance for DU vs OSU, which lists tickets distributed, was only 3,984 (66% full). A night later on Saturday, against major draw Boston College, only a few hundred more fans found their way into the house at 4,286 (71% full). The same October time frame (home opening weekend), and essentially the same top-level opponents, with the bonus of both DU and BC as Frozen Four teams last year. But six years later, we had nowhere near the same crowd size – over 2,000 people less on each night.
What is going on? Conventional logic says when you win more games, more fans will come out. But that’s no longer true for DU Hockey. DU’s Frozen Four Season last season averaged only 5,123 per game (85% of capacity, a drop of about 1,000 people per game from the capacity crowds DU was drawing about 10 years ago. DU Season ticket renewals were less this year after a Frozen Four appearance then they were the year before (about 80%).
A lot has changed in 10 years. DU has been a winning hockey program in all of those years, but a controversial coaching change in 2013 may have something to do with the reduced crowds in recent years. DU game-night costs (tickets/parking/concessions) have risen, too, but are not out of line with general inflation and still a huge bargain compared to pro sports. At the same time, Denver’s student population has grown a bit since then, as has the Colorado population (by over 400,000) since 2010.
A broader look reveals that top college hockey programs in major metro areas have seen similar attendance drops over the same time period. Boston College averaged less that 5,000 per game last year, despite multiple NCAA titles over the last 10 years, as BC averaged about 5,300 10 years ago. Boston University, another successful program, has dropped from 5,400 per game 10 years ago to 4,300 per game last year.
Certainly competition for those urban crowds has grown in those 10 years, with more sports and entertainment offerings, including better Internet/social media, smartphones, 500-channel cable and satellite TV, HDTV, streaming film/video, and immersive video gaming as well as a more cosmopolitan city and recreational options. In short, while we have more population to draw from, we also have more competition, unlike college teams in smaller cities or towns.
And you’ll always hear from many that Fall is football season in Colorado, and hockey doesn’t even come on the radar here until the snow falls. That certainly shows in Denver hockey crowds, which tend to grow as the season moves on, but the fear now that full arenas are now rarities, when they should be certainties.
From a student standpoint, student crowds are dropping, too. While the DU student section can hold up to 700 fans (and usually does for rivalry games vs. Colorado College), the typical student crowds are now around 300, and sometimes less for some opponents. Why? Skiing and other easy residential entertainment is always an issue here, but the other big factor is DU’s student body has become much more studious over the last 10 years, with entering freshmen now averaging a 3.77 GPA, with 40% this year’s class having 4.0 averages or better in high school. Sports likely just don’t matter to as many of them. Greek houses, whose members used to attend DU games en masse, no longer do so. More disturbingly, the majority of DU student hockey crowds have been leaving games early, even when games are close, especially last weekend.
This isn’t unique to DU, either. Student crowds around the country have also been declining in football and basketball in recent years, some 7% between 2009 and 2014, according the Wall Street Journal.
So we know the issues, and we know the probable causes. What can be done to turn this around? Here are 10 quick ideas off the top of my head:
1. Advertising/Promotion– DU used to do much more of this, but it’s a bit less visible now. Be creative.
2. Cultivate group attendance – people follow peers. Way more could be done here.
3. Campus buzz – having coaches and players who can get students out to games could really help
4. Pre-game Tailgates – harder for hockey due to cold, but its worked well for lacrosse. Perhaps a big tent might work if campus buildings are off limits.
5. Increase communications – Social media has improved, but there can be more done here, too.
6. Dial back the ushers – DU has done better on game night experience, but Magness still can be over-strict at times. Let the fans have fun, within reason.
7. Ticket access – free is nice for some students, but it may affect perceived ticket value and may be contributing to early game departures.
8. More traditions/collegiate experience – DU can always do more with its sports traditions to create more DU-specific memories, unity and meaning. Invest more into game day experience (band, cheer, dance team, displays, videos, etc)
9. Technology – Look into using ticket scanners for exit as well as entry, and reward those who show up and who stay for the whole game. Create an in-game app to enrich the experience for people who are already on their smartphones anyway.
10. Cut down the game schedule – Counterintuitive, but some fans complain that there are just too many home games (19 this year), making it easier to say no to using season tickets and yes to other weekend activities. College sports leaders across the country are also mulling the idea of a 10% schedule reduction as tool for student-athlete welfare, cost reduction and creating more scarcity of events to drive demand. NCAA Hockey coaches may not like that, as they compete for top recruits who also can choose 80-game schedules in Major Junior hockey.
We’d love to hear your ideas! Please comment!
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically here at LetsGoDU.