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Excitement is building

By From the Lowell Sun

By Michael Lafleur

LOWELL -- The momentum is there, said UMass Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner. Now university officials just have to sustain it. At issue is the success of the UMass Lowell River Hawks men's hockey program, which was saved from the UMass system's chopping block this summer and since has emerged as a beacon for reinvigorated community support.

UMass Lowell boosters have sold almost three times more tickets for the upcoming season than last year. They have revamped a club seating section that was home to only 36 season ticket-holders in 2006-07, selling nearly 1,000 such seats to date. They're trying to create a more festive and fan-friendly environment, allowing students in free, selling beer and wine at games for the first time and adding entertainment options like a Halloween costume contest, an appearance by the Hanson Brothers of Slapshot fame, and a yo-yo expert.

"We needed to make a statement here, and certainly that statement's been made," Skinner said. "We've got to follow it through. We've got to stay on top of this thing."

School officials, in yet another first, also have launched a television advertising campaign for River Hawks games on places like the New England Sports Network (NESN), which also carries Boston Bruins hockey games.

Already, the impact has been felt on campus and in the Greater Lowell community.

Students earlier this month held a "Set the Record Rally" with the goal of setting an attendance record for the River Hawks' home opener.

Then there's people like Lowell resident Lila Lorrey, an assistant to the university's chief public affairs officer.

River Hawks season ticket holders for the past dozen years, Lorrey and her husband Marty have organized a group of 13 friends to purchase tickets near their seats. Lorrey said her friends "aren't necessarily hockey fans, but I said to them, 'this is going to be the place to be. It's going to be exciting. We've got all these new things going on with the hockey program and let's make it a social event.'"

Inspiration from Spinners

Last year, the River Hawks averaged 2,800 fans per game in the 6,500-seat arena. This year, Skinner said the goal is to increase the average attendance by 1,000 fans per game this season.

To help in that effort, university officials are looking for inspiration to marketing tactics employed the Lowell Spinners, a minor league Boston Red Sox affiliate known for their in-game hijinks.

"You may not know what's going to happen, but you know it's going to be fun," Skinner said. "That's the Spinners mentality."

Then there's the club seating section, where a ticket allows access to the newly refurbished Talon Club Room -- a lounge area replete with 60-inch high definition TVs, a food buffet catered by Lenzi's, a cash bar and views of the ice -- as well as preferred parking to all UMass Lowell arena events and the right to purchase tickets to all other arena concerts and events before they are made available to the general public.

Skinner said school officials have sold roughly 975 club seats and 525 regular season tickets for the upcoming season. Last year, the university sold less than 500 season tickets, he said.

University officials had initially hoped to sell 2,000 season tickets this year, Skinner said, but opted to expand the more expensive club seating section instead. He said UMass Lowell's club seats are cheaper than those at other schools in the prestigious Division I Hockey East conference, arguably the most competitive in collegiate hockey.

"We went heavy after the club seats and the one thing we found was that the more value we offered, the more popular they were," Skinner said. "The club seats became more popular than just the regular season ticket."

That success can be attributed to the 24-member See You at the Tsongas Blue Ribbon Committee, a group of private business people and university officials tasked with selling more River Hawks tickets than ever before.

"When people started looking at it, there were a lot of reasons for people to buy," said Lowell businessman Michael Kuenzler, the committee chairman. "The university is going to grow. There's going to be a lot of excitement. The business community and the community in general wanted to be a part of that."