The University of Nebraska Omaha’s run to this week’s college hockey Frozen Four couldn’t have come at a better time for the man selling the future of the Mavericks program to fans and sponsors.
“If you sat down and said, ‘Let’s write the perfect Utopian script,’ you couldn’t have done it better,” Athletic Director Trev Alberts said in a telephone interview.
The university is building an $81.6 million on-campus arena that will open in October. Alberts said the team’s first National Collegiate Athletic Association championship semifinals appearance is helping the sale of suites, club seats and corporate partnerships, important steps for the school’s lone revenue-generating sport.
Two weeks after their first-ever NCAA tournament wins, the Mavericks play Providence on Thursday in Boston in the first game of the semifinals. Boston University then faces North Dakota, a matchup of two teams with 12 combined national titles.
“We’re trying to put our name on the map,” Mavericks senior forward Dominic Zombo said Wednesday.
That means emerging from the shadow of the University of Nebraska’s Big Ten athletic department in Lincoln, 50 miles southwest of Omaha. The Cornhuskers football program reported $36.3 million in profit last year, more than quadruple Alberts’s entire budget.
Alberts played football at Nebraska under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne. He wants his hockey program, which has turned a minimal profit playing in downtown Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, to be a smaller version of Cornhuskers football.
Mavericks teams currently receive about $5 million in annual support from the school, a number that Alberts is hoping will shrink with added revenue from the new arena.
“We’ll always be resource-challenged, but when you make little runs like this, it’s certainly easier,” Alberts said.
Omaha’s hockey program was started in 1997; each of the three other teams in the semifinals have more Frozen Four appearances than Omaha has NCAA tournament wins. The school of about 12,200 undergraduates also didn’t have dorms until 1997, and recently finished a transition from Division II athletics that resulted in the end of its football program.
The hockey team’s growth was accelerated by the 2009 hire of Dean Blais, a former North Dakota coach who won two national championships with the Fighting Sioux.
“Without winning, you can advertise, promote, do whatever you want in the community, and not much happens,” Blais said. “But when you start winning, we’ve gotten unbelievable media attention this last month, and not necessarily getting here, but everything that led up to this. It’s kind of like we’ve arrived.”
That is helping the school sell 15 suites and 750 club seats for the new arena, a process that started privately with large donors and may soon be opened to the public. Alberts said he expects to sell all the suites (priced at $40,000 or $50,000 annually) and premium seating ($1,500) prior to the opening, a total of $1.78 million in annual revenue.
The university also recently signed a naming rights deal, which will be announced at a later date. Alberts said the school has benefited from an Omaha business community that includes TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., ConAgra Foods Inc. and billionaire Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
“When a project like ours gets announced, there’s a real commitment from corporate Omaha and private philanthropy to help us be successful,” Alberts said.
The university raised more than half of the arena’s cost through donations. The rest of the funding came from university issued 20-year revenue bonds, which will carry roughly $2.3 million annual in debt service.
Alberts grew up in Iowa and said he chose to play for the Cornhuskers because of their previous success and facilities advantage. A Frozen Four run, and a brand new rink, could have a similar effect on the Mavericks program.
“When people think of Nebraska, they might think of Creighton basketball or Lincoln football,” Zombo said. “It’s about time that people start recognizing Omaha as a hockey city.”