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Meehan: UML hockey can thrive at Tsongas

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy, Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The future of UMass Lowell hockey, as with most public business ventures, all comes down to the bottom line.

But Chancellor-select Marty Meehan says he can save the Division I Hockey East program with a smart mix of branding and marketing, and a new contract with the Tsongas Arena that equitably shares advertising, concession and event revenues.

"I'm going to make the argument to the board of trustees that the partnership created between the city and the university is very important to the vibrancy of the campus and also the future of Lowell," Meehan said.

Meehan will lay out his strategy in a presentation Monday to the UMass trustees' hockey task force, making an aggressive push to keep a team in Lowell at the Tsongas Arena.

The trustees, led by Chairman Stephen Tocco, are considering eliminating the program or, at the very least, moving the team out of the prestigious Hockey East conference, in which UMass Amherst also competes.

But Meehan's plan, in large part, depends on the Lowell Devils leaving the city once and for all.

The team's lease with the city expires at the end of the 2008 season. The Devils, a minor-league affiliate of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, also have an option that expires in December to extend the team's current contract for another two years if they choose.

Given the progress being made on a new facility in New Jersey, it is widely anticipated that the Devils will leave Lowell when the current contract expires.

Without an American Hockey League franchise playing 41 home games at the arena each year, Meehan said the city and university could generate at least $800,000 in new revenue from advertising and 30 additional events at the Tsongas Arena.

The new money would not only allow UMass Lowell to aggressively market the team to put more fans in the seats, but alleviate a $250,000 gap in funding between men's and women's sports at the university that has jeopardized Title IX compliance and concerned many trustees.

"I think, in order to make this work, I have to be able to negotiate a new contract with the city," Meehan told a group of Sun editors and reporters.

Under the current arrangement at the Tsongas Arena, the Devils receive 100 percent of the advertising sold in the arena and 100 percent of gross commissions on concession sales during their home games.

The university does not see a dollar in advertising and only takes in 15 percent of concession revenue.

UMass Lowell also pays $102,700 annually to the arena's management company in game charges and operating expenses, about $6,041 per home game. The Devils pay $150,000 annually for more than twice as many dates, about $3,658 per game.

Meehan said the imbalance between the two contracts not only hurts the university, but flies in the face of history.

UMass Lowell, in partnership with the city, played an instrumental role in getting the Tsongas Arena built. Not only did the university chip in $4 million for construction, but their involvement in the project convinced the state Legislature to approve $20 million in funding for the arena, Meehan said.

With the money from advertising and other ventures to market the team, Meehan said he has no doubt he can use the caché of Hockey East to effectively brand the team and attract more students, faculty and general fans to the arena.

The average attendance at a UMass Lowell hockey game is currently 2,986 fans, ranking the River Hawks above schools such as Notre Dame, Harvard University, Brown University and Providence College. The team pulls in double the fans for high-profile games against schools such as Boston University and Boston College, and has seen average attendance in past year go as high as 3,300.

The average attendance for all of Division I hockey is 3,666 fans.

Over the past six years, UMass Lowell and UMass Amherst have ranked fifth and sixth in overall record in Hockey East. The two teams flipped places, in terms of league attendance, with the River Hawks ranking sixth.

"Our program is every bit as viable as Amherst," Meehan said.

Meehan said he is also looking at ways to improve the environment at the arena during hockey games, making it as entertaining as a night out at LeLacheur Park, which regularly sells out for Lowell Spinners games.

"This is part of a much larger campus life issue that hasn't been a part of the UMass Lowell conversation for quite awhile," said UMass Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner. "We're finally in a position where hockey will be utilized to increase the profile of the university."