Women scrounge for stadium funding

by Josh Linehan

When the Minnesota women’s hockey team won its first national championship two weeks ago, they planned on having a brand new arena to house the trophy.
But five months after construction was to be completed, the national champions remain unsure where they will debut next year.
The plan has always been for the Gophers women to skate in a facility of their own. Now, the women’s athletics department must raise $1.2 million in private donations by the end of this month or watch their prospective home become a tennis-only facility.
In 1996, a year before the team existed, the Minnesota state Legislature allocated $7 million for a combination hockey and tennis facility. A year later, the politicians upped their ante by $3 million.
The University chipped in $1.7 million, and private donors coughed up an additional $1.5 million. Then, in September 1998, the Board of Regents approved construction of the now $13.2 million facility.
But construction bids came in $3.5 million over budget.
Worried about a project nearly 30 percent over budget, University President Mark Yudof threw down the gauntlet, challenging women’s athletics to come up with enough money to finance the building’s debt service during the next five years.
“The president has had many discussions about how to make this work,” said Yudof’s Chief of Staff Tonya Moten Brown. “Initially, there’s no way for this facility to make money. They will need an extra $200,000 a year for the first few years just to break even.”
Despite the challenge of raising more than a million dollars in just less than six weeks, women’s athletics director Chris Voelz remains confident.
“We’re going to make it. Every day, we throw another hook in the water and reel it in. I have some effusive optimism about this project,” Voelz said.

A matter of perspective
As with many conflicts, the debate over a women’s hockey facility occurs because of differences in perspective.
Voelz and women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson paint a clear picture. They see a national champion forced to play in an arena that seats more than eight times their average attendance, featuring an ice surface that is not conducive to the women’s brand of hockey.
In a year when Yudof and his staff are charged with finding money to make up for a budget deficit, they might have viewed a building guaranteed to be in the red for its opening five years as excessive.
The team currently hosts games at Mariucci Arena, one of the largest college hockey arenas in the nation. But Mariucci seats nearly 10,000 when full, and the 200-by-100 Olympic-size ice is considered much too large for women’s hockey. All of these drawbacks are secondary concerns, however.
The new arena, scheduled to be built just east of Mariucci, would stand to eventually be the largest feather in the women’s athletics department’s cap.
As defending national champions, the hockey team will be one of women’s athletics’ top-drawing cards next season. A 3,000-seat home of their own would allow for ticket growth and yet make women’s hockey a tough ticket to find in a few years.
“Mariucci is a huge facility, and it makes a statement — when it’s full. When it’s not, it just doesn’t,” Voelz explained. “What we don’t want to have happen is for people to look at 6,000 empty seats and say why bother with season tickets.”
“You want to create a premium ticket,” Moten Brown said. “It is extremely helpful economically for a team to be in a sold-out situation.”
Voelz also mentioned added revenue from dasher-board advertising, club suites and other sources that help Minnesota men’s hockey be an economic success every year, regardless of the team’s performance.
“We won’t make up for 100 years of tradition overnight,” Voelz said. “But I don’t think this project is shortsighted at all.”
Voelz and the women’s athletics department meet on April 11 to assess how much money is still left to be raised.

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected].