It’s been five years since the UAH hockey program found new life in the WCHA.
The program continues to improve on the ice. UAH had 12 overall wins this season, the best in eight years, and a program-high 10 wins in the WCHA. Since joining the league, the Chargers have improved their record each season, even if incrementally.
But there is a problem, and it starts at home.
|UAH Avg. Home Attendance
The Chargers’ average home attendance this season was 1,684, which was a slight increase from last season (1,601), but the second-lowest in the five seasons UAH has been a member of the WCHA. Attendance has not kept in line with the performance on the ice, as one might expect, but instead has slowly gone the other way.
The best weekend was the first against Alaska Anchorage on Nov. 10-11, when the Chargers drew 3,128 and 3,072. That weekend was a combination of opening night, homecoming, and the popular Military Appreciation Weekend.
The Chargers won the first game handily 5-1, and needed a goal in the final second of regulation in a 3-3 tie. I noted at the time that it was entertaining hockey that could boost crowds for the rest of the season. But it didn’t happen.
After that first series, UAH drew above 2,000 only once, and barely at that (2,071 against Bemidji State on Jan. 26). That weekend against Bemidji was the 20th anniversary celebration of the 1998 NCAA Division II national champions, and it was the second best series attendance-wise this season. The Chargers had 1,989 the second night, when the players from the ’98 squad were honored.
The Chargers had six home games to finish the regular season, and only twice did they get above 1,500. The other home games from the first half of the season supposedly have to go up against college football, but the rest of the second half home games didn’t fare much better.
It’s not like the Chargers were playing badly at the VBC. They went 6-7-1 at home this season, one of their best home marks in a decade. UAH was able to take some wins against three of the top teams in the WCHA as well (and was 2:10 away from beating the best in Minnesota State).
It doesn’t have to be like this. Those 3,000-plus crowds against Anchorage? That should be the average, not the season high.
The average crowd at a Havoc game this season would be in the top 15 all-time for a UAH game.
Meanwhile, the Havoc shows that the market for hockey is good in Huntsville, drawing over 4,700 per game and setting the single-season SPHL attendance record. They are engaging the community at a pace that is leaving UAH in the dust. I don’t think UAH has to necessarily compete with the Havoc for fans, but UAH could do more to get a better share of hockey lovers among the half-million people in the Huntsville metro area.
To be clear, the hockey program is not in danger of being cut again. But now that UAH has re-established itself in Division I, it needs to take the next step, which is putting in the framework that will make the Chargers serious contenders for WCHA championships.
These are the things that the UAH administration, including athletic director Dr. E.J. Brophy and president Dr. Robert Altenkirch, need to figure out. (I offer some possible ideas, but there may be better ones offered by people more qualified than me.)
- We need a better marketing plan. The only promotion that I know of is getting Blue Line Club members to post about an upcoming home series on Facebook, which is what UAHHockey.com has been doing. How visible is the team on local TV and radio? Or targeted online ads? UAH did commission a fan survey for hockey. I urge every Charger fan to partake in the survey if you haven’t already.
- We need better promotions. This season appeared to take a step back compared to previous years. Most of the giveaways were hockey trading card sets, which doesn’t seem to be a good hook. The free general admission to kids 12 and under by Huntsville International Airport is always nice, but won’t matter much if parents aren’t drawn.
- We need more variety in ticket plans. We need Friday-only and Saturday-only partial season ticket plans. Offer season tickets for general admission as well as reserved with a discount off the per game rate.
- We need to expand the Blue Line Club. We need to reduce the minimum donation to join from $1,000, which appears to be by far the highest among WCHA booster clubs. Create a level for all season ticket holders. Perhaps add a special level for UAH students. Enrollment should be made online a la UAH’s current online giving program.
- We need more student involvement beyond homecoming and the UAH Pep Band. We need the Blue Crew to put as much energy into getting students at and involved in hockey games as they put in for basketball.
- We need our hockey games on the radio, just like our basketball games, which have been on WZZN (97.7 The Zone) for several years now. How does the university’s Division I sport not have this? It feels like a missed opportunity that the Havoc is getting some games on The Zone and not UAH.
- We need better production value on WCHA TV. We need our primary camera better focused on the action and our second camera not just fixated on the UAH bench. We don’t need all the bells and whistles of a major TV network, but compared to the rest of the WCHA, the current production looks amateur.
- We still need new banners, including our CHA titles and NCAA tournament appearances in Division I. We also need banners of Jared Ross and Cam Talbot, the two Chargers who have played in the NHL, at the VBC. These are things recruits look for and fans show pride in.
This is just for what we see on the surface. The program also needs boosts in its recruiting budget, academic support, and facility upgrades. These are things UAH is falling behind in compared to the rest of the WCHA.
Some strides are being made. The Doug Ross Suite at Spragins Hall is in planning and is expected to be ready by the fall, as well as a redesigned weight room. These projects were possible with the generosity of Charger hockey supporters.
Of course, extra financial investment will be needed. This is why growing the Blue Line Club, or season ticket base, and attendance is so important. This is where the fundraising prowess of Dr. Brophy and his team must come through.
If UAH is serious about calling itself the Hockey Capital of the South, it must find these solutions.