PantherU

College hockey must be on the docket for Milwaukee Panthers

There is an old adage that you’ve got to spend money to make money. This is, at its base, why the Milwaukee Bucks are getting a brand new arena north of the Bradley Center, an arena that was obsolete almost immediately after it was built. It’s also why the Milwaukee Panthers need to look beyond hoops if they are going to become a profitable college sports program. A second revenue sport could go a long way towards financial solvency for our beloved athletics department on the East Side.

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Club Hockey plays in the ACHA, the same level that produced Penn State and Arizona State.

Before you start lacing up your cleats, I’m going to kill your hopes for football. Take it from the guy who spent years as the lead drum-beater for a Milwaukee Panthers foray into Division I football. Is there a way for a Milwaukee Panthers program to make money? Absolutely. But a college football program would cost upwards of $5 million per year, and that’s just to have a I-AA program that would almost never be on television.

To have a nationally elite I-A program, the Panthers would have to spend almost $20 million per year, and that’s just to get a shot; there’s no guarantee that they would ever get there. To put it short: if money was no object, we’d already be playing football. But money is important. And in football, the haves are so far ahead of the have-nots that we may never see a Boise State even get in the college football playoff, let alone win the whole thing.

Just by reading the title, you know this post has nothing to do with football, but I feel like I need to kill it off once and for all before people start yelling “FOOSBALL!!!1!!” The honest truth is that football can not and will not be an answer for the Milwaukee Panthers. We’ve had our dance with the sport (41 years undefeated!). It’s time to move on.

The middle of summer is an odd time for a discussion about Division I ice hockey, but the time is anything but odd for serious discussions to start taking place about bringing the sport to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Five years ago, a Division I hockey team could have been possible, but it would have been a little more difficult, a little harder to drum up support for the potential program. But a few years ago, the first domino fell, knocking down a row that leads to the conversation we are having today. That domino? Pennsylvania State University’s move to NCAA Division I ice hockey.

In NCAA rules, a conference must maintain six members to be eligible for automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Panthers fans should be familiar with this rule from our recent flirtation with ineligibility due to only having five baseball playing members. Adding Oakland and Northern Kentucky have brought the Horizon League from the brink of losing its baseball automatic bid. The Penn State Nittany Lions created the Big Ten.

Milwaukee could fill a void in the WCHA or NCHC.

Milwaukee could fill a void in the WCHA or NCHC.

When Penn State committed to bringing its ACHA club hockey team up to full scholarship NCAA D-I, the Big Ten found itself with six members playing ice hockey. So, the Nittany Lions were joined by five other schools: Wisconsin and Minnesota left the WCHA, and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State left the CCHA. The Big Ten finally got to put its own brand on a conference, and more importantly gained programming for the Big Ten Network.

This caused something of a vacuum. With some of the best programs gone from the CCHA and WCHA, several elite programs left both conferences to form the brand new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Anchored by North Dakota, they’re joined by Colorado College, Miami (OH), Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Omaha, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan. It’s a pretty solid conference, with member schools pulling four national championships since 2000.

The WCHA, having lost schools to both the NCHC and Big Ten, absorbed the rest of the now-defunct CCHA. Despite looking like the leftover conference, the WCHA is still one of the best conferences in D-I. Member schools have eight national titles between them and two schools made it into the sixteen-team NCAA Tournament this year (one more than the Big Ten).

What do these two conferences have in common with each other? A big, Wisconsin-shaped hole right in the middle of them.

But do the Milwaukee Panthers fit into either conference as more than just a geographically-close member? Should the Panthers spend an incredible amount of money to get into Division I ice hockey?

Ice hockey would be considerably less expensive than football.

Ice hockey would be considerably less expensive than football.

The answer is no – not because they shouldn’t do it, but because it won’t cost an incredible amount of money. A study done a couple of years ago at UWM found that the Panthers would have to spend about $750,000 to start-up an ice hockey program, which is a pittance in comparison to the start-up costs of college football. The costs are small, enough to sustain a program easily, perhaps enough to make a profit for the university on day one.

Beyond the start-up costs, competitive hockey teams can spend as little as $500,000 on an operating budget and as much as $6 million. The high end of this pales in comparison to men’s basketball and is a tiny fraction of college football. 2014 NCAA Champion Union spent $760,000 the year they won it all.

What Panther fans should take from that is a few things. First, there is parity – the teams at the bottom of the spending list are still competitive, enough to come away with a national championship in some instances. Union rode a hot goalie all the way from Schenectady to the Frozen Four and came out on top. Of the 59 programs that are in Division I, over half of them have made it to the Frozen Four – and incredible accomplishment and something to think about for a fledgling program. Twenty-one out of 59 have a National Championship banner hanging from the rafters, over one-third of all programs.

Second, it’s not going to cost a lot of money to get a winner. And that’s what’s important for a potential Milwaukee Panthers team. In the city of Milwaukee, having a winning team is important for attendance – unless you’re the Brewers for some reason. College hockey is a brand of sport where the Panthers would be different from competitors, specifically Marquette.

Whereas the Panthers compete with the Bucks and Marquette for basketball entertainment dollars, ice hockey still holds some characteristics of a niche sport, first and foremost a community mentality. What that means is that the Admirals and Panthers wouldn’t compete for fans, but likely share a die-hard hockey community. Hockey fan bases are much more complementary of each other than basketball, where entertainment is more important than the game.

Could the team be self-sustaining? If the Panthers use 2014 champion Union as a model, they stand a great chance. Hockey tickets average about $20 per ticket, and the Panthers would be playing between 24 and 30 home games per year. Because hockey is played in series, travel costs are cut down because you get two games in for every trip. If the Panthers spent $750,000 per season and played the low number of games in a given year, they would need to average 1,563 paid tickets per home game to make a minimal profit. Does that sound like a huge mountain to climb? Of course not. College hockey is a unique sport and the Panthers would not need to pull in an astronomical number to make a buck.

The Panthers could gain more revenue by hosting big events at the Bucks' new arena, provided there's ice.

The Panthers could gain more revenue by hosting big events at the Bucks’ new arena, provided there’s ice.

Being in Milwaukee also has its benefits. If the Panthers want to gain other revenue, they could host in-season tournaments with elite programs at the new Bucks arena (should it have ice), which would bring double the revenue of a series and the Panthers would get to keep the whole pot. Biannual home series against Wisconsin would be automatic sellouts. One series with Wisconsin could bring in excess of $400,000 in ticket sales alone, more than half the operating expenses of the 2014 National Champions from Union College.

Could the Panthers be competitive? Union is in the talent-rich northeast, as are many recent champions, including first-time champion Providence. Can Milwaukee compete when the amount of hockey playing high schools in Wisconsin are low?

The answer is a resounding yes. In 2014-15, there were 35 college hockey players in Division I that came out of Wisconsin. Of that number, only five players are playing for the Wisconsin Badgers. Nineteen players make up a roster, with 18 carrying scholarships.

The Badgers under Mike Eaves have recruited the state poorly, and there’s enough players in the state to make up just about two full teams. It’s also a growth sport for state high schools and club. The Panthers could field a roster of mostly Wisconsinites and be a damn good program year-in and year-out.

A great part of the NCAA Tournament in ice hockey is that parity exists even in the tournament itself. 2015 champions Providence were the last team into the tournament, riding a hot goalie all the way to their first title in any sport. A marginal Panthers team could back into the tournament and walk out NCAA champions.

Back in the Big Ten, things haven’t been terribly good. The top team in 2015, Minnesota, finished 17th in the RPI and was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The six teams finished between 17th and 55th out of 59 teams in the RPI, hardly the dominant conference people expected a league with the Big Ten Network’s muscle to command.

Wisconsin is particularly susceptible. Mike Eaves doesn’t recruit the state well. The move to the Big Ten hasn’t borne any fruit. But these are just the things we can see on the surface.

Parity in college hockey is much better than in hoops or football. The Panthers could ride a hot goalie to the Frozen Four.

Parity in college hockey is much better than in hoops or football. The Panthers could ride a hot goalie to the Frozen Four.

Wisconsin’s donor base for ice hockey was cultivated through support for the Blue Line Club, a Badger booster club that didn’t raise money for Wisconsin hockey but rather area youth hockey programs. The Blue Line Club was discontinued, and with it the support of a solid number of fans.

For most of the Big Ten, their hockey fan bases are local. Ohio State pulls from Columbus, Michigan pulls from Ann Arbor/Detroit, Minnesota pulls from the Twin Cities. But Wisconsin pulls a large contingent of its fan base from Milwaukee, with fans going up on a Friday afternoon to attend the game Friday night, spending the night in Madison, going to the game on Saturday and then coming home late Saturday night or Sunday morning. Many of those fans would have an option with the Milwaukee Panthers that allows them to stay at home and still have season tickets for the unique college hockey experience. It’s an easy sell for hockey fans.

Former Director of Hockey Operations at Wisconsin, Rob Malnory, ran the program from the ground up from 1977 to 2006. He’s still relatively young, but it’s common knowledge that he was forced out of the program by Mike Eaves. Would he be interested in starting up a brand new program in Milwaukee and taking it back to Eaves?

New ice hockey programs at Penn State and Arizona State commanded tens of millions of dollars to get up and running. Why wouldn’t the Panthers need to spend that money? For once, and I mean that when I say once, our facilities finally are a help to the program. Panther Arena will be gaining the Milwaukee Admirals, but the primary tenant Milwaukee Panthers have their name on the building, in a facility that is the absolute perfect size for college hockey.

Adding a women’s program for scholarships is unnecessary. The university carries a large majority of athletics scholarships in women’s sports, so there is no need to add a second sport to offset the addition of 18 men’s ice hockey scholarships. If we did, a potential softball team could play at Helfaer Field (perfect size for college softball). With television reaching even Horizon League level softball, an NCAA tournament regional played at Helfaer could draw Miller to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school to get a team on the field in front of their building.

The dominoes are all in place if the Milwaukee Panthers choose to get into ice hockey. It’s just a matter of finding out who is going to knock over the next one. We’d like one of those dominoes to be a section of PantherU.com devoted to a new hockey team.

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