As St. Thomas moves to Division I athletics, their facilities must follow suit

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In fact, they will be in Mendota Heights, the location of the St. Thomas Ice Arena, the 1,000-seat venue that the Tommies share with the St. Thomas Academy.

Or maybe the teams will meet in Minneapolis, either at the 10,000-seat 3M Arena in Mariucci or the 3,400-seat Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus. Other arenas in the Twin Cities could also be involved.

Yes, the situation is fluid, and to a lesser extent the same is true of the other two major sports the Tommies compete in – basketball and soccer.

St. Thomas Athletics Director Phil Esten and the other high-ranking officials at the school, when asked to move to Division I, were aware that some facilities needed upgrading. These upgrades were highlighted in a business plan presented to the NCAA as well as their new hockey (Central Collegiate Hockey Association), basketball (Summit League), and soccer (Pioneer League) conferences.

The goal of offering fans and student athletes the best possible experience coincides with the need for additional income that enables competitions at the highest level.

St. Thomas did not have to meet a minimum capacity for any of its track and field venues from the NCAA or any of the three conferences to win its application to be promoted. But as Esten emphasized: “There will certainly be expectations if we take this path.”

CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia and Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple both embraced the Tommies with open arms, knowing that a facility modernization plan was in place.

“We saw it as some kind of investment,” said Lucia. “You will end up with some better facilities than you already have, it will only take time. Just as our new conference wants to grow and prosper, so is St. Thomas.

“They will have this financial commitment and the ability to support and raise funds to modernize their facilities. It won’t happen tomorrow, but we are very confident that it will happen in the next few years. “

Douple spoke of step-by-step measures with a five-year plan, which includes the possibility of expanding the Tommies’ basketball home, the Schoenecker Arena with 2,000 seats.

“Of course we’ve talked about all the facilities, and the basics are there for training,” Douple said of basketball and the other sports that will be competing in the Summit League. “And that’s so important. As you expand your program, you can do a few things to add more seats or build new arenas. “

While the changes are imminent, Esten said it will be a season or two before the university has a clear picture of what its priorities will be.

“We will be able to better see where the demand is, where the gaps are and how we can better fill the demand,” he said. “In a year we will be a lot smarter than we are today, having visited home events, away events, and other venues to see who has the advantages and disadvantages of the conference.

“But I think one of the things that we have to look at more than others is our hockey situation.”

The following takes a closer look at the three sports – and their venues – that are likely to change the most due to the move to Division I.

The St. Thomas Ice Arena served the Tommies well as a Division III school, but it just doesn’t meet the requirements of a Division I program. Every other school in the CCHA plays in an arena with at least 2,500 seats. And when it comes to hockey, the Tommies also want to compete against Gophers, Minnesota Duluth, and St. Cloud State, and the institutions will play an important role in recruiting against those schools.

“It’s hard to say what it will be,” said Esten of the next home for the men’s program, “whether it would be a joint facility or a new off-campus facility in St. Thomas.”

Rico Blasi (left), trainer of the University of St. Thomas, and sports director Phil Esten showed a Tommies hockey jersey when Blasi was presented to the media on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, on the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul .  Liam James Doyle / University of St. Thomas

Rico Blasi (left), trainer of the University of St. Thomas, and sports director Phil Esten showed a Tommies hockey jersey when Blasi was presented to the media on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, on the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul . Liam James Doyle / University of St. Thomas

Meanwhile, Esten said it was possible that one or more marquee games could be played in a different location this season and in future seasons, but added that no discussions have taken place so far. In addition to hosting St. Cloud State on their opening weekend, the Tommies will play home games against conference opponents Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State.

“Whether it’s the University of Minnesota, one of the bigger professional arenas in the Twin Cities, or municipal facilities, I think there are a lot of really nice options for us,” said Esten. “If it makes sense; If the ice is open at this point, if the partnership makes sense, if they are interested, if we are interested, we can continue the conversation. “

Esten said St. Thomas will look at public-private partnerships, off-campus facilities, and any other sensible option.

Lucia believes the Tommies should focus on making the most of their current arena until a new home is built or found.

“I told Phil that I would be totally comfortable with them playing at this facility as a short-term facility,” said Lucia. “I think it makes more sense to play in one facility than jumping around two or three facilities in the Twin Cities.

“I’m not worried; it’s a beautiful arena. They will spice it up nicely and it will be a nice home ice cream atmosphere. “

With 2,000 seats, the Schoenecker Arena is one of the smallest venues for the Summit League. Only Kansas City plays in a smaller arena (1,500). While expansion may be inevitable, how big are they?

“You try to find the sweet spot for reasons of capacity,” said Esten. “You’d rather have a slightly smaller facility that you fill regularly than a larger facility that you don’t fill regularly – even if you get a little more visitors from time to time.

“I think there is something to be said for the term scarcity. Even if you have a full arena or stadium, there is an X factor there. It becomes a home rink, home playground, home ice rink, and that becomes an important part of the college experience. “

Most mid-major men’s basketball programs draw an average of 2,500 to 3,500 fans per game, according to Douple.

“I’m sure St. Thomas will look at their footprint to see if they can expand,” he said, “but it’s more important for them to sell what they have.”

Estonian agrees.

“As soon as we demonstrate that we can fill it regularly and we have a demand for tickets, we’ll look at what it takes to expand or do something else,” he said.

O’Shaughnessy Stadium, in the heart of the campus, was built in 1947 and offers Tommies fans a quality experience and a crucial home advantage for the football team. Its 5,000 seats fit in well with the other football stadiums in the Pioneer Football League, with most seating between 5,000 and 6,000 spectators.

But how long the Tommies plan to stay in the conference, which is the only non-scholarship conference in Division I football, is a factor in their future stadium plans. Should they choose a more traditional route for a conference and recruiting Division I-caliber talent, 5,000 seats may not be enough.

A new stadium is not an option, but O’Shaughnessy could be expanded.

“The footprint is big enough that it is entirely possible to think about whether it could accommodate more fans,” said Esten. “We don’t need a stadium with 15,000-20,000 seats. There are other things that are equally important – making sure the fan experience is high quality.

St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso, center, a former North Dakota assistant coach, turned the Tommies into a Division III football powerhouse.  Holly Peterson / St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso, center, a former North Dakota assistant coach, turned the Tommies into a Division III football powerhouse. Holly Peterson / St. Paul Pioneer Press

“Perhaps the press box and other gaming establishments need to be addressed. I think it was about six years ago that we were holding the (St. John’s) Johnnies on campus and that day there were about 12,000 in attendance. But first and foremost, we want to offer the fans a great experience. “

The Tommies also know that they have to impress the Division I student athletes in all sports with their range of competition and training facilities.

“Recruits’ ability to jump online and look at facilities across the country makes it easier for them to assess who has what and who doesn’t,” said Esten. “Very rarely (a school) has everything, but a student-athlete looks for what best suits his interests and abilities and what he needs for a fulfilling experience.

“Student-athletes spend as much or more time training and training as they do competitions. Since we are in a neighborhood, many of our competition venues will also be our practice facilities. So here we really have to think about how we use our sports room. “

The St. Thomas business plan mentioned above would not have been so optimistic if it hadn’t been for a plan on the wish list to financially consolidate everything.

“We have some new editions that we have never had,” said Esten. “Instead of traveling a few miles in MIAC, we’re going to travel a couple of hours. We have scholarship expenses that we haven’t had in the past. Also some additional employees.

“So we have to weigh that against our earnings. Our earnings will come from three categories – matchday earnings, corporate partnerships and fundraising. “

From the point of view of the institutions, the “bucket” for fundraising must be deep. The move to Division I would not have been a reality without the certainty that the pockets of different alumni have their checkbooks ready.

“You are a private school; they are used to fundraising, ”said Lucia. “They do.”

Ben Fraser was hired as Senior Associate Athletics Director of Development a year ago to drive fundraising and he will oversee the Tommie Athletic Fund, which was founded last year.

There are programs for those interested in providing financial assistance at various levels. A foundation scholarship program is included. A minimum of $ 500,000 will fund a permanent scholarship.

“It’s an opportunity for us to have meaningful conversations with alumni and donors and others interested in investing in the impact we can have on student athletes,” said Esten of the fundraising aspect of the equation. “We balance the interests of various donors with the impact we can have and you find a really clean relationship.”

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