In late December, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit hosted the 51st annual Great Lakes Invitational. And in what is becoming an increasing rarity in the world of college hockey, the event was an actual, honest-to-God attendance success. The building was not packed, but an announced attendance of about 16,000--roughly 2.5 times bigger than the crowd in the same building for last year's Big Ten Tournament championship--for each of the two days of the event did not feel inflated at all.
One month later and 700 miles to the west, the third annual North Star College Cup was, by all reasonable opinions, a complete attendance dud. Day 1 of the tournament drew 12,591, which felt generous, while Day 2 drew an announced 10,993, which was clearly a "tickets sold" number. It was doubtful if there were ever more than 5000 people in the 18,000-seat arena with a dead quiet atmosphere to match.
Why was one event a success while the other continues to be a disappointment? I'm on what must be an incredibly short list of people that attended both tournaments this year, and my experiences gave me a few ideas on what the GLI is doing so well, and what the North Star Cup could do to improve.
The North Star Should Be Better
On paper, there's no question which tournament should be drawing more people. This year's Great Lakes Invitational field featured Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan. Those schools rank 9th, 14th, 24th, and 41st in average reported attendance this season. This year's North Star Cup field featured Minnesota(2nd), St. Cloud State(18th), Minnesota State(20th), and Bemidji State(27th). Distance relative to the event venue is heavily skewed in the North Star's favor too, with three schools within a 90-minute drive of the X, and Bemidji as the lone outlier at four hours away. The GLI is at least a 30-minute drive for all four schools, and 7/9 hours for outliers Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech.
One could argue the GLI holds the advantage of being held over the holidays, but with this year's tournament falling on a Tuesday/Wednesday, I suspect that negates most of the advantage.
I had a good chuckle over the fact that Olympia Entertainment--the corporate conglomerate that owns the Detroit Red Wings, Joe Louis Arena, and runs the Great Lakes Invitational--has a "Director of Strategic Hockey Alliances" who is in charge of the college hockey events at Joe Louis. Mostly because it sounds like the type of fake job title George Costanza would invent in a meeting to get himself a raise in a bad Seinfeld C-plot. But.....scoreboard. You can't argue with the results.
There is a big difference in the way that the GLI is marketed and sold compared to the North Star, and that is ultimately what makes a big difference in the success of the event.
Know The Audience
The Great Lakes Invitational is an event for non-college hockey fans. There are certainly plenty of diehard fans that make the trip from Ann Arbor/East Lansing/Houghton, but those people alone wouldn't come close to filling that building. Their primary target audience for the tournament is people who don't regularly attend college hockey games.
At the North Star, the opposite is true. It is very much an event for dedicated college hockey fans. That may not have been a problem five-to-ten years ago. Today, it very much is, because there are just not enough people in that pool to have a successful event at a building the size of the XCel Energy Center.After three years of college hockey offering people a product they weren't interested in, and one that frequently wasn't very entertaining to watch, it just isn't big enough to sustain an event the way the old WCHA Final Five was.
That difference in philosophy is expressed in a couple different ways. First is in where each tournament is advertised. For the Great Lakes Invitational, that means the majority of advertising is done during Detroit Red Wings games, in the arena, but moreso on television. It sets up the tournament as a big league atmosphere, but still cheaper alternative to the Red Wings. For the North Star Cup, as best I tell, the majority of advertising was done in-arena at the various venues around the state.
The other difference comes in price. North Star Cup tickets were $45/$30 per day or $80/$54 for the tournament. Broken down as a per game cost, that's fairly reasonable. That's right about at the average ticket cost of the four schools participating in the tournament, and not something the hardcore fan is going to balk at. But it's also high enough to keep the casually interested away. Multiply that ticket cost by three or four and you're already looking at a very expensive night out for the family, before you even factor in that if you're going to stuck inside the arena for six hours, you're probably buying a lot of food and beverage.
The Great Lakes Invitational not only starts with a lower ticket price $25/$15 per day, $40/$20 for the tournament, they also offer a Family Pack which feature four tickets, four pieces of pizza, and four soft drinks for $44. It's a great deal, and it works in getting people to show up. There are definitely a lot more groups of four at the GLI than at the North Star Cup.
(*As a side note, both tournaments have pretty decent student ticket deals at about $10/day, though neither goes out of their way to advertise that fact, and student engagement at both tournaments feels limited)
It is worth pointing out that the GLI has some huge advantages in these regards. The whole operation is a marvel of vertical integration. Olympia Entertainment can advertise cheaper with the pro team they own. They own the building, so getting people in at whatever cost and making up the difference on concessions makes more sense. Even the pizza comes from Little Caesar's, owned by the Ilitch family, who also own Olympia Entertainment.
That allows the GLI to do things much cheaper and ultimately make more profit. The extra effort to get more people into the building may not make strict financial sense for the schools in the North Star Cup. But at a time when interest in college hockey seems to be floundering locally--and despite whatever numbers get reported, we can all see the empty seats--maybe drawing in new fans should hold a higher priority than maximizing short term profit.
The North Star Cup was initially conceived as a showcase for the college hockey talent in the state of Minnesota, so why not showcase it? How many youth hockey players are there in the state? This event, if marketed correctly, is the perfect opportunity to get those kids to a college hockey game, even if it's the only games they attend in a given year.
Ownership in the Tournament
The other big problem the North Star Cup has compared to the Great Lakes Invitational is one of image. Michigan and Michigan State are permanent invitees to the GLI every year, but the host of the tournament is Michigan Tech. At the North Star Cup, Minnesota hosts. That may seem like a minor detail, but it isn't.
Most think it is the two Big Ten schools in Michigan and Michigan State that really drive attendance at the Great Lakes Invitational, and for many years, that was the case. But in recent history, Michigan State really doesn't bring a crowd any bigger than what a St. Cloud State/Minnesota State/Minnesota Duluth brings to the X. The secret to their success is the large contingent that Michigan Tech brings every year.
The GLI is the alumni event for Michigan Tech every year. With the school in the middle of snow-covered nowhere, there aren't a lot of opportunities for alums to connect and engage with their university. The GLI gives them that opportunity. I wouldn't be surprised if the count on Tech fans at this year's tournament matched the 3300 they're drawing per game this year, which is a remarkable for a team playing seven hours away from home.
The North Star Cup is the perfect opportunity for the four outstate schools to connect with their alumni living in the Twin Cities in the same way. But it's been made pretty clear from the outset that this is Minnesota's tournament, and the options for the other four schools are a little more limited because they're guests.
I still believe there is tremendous potential for the North Star Cup to be a fantastic tournament. I'm not sure it will happen. I'm not even entirely sure the people in charge want to see that happen. But with a little effort, and a little change in expectations for what the hockey market is like in Minnesota, there's are plenty of reasons to believe the North Star Cup could be as big or bigger than the GLI.