The silence surrounding the University of Illinois potentially adding a men’s Division I hockey program seemed to indicate it, but on Monday, Illinois made it official by announcing that they are no longer pursuing the addition of a hockey program.
From the beginning, when Illinois first announced their intentions to try to start a program, it was made clear that their interest in starting a program was entirely dependent on an urban redevelopment project in downtown Champaign called The Yards. The project was to include a public transportation terminal, apartments, office buildings, parking structures, and notably, a 5000-seat downtown arena. The idea was a men’s hockey program could serve as an anchor tenant for the building and bring some economic activity to that downtown area.
It was an ambitious project, initially estimated to be in the $250M range, using a combination of public and private funding making it a complicated deal to work out. If you really want to dive deep into the local government rabbit hole, it seems Core Champaign Hockey, the private development group handling the arena portion of the plan gave an honest effort to make the deal work, but ultimately, the increased construction costs caused by the pandemic caused the deal to fall apart. With no arena in place, there was little incentive for Illinois to put together a program to fill that arena.
The other aspect mentioned by Whitman in the school’s release is the “incredibly fluid, dynamic environment” that NCAA athletics has moved into since the Illini hockey project was first announced. The layperson’s translation to Whitman’s business-speak word salad is that Illinois had raised a large amount of money through pledged private donations for the costs of starting a hockey program—endowed scholarships, operating costs, coaching, etc. That number was in the millions, if not tens of millions of dollars. Ultimately, Illinois took a look at that pile of pledged money and decided it would be better spent being offered to five-star football and basketball recruits to appear in commercials alongside Tony Bolognavich through their NIL program than it would be being held in reserve for years, if ever, hoping an arena deal ever gets done.
That’s been an issue at major schools for years, both at programs that already exist like Michigan State, and at programs that don’t, like Iowa. While a hockey program may break even or even turn a profit, there’s still the issue that every dollar brought in by the program, whether it be through sponsorships or ticket sales, is likely a dollar that is being taken away from bigger, more popular sports. That trend will likely only continue now that schools are able to funnel that money more directly to the athletes in those more popular sports. Illinois was a unicorn in that regard, in that they had the added incentive of this downtown redevelopment deal. But even that wasn’t enough to overcome.
Now that the chapter is officially closed, I still think you have to give Illinois a lot of credit for how long and how hard they pursued making this work. It was a very ambitious project to undertake and one that involved a lot of moving pieces. But ultimately, the prevailing forces against it, especially the added costs imposed by the pandemic, made it too difficult to get done. It’s a shame it didn’t work out. I, along with many other people, still think Illinois could have put together a very successful hockey program. But it goes to show how difficult it can be for these types of schools to make D-1 men’s hockey work.