Full disclosure: I am a casual hockey fan at best and that may even be reaching, but ever since 2007 when I was at the University of Iowa, I have wanted a Division I hockey team and fully believe they should have one. That dream could potentially be a reality as the city of Coralville looks to secure funding for a nearly $50 million, 6,216-seat arena, already known as the “Iowa Arena”.
According to Coralville.org, the Iowa Arena, which would be built in the Iowa River Landing, would support the U of I club hockey team, youth teams, and officials are looking at establishing another United States Hockey League (USHL) team. There are currently five USHL teams in the state (most notably Iowa City’s neighboring Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and Des Moines Buccaneers). Building a new stadium would already elevate the hockey club team from a D-2 to a D-I club designation, which is top tier for non-NCAA programs.
You may have heard the news that Notre Dame is set to join the conference for hockey for the 2017-18 season, bringing the Big Ten to seven teams with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. The conference is rather new, beginning in the 2013-14 season, but surely they would love to get their eighth team and more if possible. Additionally, there has been some talk already coming out of Nebraska and Illinois about upgrading their programs from club to varsity, but at this point it is just noise.
Football will always reign supreme at the University of Iowa, with basketball second. But a hockey team would easily compete with wrestling for the third spot in attendance figures. In actuality, it could even do better, but with a much smaller arena compared to Carver-Hawkeye, there is a certainly a ceiling for attendance.
Look, I am not blind to the fact that hockey is an expensive sport – Arizona State just recently transitioned into a D-I hockey program and now has an operating cost of $2.5 million per year, which includes 18 new scholarships. So, the question is, would a hockey program make it worthwhile for Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and company to even consider investing their time? Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s worth would all depend on striking a deal with the city of Coralville to split proceeds for tickets and concessions. Additionally, the Big Ten has to be chomping at the bit to get more hockey teams and might be able to help fund a new program or at least help get it off the ground. After all, we already know the money they have just in the Big Ten Tier One television rights, which is $500 million per year. One would think they could even receive some sizable donations from the Iowa faithful for an exciting sport like hockey. Additionally, many of the students and alumni at Iowa hail from Illinois with a big Chicago Blackhawks following, so the hockey roots are already in place.
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The Big Ten is the hockey capital of the U.S. and dominate attendance numbers with five of their seven teams in the Top-10 and the other two, Ohio State (No. 11) and newcomer Notre Dame (No. 16), just outside of it. The Minnesota Golden Gophers (No. 2) and Wisconsin Badgers (No. 3) are no surprise with their rich histories, however Penn State (No. 7) has zero hockey tradition after gaining D-I status just recently in 2012. In fact, the Nittany Lions are at 105.4 percent capacity with an average attendance of 6,093 in a 5,782-seat arena. The Iowa Arena is not much bigger than Penn State’s and assuredly would produce similar numbers.
Should Iowa move to D-I competition and be able to split proceeds with the city of Coralville, the next step would be to talk to the Board of Regents about permitting beer sales, and, really, that could just strictly be for Iowa hockey. According to a New York Times article titled, “Beer Here! Beer Here?” beer sales have been very strong at schools like West Virginia, where their football program rakes in $500,000-plus alone each season. And, according to the Associated Press, of the 21 beer-selling schools that own and operate their stadiums, about half their concessions revenue is derived from alcohol. Several of those teams have also reported that alcohol-related incidents at the stadium sharply declined, including West Virginia, who like Iowa, maintains a party school persona. It would be a win-win for both Coralville and Iowa athletics.
A move to D-I would mean the U of I would need to add a women’s sport as well, to comply with Title IX rules. Arizona State weighed their options and ultimately decided on women’s lacrosse and the women’s triathlon as their 24th and 25th varsity sports. The $32M they received to fund the hockey program also helped fund a women’s program. On top of that, they also received a grant from USA Triathlon. That is three more sports than the Hawkeyes currently have in their rotation and would be the two sports that I think would work best, should Iowa get a hockey team. As much as I would love to see a women’s hockey team too, it would be overly expensive to carry both. Lacrosse is a much cheaper option than hockey and according to U.S. Lacrosse, it is the fastest-growing NCAA sport. It is wildly popular on the East Coast and Iowa would get plenty of exposure over there, playing the likes of Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State. Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan also have programs in the Big Ten Conference.
Not only would Iowa do well with attendance, but unlike many new programs, they could be competitive within a couple of years of the program being launched. Penn State debuted with a 13-14 record in 2012, dropped back to 8-26-2, and then went 18-15-4 last year – very impressive and respectable for a new program, especially in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes could do equally as well if not better than that with five USHL teams in the state. More than that, there are 17 USHL teams in the Midwest, and it is considered to be the top junior ice hockey league in the U.S. In fact, Cedar Rapids took top honors this year in winning the Anderson Cup. So, there is plenty of talent right there for the taking, given they will have to compete with the likes of top teams like the Gophers and Badgers.
My final point is merchandising. There is no doubt that Iowa fans love to wear their black and gold colors and hockey merchandise would make a killing, especially initially. There is no doubt that football leads the way when it comes to merchandise sales at the U of I, but I believe that hockey could end up selling the second-most items. Add the potential for a Big Ten Championship, playoffs or even a Frozen Four appearance and sales would be off the charts, just like this year’s Rose Bowl merchandise. With only seven Big Ten teams and 60 NCAA teams, the Hawkeyes have an easier path to winning the Big Ten or going deep in the playoffs as opposed to sports like football with 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams or basketball with 351 teams. Simply put, it is just one more potential revenue stream for Iowa.
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To get even crazier, the Hawkeyes could eventually step out of the box again —similar to what they did when they wrestled at Kinnick Stadium last year — and put a hockey rink inside Kinnick. Heck, maybe that could be the first D-I game they play or against Minnesota or Wisconsin. Could you imagine? Playing hockey at football fields has of course been done before, but fans would come out in waves for it. For now, it is just a dream, similar to the rest of my points, but a guy can sure hope.
Iowa City is an ideal hockey location; a party school reputation in a quaint town. And, if you are going to do it, there is no better time than right now. To paraphrase a quote from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come”, and if Big Ten hockey is indicative of anything, it is precisely that. Now, let’s get the conversation going.
*Special thanks to Chris Burns who contributed to this article.