UMass-Lowell Could Face Trustees’ Axe

A bad situation seemingly may be getting worse and could spell the termination of the Mass.-Lowell men’s ice hockey program as early as June 21, that according to recent reports in the Lowell Sun.

According to the Sun, the city of Lowell and the University have until June 21 to restructure the lease deal at the Tsongas Arena or the UMass Board of Trustees will vote to terminate the hockey program which has been a member of Hockey East since the league’s inception in 1985.

The ultimatum comes from a report made by a task force organized by the Trustees to consider pulling the River Hawks out of Hockey East in favor of another conference.

The report states that the UML program could thrive “under the right circumstances,” but first city officials must renegotiate “key elements” of the program’s arena lease.

“In short, there exists the possibility of compelling synergy between the University and the City, focused on UMass hockey and the Tsongas Arena,” the report states. “At the same time, in the absence of a fundamental reordering of the relevant terms of the relationship, a continuation of the University’s current varsity hockey program cannot be recommended and, in fact, should be recommended for termination.”

Currently, the University pays rent to the City of Lowell as a tenant in the Tsongas Arena. When the arena was originally built in the late 1990’s, the University and the City each contributed $4 million, while the commonwealth of Massachusetts in support of the University provided the remaining $20 million in funding.

The original concept was that the Arena would be a partnership between the University and the City, but as the task force report notes, “the University’s current lease terms reflect a tenant relationship rather than a true partnership.”

According to the Sun, during the 2006-07 season the River Hawks paid nearly $6,000 per game in rent along with a $50,000 yearly fee. The task force report calls for the yearly fee to be eliminated and rent to be reduced to $3,100 per game.

In an op-ed that appeared in the May 29 edition of the Sun, Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner outlined numerous and consistent occasions on which the University has made concessions to the city regarding scheduling, moves that cost the University significant ticket revenues.

Skinner specifically noted the City’s annual Winter Carnival, which forced the River Hawks to play weeknight instead of weekend games, and last season when the Lowell program was forced to play two hockey games against Maine at its old home, the Chelmsford (previously Tully) Forum in Billerica. Skinner said that weekend alone cost the program $30,000.

The one impetus to a strong relationship concerning the Arena between the City and the University has been the presence of an American Hockey League franchise. According to the Sun, despite recommendations from City Manager Bernie Lynch that the City terminate the current lease of the AHL’s Lowell Devils, a compromise was reached last week in which the Devils will pay the city an increase of $125,000 per year in base rent to help offset the City’s losses that last year reached $250,000.

One silver lining that exists for the UMass-Lowell program is a vote on Tuesday by the Lowell Arena & Civic Stadium Commission to form an ad hoc “partnership advisory commission” that will include representatives from Lynch’s and Congressman Marty Meehan’s offices. Meehan is set to resign his post in U.S. Congress on July 1 to become the new Chancellor at UMass-Lowell, but still doesn’t sound completely optimistic that the River Hawks program can be saved.

“I’d like to have the University stay here regardless of the situation,” Meehan told the Sun. “The problem is the Board of Trustees. We are at a period where there’s a crisis in terms of the future of the team.”

The River Hawks have struggled to fill the Tsongas Arena since its opening in 1998. The average attendance last season was 2,986, less than half of the 6,496-seat capacity of the Arena. When being built, the University recommended a 4,500-seat building but was strong armed to the near 6,500 seats to accommodate the AHL team.

In addition, the UMass-Lowell program has no access to sell ice-level sponsorships such as dasherboards and in-ice logos and instead must rely on temporary signage placed above the general seating area. The AHL team has complete revenue control over ice-level signage.

The June 21 deadline coincides with the next meeting of the UMass Board of Trustees. Should there be no new agreement in place between the City and the University, according to the report, the Trustees will recommend the program’s termination at that time.