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UND leads the nation in college hockey attendance again, but is monitoring challenges

The Fighting Hawks have finished first in attendance for eight-straight seasons.

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The UND Fighting Hawks perform a stick salute after sweeping Western Michigan in a home men's hockey series at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks on Saturdsay, February 26, 2022.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — UND had just finished its sixth consecutive season leading college hockey in attendance when the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports across the world in March 2020.

Then, for a year, the sports world dealt with numerous challenges — constant schedule changes, game cancellations and competitions being played behind closed doors or with limited crowds.

On the other side of those challenges — most of college hockey was back to full crowds and regular schedules this season — a lot remained the same.

UND once again led the country in attendance, averaging 11,294 fans — 97.1 percent capacity at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

UND was the highest-drawing hockey team in North America outside the NHL, and second-highest in the world behind Bern SC (Switzerland). Some countries, like Germany, still had pandemic restrictions in place.

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The Fighting Hawks also outdrew two NHL teams — the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators.

UND has led college hockey in attendance every year since 2013-14, when Minnesota edged UND thanks to an outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium that drew 45,021. That includes the pandemic-altered season of 2020-21, when the Fighting Hawks averaged 2,445 with 25 percent capacity limits.

UND sold out its preseason exhibition in October 2021, its first game without capacity limits since the start of the pandemic.

Wisconsin finished second in college hockey attendance in 2021-22 by averaging 9,736 at Kohl Center. The Badgers were followed by Minnesota (7,913), Penn State (5,976), Minnesota Duluth (5,882), Michigan (5,605), Michigan State (5,432), Denver (5,070), Minnesota State-Mankato (4,662) and UMass Lowell (4,532).

"We felt really good about our season ticket base going into the year," said Jody Hodgson, Ralph Engelstad Arena's general manager. "But we were still concerned at this time last year. We were wondering how many people were going to be able to come out, whether there would still be concerns with large crowds and being in public and what public health orders might be in place.

"All things considered, when I look at the landscape of pro and college sports in general, I think we weathered the storm really well. It's a testament to the loyalty and support from the UND hockey fans that we were back to the kind of pre-pandemic levels for the most part. It's not that way across the board in sports."

Team success has helped.

UND has won three-straight Penrose Cups as National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season champions and it is 43-8-1 in its last 52 home games.

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Still, there have been challenges.

"We are very similar in terms of percent capacity as the last full year before COVID," Hodgson said. "But we noticed probably a little slip and decrease in redemption rates and people utilizing tickets. That's something we're keeping an eye on and cognizant of. It just continues to evolve how people consume sports and take them in."

To combat that, UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena added another pricing tier for upper-bowl seats in Sections 310 and 311, which are always the last to be filled. Those seats are now cheaper than the lower bowl and the sides of the upper bowl.

"I think we were a little more aggressive in trying to satisfy demand with a little more variability in ticket prices," Hodgson said. "That's something we'll do again this season."

Hodgson also said they'll continue to be aggressive with a promotional schedule.

"Those are things on our radar," he said. "They'll forever be on our radar. We realize hockey is the core product people are attending and purchasing tickets for. But we want to make sure it's about more than just a game. It's a night out and something fun for the family to do, creating memories with music, videos and everything else that surrounds a game."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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