One Game Road Shows

A new promotional idea has teams moving to unique venues for a one-time, fun-filled event.

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001,

The Cold War is coming to East Lansing, Mich. But it’s not the old USA-USSR rivalry. Rather, it’s the nickname of this year’s Michigan-Michigan State men’s ice hockey game, because it will be played outdoors at Spartan Stadium on October 6.

With the stadium’s capacity of 72,000, Michigan State had hoped to break the world record for hockey attendance, which was set by 55,000 fans at the 1957 World Championships in Moscow. MSU succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, selling 61,000 tickets in just nine business days before sales were cut off.

“This is unbelievable,” said Michigan State Athletic Director Clarence Underwood in a July 7 press release. “It’s amazing how fans have embraced this event. There’s no doubt that this will become one of the signature moments in Spartan history.”

The unconventional idea of playing an ice hockey game in a football stadium is part of a recent string of efforts by athletic directors nationwide to move one or two athletic contests a year to larger arenas. The aim is to sell more tickets and create a greater level of excitement for the sport team. Last year, Arizona State women’s basketball hosted Tennessee in a baseball stadium, and some schools are examining holding men’s basketball matchups at casinos.

From a promotional perspective, the idea is a knockout. But athletic directors warn that there are many details to work out before going ahead with such a project.

In Michigan State’s case, the first detail was convincing the coaches that playing an important Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) rival under the open sky isn’t as crazy as it sounds. “When the idea was first brought to us, I thought it was ridiculous,” said Michigan Head Coach Red Berenson in the Lansing State Journal. “But when I talked to [MSU] Coach [Ron] Mason about the details and the legitimacy of it, it seemed like a great idea.

“My concern was the quality of the ice surface, and I’m assured the ice will be fine,” he continued. “I think it will fly and I think these are the two schools that will make it happen. This will be an unbelievable event and there will be tons of energy in the stadium.”

The portable ice rink will be set up in the center of the stadium’s football field on top of a layered platform provided by a local staging company. The ice itself will be frozen with a series of aluminum plates and chilled with a 281-ton refrigeration unit—it can handle almost any type of weather conditions except for heavy rain.

Mark Hollis, MSU’s Associate Athletics Director for External Relations, estimated that the game set-up expenses would run less than $400,000, with the major costs being $100,000 for the ice installation, $45,000 for portable lights, and $70,000 for the staging. He told the Lansing State Journal that the school would have canceled the contest, however, if it did not find a staging company that could make it work in a cost-effective manner.

To make the game into a event worthy of the attendance record, MSU is treating it like a twilight football game, with a start time of 6 p.m. There will be tailgating, bands from both schools, and a finish under the portable lights.

The break-even point for the game was between 25,000 and 35,000 fans; additional profit will go back into the school’s general fund earmarked for athletics. The game is part of MSU’s ice hockey season-ticket package; tickets for the general public were sold at $18 and $10.

The Arizona State-Tennessee women’s basketball game was played outdoors last Dec. 27, at Phoenix’s Bank One Ballpark, which is near ASU’s Tempe campus. Nearly 17,000 fans attended the “AstraZeneca Hoops for the Cure Classic,” named for the sponsoring company, which raised money for breast cancer research, along with bringing increased exposure to the Sun Devils’ program.

“Everyone thought we were crazy when we said we were going to play at Bank One Ballpark, so it was nice to have it come to fruition and be such a successful event,” says Rhonda Lundin, Assistant Media Relations Director at Arizona State. “The publicity was incredible, everyone who was there had a ball, and we almost beat Tennessee. We accomplished most of the things we set out to do.

“We’re an up-and-coming program and we’re trying to get community support and get into the national spotlight,” Lundin continues, “so in terms of doing that, it was fantastic.”

The event was more than two years in the making, with Arizona State beginning serious preparations in January 2000. “It was a logistical challenge,” Lundin says. “There are so many things that you don’t have to think about when you’re at a regular basketball arena. We’d be in a meeting going over preparations and realize, ‘How will the media have power on press row? Because they’ll be set up in the middle of the field.’ Or, ‘There’s no overhead scoreboard and no buzzers, so what do we do?’ We had to think through every little detail of the whole game-management situation.”

Preparations also included raising money to put on the game. Title sponsor AstroZeneca contributed $100,000 to get the ball rolling, and many other local companies also pitched in. “A lot of company donations went to tickets for underprivileged youth,” Lundin says. “We did a lot of ticket giveaways for that game that we wouldn’t have been able to do without that money.”

By all accounts, this was the first college basketball game ever played outdoors, but Bank One Ballpark’s retractable roof made it a no-risk situation if it had rained. Luckily, the weather cooperated, although it was a little chilly.

“The temperature was in the mid-50s—it wasn’t drafty, but there was a little breeze,” Lundin says. “The players didn’t mention they had many problems with the court being set up in such a large space. I think they got used to it during the shootaround—there weren’t a lot of airballs.”

Venturing to new venues is not without controversy, however. A December 2001 men’s basketball matchup between Central Connecticut State and the University of Massachusetts at a new arena at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut has drawn the NCAA’s attention.

“From our standpoint, with all the effort we’ve put into the sports wagering debate, while the Mohegan Sun doesn’t have sports wagering, I do think playing games there does send a mixed message to our kids,” said William Saum, NCAA Director of Agent and Gambling Issues, in an Associated Press interview in May. “While we cannot tell our institutions where to play, we’d obviously like them to think twice about putting these kids in that environment.”

Central Connecticut accepted the casino’s offer to host the game because it has had difficulty scheduling major schools such as UMass at its 3,200-seat home arena, according to CCSU Athletic Director C.J. Jones. “Being a low mid-major school, we felt that this was a great opportunity to play ‘up’ in the schedule against a quality team at a neutral site,” he says.

“UMass is not going to come to Central Connecticut,” Jones continues. “We have a small arena, and we can’t give them any kind of guarantee here—$20,000-$40,000 would be a likely range, which we couldn’t cover at the gate. The only way a school like ours gets a chance to play in the big arenas or against the big schools is to go on the road, but most of the time you have a difficult time winning.”

CCSU already had an established relationship with Mohegan Sun, which has sponsored a tournament at the school for the past three years. “We knew they were in the process of building an arena down at their facility,” Jones says, “so the possibility of someday playing down there or moving the tournament there was certainly in the back of our minds. When the opportunity came to play a game there, our head coach and I felt it would be a win-win situation: playing a good team in a nice arena in front of a lot of our fans.

“If we play at UMass or UConn, they’ll give us 50 tickets in a house that seats 16,000 or 17,000,” Jones continues. “This way, we can have half the house, because our fans will love going down there.”

Some administrators at CCSU initially expressed concerns about the game’s setting, but Jones says he’s confident that he has allayed their fears. “Yes, there are some legitimate concerns, but we’re an educational institution, and we know we’re going to bring our kids down there to play the game, not to hang out in the casino,” Jones says. “We’re going to make it an educational experience, so we’ll be talking to our kids about gambling, alcohol, and drugs, which is part of our standard mode of operation anyway. We just might beef it up a little more this year.”

Mohegan Sun will be offering expenses and a financial guarantee to each school, but that’s not foremost in Jones’ mind. “For us, it’s not about the guarantee,” he says. “It’s more about the opportunity to play the game against a quality team at a neutral arena and provide our kids with a great experience. It’s a chance for the little guy to play Goliath when Goliath won’t otherwise play you.”

The NCAA had also expressed concern about a men’s basketball game between Fresno State and Gonzaga that was scheduled to take place in December 2001 at Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, which does have sports wagering. “That’s borderline inappropriate simply because there’s a sports book in there,” Saum said. “To me, that’s a step past what we’re talking about with Mohegan Sun.”

The game was recently canceled by Fresno State President Dr. John Welty and will be moved to a different venue. Until Welty stepped in, however, Gonzaga was a willing participant in the game. “We were ready to go,” says Oliver Pierce, Gonzaga’s Sports Information Director. “The basketball court is the same size, the baskets are the same height—it doesn’t matter where you put them. The NCAA wasn’t thrilled about the game, but there was nothing they could do about it.

“The promoters are now looking for an alternative site for the game,” continues Pierce. “It’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen in a casino.”