Last night, a bit after 11:00 PM Eastern, Michigan Tech’s Jake Jackson slipped a puck past MSU Mankato’s Connor LaCouvee in OT to lock up a berth in the WCHA playoff game at Northern Michigan this coming Saturday. Less than nine hours later, tickets are already on sale, but only in person at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. TV6 posted a video to Facebook showing a line looping around the arena concourse this morning, as fans tried to get tickets for the matchup.
While normally a line like that for any event would be a good thing, it’s a line that was created with literally nine hours of notice, and a line that severely limits the ability of out-of-town and road fans to get tickets, many of whom would travel not just from Houghton, but from various cities around the region. At this time, reports are that NMU only has to release a minimum of 150 tickets to MTU,
and that that number includes the 25 band seats (UPDATE: 150 tickets plus tickets for player families and the band). According to Northern Michigan’s own website, the Berry has a maximum ticketing capacity of about 4,260 for hockey. In all, this means that they only have to sell ~3.6% of seats to MTU fans. That’s good for the Wildcats—it’s an easy way to ensure a home-friendly crowd—but it seems to run counter to the league’s own statements when they announced the new playoff format:
“Much of what makes the WCHA so special are our passionate fan bases and fantastic in-arena atmospheres, which will only be heightened in a playoff series or in a single game with a championship and NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
“The opportunity to compete for the Broadmoor Trophy* in a unique, frenzied atmosphere promises to be a fantastic experience for our student-athletes, our institutions and our fans. We look forward to watching a new WCHA tradition grow and flourish.” – Bill Robertson, WCHA President and Men’s Commissioner
* It’s not the Broadmoor Trophy anymore, but it was when this release was sent out in May 2016.
That this is probably the strongest rivalry in the conference makes this particular championship a good litmus test for the presence of a “frenzied atmosphere.” While I’m hardly advocating that the seating should be evenly divided among the home fans and the road fans—it would be pretty unfair to the team that earned home-ice advantage—I think it should be self-evident that allowing only 3.9% of tickets to go to road fans is definitively a poor balance.
Let’s leave home-ice advantage aside for a second. Even for the Wildcats’ fanbase, this sales policy can be rather inaccessible. They gave only nine hours of notice and put tickets on in-person-only sale at 8:00 AM on a Monday. This easily excludes non-local fans and fans who have to be at a job at 8:00 AM. The school has made accommodations for students, however, reserving some tickets to be distributed on campus to students from 11:00-1:00. Regardless, the number of fans left out in the cold on this (metaphorically, of course; the line at the Berry is at least inside) is large.
By contrast, for last year’s series, tickets were made available online and by phone, and were more equitably available to road fans. While some seats were reserved (season ticket holders had until 5:00 on Wednesday to claim their seats, and 650 student walk-up tickets were held back), the rest could be purchased by anybody, anywhere. While I acknowledge that as the editor of a site called Tech Hockey Guide, I might come off as having some bias, but these are two very clearly different models for ticketing the same conference’s championship. One model is incredibly restrictive and works against out-of-town fans of any team, while the other preserves home-ice advantage by explicitly reserving some tickets for select groups of home fans while allowing the remainder to be freely purchased on a much more accessible marketplace. That more open model worked, with a sellout crowd of 4,466 providing “fantastic in-arena atmosphere” for fans of both teams.
Such disparity in models is entirely allowed by WCHA policy. Matt Hodson, WCHA Associate Commissioner of Marketing and Communications, told THG by phone that the WCHA Management Council and the Tournament Committee set a number of tickets that must be made available on consignment to be purchased by the road team’s box office. The road team may do with those consignement tickets as they see fit, and it is up to the home team’s box office to determine what to do with the remaining tickets in terms of distribution. When asked what the minimum consignment was, he confirmed that it was a fixed number (as opposed to a percentage) and said, “It is WCHA policy that I cannot disclose that number.”
Andrew LaCombe of TV6 has tweeted that representatives of both teams will be on a conference call with the league office this afternoon to discuss the game. Joel Isaacson, MTU’s Associate Athletic Director for External Relations, confirmed with THG by phone that he only expects 150 tickets at this time. A call with the MTU box office confirmed that all 150 tickets have been allocated, and there is no waitlist being kept at this time. We can only hope that the league puts pressure on the NMU athletic department to make tickets more accessible to potential buyers. Unfortunately, it may be too late to do anything, as over 2,000 tickets were sold in the first 90 minutes, and there are still fans waiting in line after 3 hours, while we are hearing that only SRO tickets remain.
So let’s say that all of the tickets sell out before this conference call, what should the WCHA do?
- Accept and address the oversight. It happens. The WCHA Championship is still a new format, and this is only the sophomore effort. Mistakes happen, and the best way to convince the fans that you care is to acknowledge that it happened and address what you will do moving forward.
- Require off-site sales. Home fans aren’t always located at home. Tickets need to be available to people willing to travel to the game. As a resident of a metro that just spent a lot of money on hosting a Super Bowl, I hate to say “It will stimulate the local economy,” but it’s true. You get all of those out-of-towners coming in and patronizing local hotels and restaurants, and it will make for a good weekend for local business. It’s also a great chance for a WCHA member institution to show off to their alumni and make a case for donations, perhaps even to their hockey program.
- Increase the mandatory minimum ticket consignment for the road team. This is a no-brainer. 150 tickets is a pittance in many WCHA arenas. The minimum should be increased to 10% of total seating capacity. Again, teams shouldn’t have to give away home-ice advantage, but the idea that a crowd of less than 5% opposing fans can showcase “passionate fanbases” is clearly problematic.
It’s certainly time to accept that the change to on-campus playoffs and championships was a positive move both in terms of finances and in terms of fan experience, but there’s still clear and obvious room for improvement. So many fans are being ignored in a way that’s easy to correct with some instruction from the league. It’s hard to celebrate college hockey when college hockey is inaccessible to so many fans.
UPDATE (12:30 ET):
We’ve now had reports from two separate sources who were at the Berry (one MTU and one NMU source) that while there was a limit of 10 tickets per transaction, multiple season ticket holders were simply getting back in the much shorter STH-only line to purchase more tickets as a separate transaction—including one report of a fan buying as many as 40 tickets this way. On top of that, THG staff have also seen posts on social media of fans in Marquette attempting to resell their tickets. This makes it clear that on-site-only sales have been at most a speed bump to potential scalpers, while harming traveling fans of any team.
UPDATE 2 (2:20 ET):
A few more things to add now:
- TV6 is now reporting that the NMU Public Safety are looking into reports of scalping. It is against state law to scalp tickets for higher than face value, and offenders face up to 90 days of jail time or a $100 fine. This doesn’t stop tickets from being resold at face value, though.
- A woman declared in a comment on Facebook that her family’s allotment of tickets through the season ticket priority program was sold to another season ticket holder without permission or checking ID. She is also a third source to comment on people going through the line multiple times to make multiple 10-ticket transactions.
- We checked in with Drew Evans of BGSUhockey.com, and he had this to say about last year’s ticket sales: “There was a lot of frustration for how tickets were handled. MTU ticket office was telling BG fans to contact the BG ticket office, but our office was telling people they didn’t have any tickets. Otherwise I think fans liked the format and those who traveled to Houghton enjoyed the trip.”
On the whole, it seems like there needs to be pressure on league member institutions to have plans in place for ticket sales well before they lock up home ice, as there was even some frustration with how Michigan Tech communicated last season’s ticket sale methodology (increased accessibility aside). It is also now very clear that on-site-only sales did nothing to curb scalping, and that doing them that way was meant to exclude away fans, even if it meant collateral damage by leaving out home fans who couldn’t be at the Berry at 8:00 this morning.
Cover photo credit Bob Gilreath.