CHAMPAIGN, IL (May 12, 2019) – When Collegiate Consulting looked at the potential for the University of Illinois to start a Division I men’s hockey program, it chose as a case study — or perhaps a role model for the UI — what may be the most successful young hockey program in the country.
Penn State University returned to Division I hockey in 2013 (there had been a varsity program briefly in the 1940s) as a member of a Big Ten league that included five other teams (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State). Notre Dame joined the league in 2017. In its first six seasons, Penn State hockey has compiled an overall winning record of 112-96-19 and a respectable conference record of 53-65-7, and has made the NCAA tournament twice.
It also has been an extraordinary success in the stands and apparently — in the torturous world of college athletics finance you can never be sure — financially as well.
Average attendance for 23 games this season was 5,801 — seventh-greatest in the NCAA — in an arena with a capacity of 5,704. In another recent season, crowds were 104 percent of the arena capacity. (Three more established Big Ten schools — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State — reported even greater average attendance than Penn State).
And in its most recent financial report to the NCAA, Penn State said that its men’s hockey program had revenue of $4.3 million and expenses of $3.85 million, or a net of about half a million dollars. It was one of only three of the 31 athletic programs at Penn State (along with football and men’s basketball) to finish in the black even though it gets no television rights revenue like the “big two” sports. Penn State also has a 6-year-old varsity women’s ice hockey program. It had revenue of about $1 million and expenses of $2.3 million for a net loss of about $1.2 million.
Before the PSU hockey program could be a success, though, it had to have a new arena. It was fortunate enough to have a single benefactor in Terry Pegula, a billionaire Penn State alum and owner of the Buffalo Sabres NHL team who gave a total of $102 million toward construction of the Pegula Ice Arena, which includes not only the varsity rink but a smaller facility for use by youth hockey teams and the community.
Illinois doesn’t appear to have a single donor with Pegula’s financial heft to build a similar arena. But UI Athletic Director Josh Whitman said last month on WDWS that he remains confident he can round up the resources to build a hockey program.
“It still is an awful lot of money,” the athletic director said. “I think if we are able to bring this to fruition, it will be perhaps the most rewarding project that I’ll ever undertake, just because of the number of different people and the variety of the organizations that have had to come around the table to make it possible. This will be a true community undertaking.”
He indicated he’s getting close to the long-awaited decision on making Illinois the eighth member in a Big Ten hockey league.
“I know the timeline has continued to be pushed out. Each time we get to a threshold moment, I think the question I always ask is are we within range here? Does it make sense for us to continue to move after this? Or at some point, do we need to accept, look, this isn’t going to work and start to devote our resources in a different direction?” Whitman said. “At least to date, each time we’ve gotten to one of those forks in the road, I’ve felt like we’ve been in the midst of positive momentum. We’ve been making positive steps, and that we are remaining within range of a yes.”
Like Penn State, Illinois is in an area with a high interest both in youth hockey and professional hockey. Illinois has among the greatest number of youth players (more than 22,000 in 2017) in the country. And although there is no Division 1 program in the state, Illinois is home to the fourth-most Division 1 players in the country, according to Collegiate Consulting Report, which did the feasibility study for the UI last year. The UI also sits in between Chicago and St. Louis, two bitter rivals and high attendance franchises in the National Hockey League, just as Penn State is split by followers of NHL teams in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Should Illinois closely follow the Penn State model fans should expect to pay about $1,000 to $300 for a season ticket or $60 to $15 for a single game ticket.