University of Nebraska at Omaha sports programs are about to go big and go home: The university proposes to build a 7,500-seat arena at 67th and Center Streets, on the south end of UNO's expanding campus.
The arena would focus first on hockey, the Mavericks' marquee sport and the athletic department's main profit center. It would fulfill the university's longtime dream of on-campus home hockey ice, plus eventually be the home courts for UNO's volleyball and men's and women's basketball teams.
Private donations or private partnerships would pay for arena construction costs. In interviews with The World-Herald last week, UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts ballparked the costs at $65 million to $80 million.
“We are not going to put this on the taxpayer,” Christensen said.
Planning and fundraising for the project are far enough along that Christensen and Alberts plan to propose the arena to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents at its Oct. 26 meeting.
The arena would rise on 71 acres of vacant land the university owns south of Center Street, east of Little Papillion Creek. That's across Center from an area that includes Aksarben Village shops and restaurants, NU's Kiewit Institute, UNO's College of Business Administration and the majority of UNO's student housing.
With two sheets of ice, the arena could simultaneously accommodate a number of events. For example, while there was a basketball game in the main arena, the hockey team could practice on the other sheet of ice. Or while the hockey team played a game in the main arena, students could play intramurals on the second sheet of ice.
The arena, unlike the hockey team's current home digs at the CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha, would give UNO a place to stage its graduation ceremonies on campus and host community events such as high school graduations, youth hockey tournaments and skating lessons.
The Mavericks could play hockey there in 2015 or 2016 if the regents approve the project and things go smoothly.
“In a perfect world we'd like to see it in three or four years, if things fall into place,” Christensen said.
The decision to pursue an on-campus hockey arena emerged from years of planning and deliberation involving Christensen, Alberts, NU President J.B. Milliken, Aksarben Future Trust leaders and others.
They pondered how to put UNO sports on a firm financial footing, how to use them to enhance the university's image and allure, and how best to capitalize on the rare commodity of open ground near UNO. What could they do now to put UNO on a path to where it should be in 25 years?
They came to believe that an arena was the ticket.
“We're probably only going to have one chance at doing this and doing it right,” Christensen said. “We're moving forward with something that is right for our campus.”
He said the university would not seek direct appropriations from the Nebraska Legislature or occupational taxes from the City of Omaha.
That said, it is possible that the City of Omaha would be asked to build or improve streets or other infrastructure as part of the project. Also, though UNO would manage the arena, no decisions have been made about the arena's ownership. If a private entity were involved in developing or owning the arena, it might be eligible to receive tax-increment financing or state turn-back financing.
It was unknown how hockey ticket prices would be affected by a new arena, though Alberts said: “We're not going to double ticket prices to pay for it.”
One key decision has been made: If there's an arena, it will sell beer, the beverage that financially floats the boat wherever hockey is played.
Although a home for UNO athletic facilities has been part of the current University of Nebraska capital campaign since the beginning, Christensen said, the university hasn't raised money specifically for an arena. The regents have not yet approved the project. But he said potential donors have expressed enough interest that he's confident UNO will be able to raise the money.
Eventually UNO men's and women's basketball teams and its volleyball team would play their home games in the arena, Alberts said. UNO would honor its contract to play men's basketball for at least four years at the new Ralston Arena.
Alberts and Christensen expect the UNO arena to help create momentum for building home baseball and softball fields to the west, across the creek from the arena, on the former Chili Greens golf course.
“If this plan makes sense to the board, phase two, softball and baseball, will happen,” Christensen said. “If it fits and there's private funding to support it, why not?”
Combined with a soccer stadium under construction at UNO's Caniglia Field, such a complex south of Center Street would give the university on-campus home fields for most sports in which the university competes. (Teams in some sports, such as track and field, still would not have home fields on campus.)
“The arena will be a game changer for our athletic department,” Alberts said. “It changes the perception of UNO forever.”
He said the arena would not only help the hockey program recruit players and win games but also support the athletic department financially. Alberts said hockey generates 92 percent of the revenue the athletic department generates for itself. That's nearly half — about $3.8 million — of UNO's overall annual $8.4 million in athletic department revenue. The other half of the money comes from the university.
The arena also would help the university recruit students and faculty, Christensen said. It would improve student life, because students could watch varsity games on campus, and play intramurals and take physical education classes in the arena.And it would draw people from the larger community, not only for hockey games but for high school graduations and other community events, Christensen said.
“It will bring people to our campus in a big way,” he said.
All of that will help UNO move toward its goal of becoming “a premier metropolitan university” with 20,000 students by 2020, Christensen said. The university has nearly 15,000 students now.
“If we're going to get to 20,000 ... we're going to get there with help from athletics,” he said.
UNO long ago shed its old “West Dodge High” image academically, Christensen said.
“But I don't think it's died on the athletic side when you're using high school fields to play your sports,” he said.
Several UNO sports teams play their home games away from campus. That is not true of any of the institutions that UNO officials see as their peers, or that UNO aspires to be more like.
Of course, UNO's hockey team doesn't play games at high school facilities, although its baseball, softball and soccer teams have. The hockey team plays its home games at CenturyLink Center, a state-of-the-art venue that has drawn rave reviews since it opened in 2003.
The CenturyLink is “a great facility,” Alberts said. He noted that UNO has ranked fourth nationally in attendance at home hockey games. But he and Christensen cited a number of hockey reasons for leaving CenturyLink in favor of a new home.
It's a variation of the old adage about what matters in real estate. For UNO hockey, it's size, control and location, location, location.
The CenturyLink Center “is about double what we really need,” Alberts said.
It's an argument reminiscent of the Omaha Royals' case for building its own smaller stadium instead of playing in Omaha's big new downtown ballpark.
The CenturyLink holds about 16,000 fans for hockey. UNO averages 8,000 fans a game, Alberts said, but sells only about 5,000 tickets per game. The rest are given away.
Alberts said UNO actually sold more tickets — roughly 7,000 a game — when it played at the smaller Civic Auditorium. UNO's season ticket sales have been shrinking at the CenturyLink, a trend Alberts and Christensen attributed to the law of supply and demand.
“When you have seating capacity that's twice your average attendance, it's difficult to sell season tickets, because people can pick single games here or there,” Christensen said.
Alberts put it more bluntly.
“Why would you buy a season ticket when you think you might get freebies later?” he said.
In a smaller arena, the reasoning goes, a ticket to a game is harder to obtain, thus making season tickets more desirable.
“We're hoping we can sell 6,000 season tickets,” Alberts said.
Also, a smaller arena full of fans creates a more intense crowd experience than a half-full large arena. Christensen, like many fans from UNO hockey's early days, remembers fondly the rocking atmosphere at the Civic. He'd like to re-create that, for fans and players.
There have been times when the Mavericks' home ice wasn't available to UNO for big games. For example, the Mavericks had to play a 2009 series with Notre Dame at the Civic, because the state wrestling tournament was using the arena downtown.
The Maverick players have to travel to practice at the Civic Auditorium downtown or sometimes at such City of Omaha parks facilities as the Motto McLean Ice Arena in South Omaha or Tranquility in west Omaha.
“You have student athletes driving cars to practice downtown or at Motto McLean,” Alberts said.
With their own arena, UNO players could practice and play in their own arena, on their schedule — and on their campus.
Students could walk to games from student housing on what UNO calls its Pacific Street campus. The university hopes to build more student housing south of Pacific Street or south of Center Street.
Christensen and Alberts see the arena as an anchor and a magnet at the southern end of an expanded UNO.
“Why would we draw 8,000 people (to downtown), how many miles away from our campus?” Alberts said.
The arena would give an “immediate lift” to hockey, he said. And that would boost other UNO sports.
“What we're trying to do is, we're working on centers of excellence,” Alberts said. “To us, that (hockey) is our Nebraska football, if you will. That has to generate revenue.”
Milliken supports the project. He called it terrific, and said he expects that the Board of Regents will be enthusiastic.
“It's complementary with Aksarben Village and the whole urban environment that's being created there,” Milliken said. “It's important to athletics, and it's also important to continuing to build a thriving, energetic campus environment.
“It's the kind of thing we've been looking forward to,” he said, “with acquiring the land and going to Division 1.”
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