Why Arizona State adding men's ice hockey is a really big deal
Arizona State's decision to add men's ice hockey has the chance to forever alter the landscape in college hockey and open new doors to big growth.
Arizona State University made news in a realm you’d least likely expect Tuesday when the school’s athletics department announced that NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey was coming to campus. The school is elevating its highly successful club hockey program over a transitional period spanning the next three seasons.
It was a shocking announcement that didn’t even have legitimate rumors swirling widely in the tightly-knit college hockey community before it became official. After all, Arizona State is on an island as far as college hockey is concerned, with their closest future Division I opponents residing in Colorado. Additionally, no other Pac 12 school sponsors hockey.
To the outside observer, hockey at Arizona State would seem to make such little sense. A difficult climate for collegiate athletics, an expensive sport that would require 18 scholarships, a travel budget the size of Sun Devil Stadium, and a non-traditional hockey market that already is home to a scuffling NHL team? It would appear to be a tough sell, but it found a buyer.
A gift of $32 million from a pool of donors is making this possible. And though it may not make sense to that outside observer, we probably should have seen this coming and have to be open to the possibilities this stunning development creates.
When Penn State University received an enormous gift from billionaire Terry Pegula to start their own hockey team, it was seen as the beginning of meaningful expansion in college hockey. Soon after, college hockey’s landscape went through massive realignment starting with the forming of the Big Ten’s six-team hockey conference.
Now Arizona State adds an entirely new and unexpected element to the shift in college hockey. They will become the 60th Division I team and their arrival could actually end up being more significant than Penn State’s, which seems almost impossible.
As much as Penn State’s impact is continuing to be felt and as much of an opportunity it creates for expansion in the Big Ten, Arizona State’s arrival could open doors that seemed impossible to crack.
“It is always exciting when a school announces it is going to add varsity hockey, but this is different,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc., the independent marketing arm of NCAA hockey. “Arizona State elevating its successful men’s ACHA team to NCAA Division I is a defining moment for college hockey. The tremendous growth of hockey participation in the southwestern United States has been well documented and having an NCAA Division I school offering hockey in this part of the country is actually overdue. Hopefully Arizona State will be the first of many schools in new areas to offer the sport.”
Adding hockey is no small job, but like Penn State before it, Arizona State’s arrival creates opportunity for others.
With the success of the Big Ten hockey conference in terms of generating revenue for the conference’s television network, the Pac 12 could become similarly intrigued by the possibility of adding hockey to its own network down the line. It was something Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson addressed in his remarks after announcing the new team.
Anderson said he has already spoken with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and Scott likes the idea of expanding hockey throughout the conference, both as a possible revenue sport and as a sport that would fit well on the conference's TV networks.
"You put those things together along with the growth of hockey on the West Coast and you've got something," Anderson said. "We're the Pac-12. We want to potentially have our own conference. The Big Ten has one.
"There's no timeline per se. I think they were a little stunned that we would have the boldness and the wherewithal to get it done. Now that they know this is true, I believe they will be very encouraging with the other Pac-12 schools and maybe do it in shorter order than anybody thought."
It’s so much easier said than done, of course, with the financial commitment required to the sport, the necessity of complying with Title IX and the current logistics as they are with college hockey so much a north and east sport.
However, the big difference between Arizona State and Penn State is in the money that was dropped to get off the ground.
Penn State’s blueprint for adding hockey was what every school probably wishes they could do, but Pegula’s gift of more than $100 million makes what they did near impossible to replicate. Arizona State is making the jump with far less money being dropped by their donors.
With that in mind, Sun Devil hockey becomes college hockey’s new guinea pig. If they can build something there, other schools and, more directly big money donors to those schools, may be more motivated to act knowing it can be done at that cost.
There are going to be challenges for ASU hockey, however. So let’s take a look at what they’ll have to do to make this work and perhaps inspire further expansion.
Arena Situation: Arizona State currently does not have an on-campus arena that would be suitable for a Division I team. They do have options, however, and are examining those. According to reports, the most likely destination is U.S. Airways Center, home of the Phoenix Suns. It would require students to take a light rail to get to games, which is easily accessible. There’s also the option of renovating Wells Fargo Arena where the basketball team players. The ideal scenario would be to build a new arena, but they don’t have the funds currently. One could come down the line and probably will have to if ASU wants to have long-sustained success on the ice and in the ticket booth.
Gaining a Following: A lot of this could depend on the student situation, but if the team is going to be able to become self-sustaining in the coming years, they have to sell tickets. If the arena is off campus, that will become harder to attract a faithful fan base. Seeing Penn State's building packed night in and night out despite a so-so record shows the value of being on campus. That said, the novelty of hockey at ASU could help bring in some curious observers. They'll need to transfer those people into repeat customers. Knowing that the Arizona Coyotes have a lot of challenges drawing in the desert definitely leaves some room for concern.
Recruiting: This really shouldn’t be all that hard. ASU will have every recruit wanting to at least take an official visit to see the campus (and that might be enough to get them to sign). There’s no school in college hockey like this currently and that’s an advantage. That said, the best players in the country still are looking for a place that will prepare them for a possible pro career. ASU has decided to retain head coach Greg Powers from the club team, and while he deserves to get a crack at this, top players across the country are going to want assurances that they will be developed there as well. That’s something that will need to be proven over time, unless ASU brings in a big-name college coach with a track record eventually. They’re still going to attract players, especially with the growing number of prospects being cultivated in their own region with California and Arizona sending more players on to higher levels.
Conference Situation: Well, we know the Pac 12 doesn’t have any other hockey teams. Maybe they will one day, but until then, the Sun Devils are going to need a conference to call home. The team plans to play a split Division I and club hockey schedule next year, play as an independent the following year and become a full-time Division I school with a conference by 2017. The most likely destination in terms of geography is probably the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. That league features a few other Division I schools like Miami University and Western Michigan, as well as college hockey powers Denver and North Dakota among others. That conference would still leave some challenging travel for ASU, but all would.
Overall Vision: Arizona State says that it plans to roll out more concrete plans and structure over the next six to nine months, so it’s prudent to reserve judgment until then. That said, getting this program off the ground properly is going to take vision, patience and some incredible planning. The challenges the school will face are obvious, but how to deal with those hurdles is less certain. As head coach and steward of the program, a lot of that rests on Greg Powers, but he’s going to need help. The financial commitment is a great start, now they have to take the ball and run with it.
Of all the college athletics, hockey is certainly not part of the mainstream. The fact that many of the schools that play Division I college hockey are not known as well to the wider world of sports consumers has probably impacted the sport’s ability to grow in both notoriety and overall campus presence.
With power-conference schools like Penn State and Arizona State joining the fold, hockey now having an established brand like the Big Ten and the new possibilities all of that brings, this could be a very exciting time for college hockey.
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