One of my favorite things to do when I travel is bragging about how popular hockey, specifically the Tampa Bay Lightning, is in Tampa Bay.
No. 1 — It’s fun to brag about your hometown to people who aren’t from it and may have never even been.
No. 2 — Some people seem genuinely surprised that a sport that involves ice would be popular in Florida, as if our inability to skate on frozen ponds means we wouldn’t like an objectively great sport.
Good ownership, there’s no one better than Jeff Vinik, and success on-ice has certainly helped propel the Bolts to becoming one of, if not the most, popular teams in town, surpassing even the Tampa Bay Rays, who play Tampa’s natural sport of baseball, in Twitter followers by 142,000.
Due to that popularity, it should also come as no surprise that hockey is popular at Tampa Bay’s hometown public university as well.
USF’s club hockey team, the Ice Bulls, has a following of almost 2,500 on Twitter and over 3,000 on Facebook — far more than club baseball or rugby, which have follow counts in the hundreds. The Ice Bulls’ number even dwarfs USF Sailing’s follow count, and that’s an official USF Athletics team.
The Ice Bulls’ clear popularity will occasionally bring up a call for ice hockey to be added to USF Athletics as a proper, NCAA-sanctioned sport.
It’s a romantic idea, isn’t it? And it’d certainly cement Tampa Bay in the who’s who of the hockey world.
Will, or even could, it happen?
Well, that’s when the romance turns into whatever the term is for when you’ve been with a significant other for so long you’re just kind of going through the motions. One could even say “it’s complicated” when deciding how to set their relationship status.
Where would they play?
The USF Ice Bulls presently play at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, a pretty reasonable drive from USF.
AdventHealth Center Ice, while a new facility, is ultimately not an arena as much as it is an extremely large skating rink that would be under equipped to host a Division I hockey team.
And it’s also not on campus, and quite frankly, there really isn’t any place to play on campus at the moment.
Building a new facility is out of the question — the next stadium built on this campus better be a football stadium or people will revolt.
The Yuengling Center’s floor is too small to properly fit a hockey rink. Not by much, but it’s too small as it is now. Even if the floor were big enough, it’d need massive infrastructure upgrades in order to house an ice rink, which seems extremely unlikely for an arena that received a $35.6 million upgrade within the past decade.
Downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena seems to be the only reasonable suggestion, even if it is off campus. But Amalie Arena is gigantic. Would college hockey draw enough to justify the cost of running the seventh-largest arena by capacity in the NHL? And would it draw enough to avoid feeling cavernous?
Who would they play?
The AAC doesn’t sponsor ice hockey and the only AAC school to even sponsor it is UConn.
In fact, the only FBS conference that also sponsors hockey is the Big Ten, and joining that conference — if it even wanted USF — would just be a geographic misfit for all of USF’s other sports.
Granted, most teams join hockey-only conferences, but even then, geography would make things difficult.
The closest Division I program to Tampa is Alabama-Huntsville. The next closest is Miami of Ohio.
Miami is a member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which features two members in Colorado and a member in North Dakota. Alabama-Huntsville is a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which has a member as far west as Alaska.
The cost of traveling to certain conference games would be astronomical.
What would become of the Ice Bulls?
The Ice Bulls have a pretty good thing going right now, at least as far as club sports are concerned. They have a good social media presence, a sizable fanbase and occasionally receive support from actual USF Athletics personnel, be it players or administrators.
All that goes away if NCAA hockey comes to town.
Attention may not be a quantifiable item, but it definitely is not an unlimited resource. Fans only have so much time to dedicate to a sport, and between an NCAA-sanctioned sport and a club sport, the choice is always going to go to the NCAA sport.
Think I’m wrong? USF Baseball’s almost 10,000 Twitter followers versus club baseball’s sub-200 follow count would like to have a word with you.
The Ice Bulls would suddenly become little brother to the NCAA team. Within a few graduating senior classes, nobody on campus would even think twice about them.
The drop off in quality of play between the two would make soccer leagues Major League Soccer and the English Premier League look like the same thing by comparison. And every American soccer fan knows one too many people who won’t watch MLS because of its perceived inferior quality versus the EPL.
An NCAA ice hockey team at USF is a nice thought.
It’s the perfect complement to the NHL team just a few miles away from campus.
But there are far too many hurdles that need to be jumped just to make the idea feasible, let alone a reality.
Enjoy the hockey that you do have, USF.