On Thursday, the University of Illinois released the results of a feasibility study by Collegiate Consulting that studied the potential for Illinois’ Division of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA) to add a Division I hockey team.
The study started in June 2017 and was commissioned by the National Hockey League, the National Hockey League Players Association and College Hockey, Inc.
The study’s findings were that an Illinois Men’s Hockey team could be incredibly successful.
Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. said, “The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois, from the number of native Illinois players currently playing college hockey to the continued growth of youth hockey players in the state, there are many reasons to be confident that the Fighting Illini could quickly become a top national program and sustain it every year. We are very appreciative of the University administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign.”
Many Illinois fans and college hockey supporters were excited about this move. College hockey is growing in popularity and interested in extending its reach beyond the traditional hotbeds in the Minnesota/Dakota regions and the Northeast. Having another large university — and one with a lot of potential for success — join the ranks is an exciting prospect.
On the other hand, some Illini fans were mad online about this announcement. There is the idea — which may not be totally incorrect — that fundraising for hockey could harm fundraising for other sports, mainly football and men’s basketball, by cannibalizing donations. Many of the potential donors for hockey also overlap with current and potential donors for football and basketball. The huge start-up cost for a hockey program are a big concern as well.
As of this point, both of these groups are overreacting to this feasibility study. We didn’t learn anything that we didn’t already know. Hockey has a lot of potential at Illinois, but there are huge start-up costs.
Here’s what we actually learned from Thursday’s release.
What it means
Illinois wants to add a hockey program.
The University and many others believe it can be a very successful sport at Illinois. That much is obvious.
Hockey in the long term could be a big revenue sport for Illinois. The short term costs are very high, but with the excitement for hockey in the region, ticket sales should be incredibly successful.
Athletic Director Josh Whitman also views this as a chance to upgrade the facilities for wrestling, volleyball, and men’s and women’s gymnastics. A new hockey arena would also serve as a new home for these programs.
These sports desperately need an upgrade facility.
Huff Hall is well behind the standard for a Big Ten program — hell, over half of it is classrooms and offices for the College of Applied Health Sciences anyways.
A new facility will be built, with or without hockey, in the coming years, and it would cost substantially less if it did not include ice. But if that’s the case, Illinois would be spending money on a facility and not adding another potential revenue sport.
What it doesn’t mean
It is not inevitable that Illinois will get a hockey team.
Josh Whitman and his staff will try everything they can to make this happen, but the writing isn’t on the wall.
There are substantial hurdles that need to be overcome for a team to get off the ground, with the biggest being the stadium. There are no final proposals in for plans for a new arena. The study supports the downtown stadium plan led by Hans Grotelueschen, but there is currently no estimate of what that final cost would be.
Penn State’s new arena cost $88 million, while Arizona State had to raise $32 million to get its program off the ground, which didn’t include any money for a new arena. Arizona State rents ice time for games and practices at a local arena, something which isn’t present in Champaign. The Sun Devils are expected to open a $120 million facility for the 2020-21 season.
Overall, Illinois will more than likely need north of $50 million for this to happen, and that’s not factoring in stadium cost. While there is a lot of momentum and excitement, that’s not an easy amount of money to raise, especially with the University already committed to a major football renovation, which, granted, does have most of its funding already covered.
The target date of Illinois Division I Hockey starting in 2020 is unrealistic and honestly a bit laughable. However, if and when the money and stadium plans come together, this process can accelerate quickly.
1. Stadium lease and revenue sharing.
The proposal supports the use of the downtown facility plan rather than the competing on-campus proposal, though nothing has been close to decided on this route.
The downtown facility would not be owned by the University. Illinois Athletics would need to come to a lease agreement with the owners. The study makes no projection on what this would cost the DIA, and it is thus not factored into the expense projections.
But with that agreement, what revenue sources would Illinois be entitled to? Would they get parking fees for example? Concessions?
One of the justifications of favoring the downtown site is the greater opportunity for auxiliary revenue from renting out the facility from local youth teams, concerts and other events. Collegiate Consulting projects that this outside revenue could be worth more than $1 million dollars in the first year of operations and steadily grow in the future.
The single biggest issue with this study and the support of the downtown stadium is the projection that the DIA would be the benefactors of this outside money. This is an outlandish suggestion.
If the University doesn’t own the stadium and are just renters, DIA will not earn money for non-university athletic events. Full stop.
Also for this project, upwards of $200 million, would the city of Champaign have to contribute, and how much would they be asked to? With voters becoming more concerned about the amount of public money being spent on sports facilities, it would be an extremely hard sell.
This facility deal needs approval from three parties — the developers, the city, and the University — and multiple sources of funds. How this would all come together right now isn’t clear.
2. What are the Title IX implications?
Easily lost in this conversation is the fact that Illinois would most likely need to add a women’s sport in order to be in compliance with Title IX rules. They could potentially add a women’s ice hockey program as well, but this would drive cost even higher. Field hockey would also be an option.
Starting one program is hard enough, but Illinois would have to start two.
Josh Whitman and the DIA want to add men’s hockey as a sport, and believe it can be transformational for Illinois Athletics, serving as a major facility upgrade for multiple sports while adding a major revenue source in hockey. There is great promise for success for a hockey program in the state of Illinois.
But there is a big difference between wanting to do something, and actually doing it. The money and stadium hurdles are substantial. There are major unknown questions. Despite all the hype of excitement, this announcement doesn’t mean that Illinois is getting a Division I men’s hockey team.
This is a very complex process, and any one unsolvable problem — and there are many potential pitfalls — kills it. To say that Illinois is likely getting a D-I hockey team isn’t accurate at this point. All we know is the DIA and Josh Whitman are officially going to try.
I for one hope they find a way to do it. Let’s do that hockey.