Local hockey fans are fortunate to have a Division I team that plays at a 7,000-seat arena just a few minutes from downtown. Although Colorado College is a private institution with an enrollment of fewer than 2,000 students, its hockey program competes in one of the nation’s top competitive leagues. Opponents such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and the University of Denver visit the World Arena every season, and often play to sell-out crowds.
That said, attendance at Colorado College games has dropped every year since the team’s last visit to the Frozen Four, college hockey’s premier post-season event.
Just five seasons ago, the Tigers drew 158,923 fans to the World Arena for an average of 6,622 per game. By last year, that number had dropped to fewer than 135,000, or 6,443 on average. What worried college administrators even more was the drop off in season-ticket sales. Those peaked at 4,856 in the 2005-06 season, when celebrated players Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich were competing in their senior seasons.
After season-ticket sales slumped to 4,294 last season, college administrators pined for a new marketing strategy.
The slump wasn’t an aberration. In fact, it’s been part of a years-long negative trend. Colorado College Assistant Athletic Director Scott Lowenberg indicated the college has watched season-ticket sales drop by more than 100 each successive season.
In a move that in hindsight appears to have hurt sales numbers, CC raised hockey ticket prices following the 2005-06 season. Season-ticket average prices jumped more than $30 and single-game tickets rose nearly $2 for the 2006-07 campaign.
Lowenberg said CC didn’t notice a large drop in sales immediately following the hike. Instead, “it was a steady loss each year,” he said. “People kept telling us it just didn’t fit into their budget.”
The economic downturn that began in 2008 also prompted some fans to reign in their discretionary spending.
“In general, the economy has hit sports hard,” said Darin David, account director for the sports marketing firm Millsport. “Even a lot of teams in the National Football League are having a tough time, this year especially.
“It’s not uncommon to hear of television blackouts because teams can’t sell out their stadiums. College hockey in places like Michigan and Boston are still doing well, but ticket sales are down nationwide.
“The biggest factor, however, is something marketing people have no control over — team performance. That’s probably 90 percent of it. It’s funny how the Yankees marketing guys always look like geniuses.”
Since 2005-06, The Tigers have had good seasons, but not great ones. They’ve qualified for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s final-five tournament just once in those five years.
The lost revenue is important. Colorado College depends heavily on hockey. Lowenberg said his department is responsible for bringing in $2.5 million in revenue annually, and that those are critical dollars because they support the school’s overall athletic budget.
Following last season’s disappointing turnout, CC took a few bold steps, starting with a drop in season-ticket prices. It also ramped up promotions and sought new sponsorship deals.
“We talked to our fans, and what we heard was that if we didn’t drop our (season) ticket prices, they’d end up canceling their tickets,” Lowenberg said. “People were telling us things like, “My husband lost his job, or we had to take a pay cut, and this doesn’t fit into our budget any longer.”
The school listened. This past spring, CC announced a drop in season-ticket prices, as much as 45 percent for some seats. And so far it has sold nearly 300 more season tickets than it did a year ago.
CC’s Tigers sit in a rather unique situation for a college sports team. At most universities, the student population numbers in the tens of thousands, while its alumni often live in cities in proximity of the school. But, here, at small, private, liberal arts CC, most alumni move out of state after graduating. So the school depends on the local community for its fan base.
It’s in a tough situation with merchandising as well. Small, local retailers in both regional malls carry Tiger hockey T-shirts and jerseys, but bigger sports retailers such as Dick’s and mainstream apparel stores like Kohl’s have been hard to bust into.
“We’re working with Dick’s and could have a something happen soon, but like Kohl’s, they don’t have local buyers we can deal with,” Lowenberg said.
As it looks to draw new fans to the sport, the school has concentrated some of its marketing efforts on the northeast side of Colorado Springs, either through direct marketing or through the mail.
David figures CC is on the right track with its marketing efforts.
“You’ve got to get your pricing right and you’ve got to know your fan base and what they see a value in,” he said. “Everybody has to play that game. Beyond that, they should probably treat it like minor league baseball teams do: giveaways, tie-ins with charitable causes, maybe get a partnership with the (National Hockey League’s) Avalanche. Some of that is a little gimmicky, but a lot of it works to get people in the seats.”
During their season opening series, the Tigers drew 6,100 fans on Friday night and 6,400 on Saturday night, both games against little-known Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. According to United States College Hockey Online, CC was second only to Minnesota for average attendance during its opening weekend series.
The weekend proved to be a good one for nearby businesses.
“I’ve been manager at this location for five years, and we definitely noticed a drop-off in customers during the past few years, not strictly due to CC, but because of everything else,” said LeAnne Kemper, general manager at the Chili’s Grill and Bar restaurant at Cheyenne Mountain Center. “This year has been great so far. We’re back to a jam-packed crowd, at least these first two weekends (the first one was an exhibition series). Something is bouncing back.”
Luke Travins, co-owner and regional manager for Concept Restaurants, recently opened Flatiron’s less than a mile from World Arena.
“The amount of people we saw at Flatiron’s surprised me,” he said. “We had lines out the door through the normal dinner hour.”
Travins has also entered into a new sponsorship deal with Colorado College hockey and the World Arena, which includes dasher board signage.