Saturday Musings: Columnist Michael Spath
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On Saturdays, College Hockey Prospective is pleased to welcome voices, on a rotating basis, from around the world of college hockey on topics that have caught their attention. Fittingly apropos for the current playoff atmosphere in college hockey, Michael Spath takes on the subject of NCAA site selection.
By Michael Spath, CHP Columnist
In a few short weeks, the NCAA will send 16 teams to four different regionals in Bridgeport, Conn., Worcester, Mass., Green Bay, Wisc., and St. Paul. Only one of the four destinations makes sense for college hockey as the NCAA continues to bungle its postseason plan.
College hockey fans have become accustomed to half-empty arenas at these regional sites. In 2011, St. Louis’ Scottrade Center could only fill 26.2 percent of its seats while Green Bay (50.1 percent) and Manchester, N.H., (60.0 percent) were also half full. Only Bridgeport, which benefited from the presence of Yale, had a strong showing, filling to 92.9 percent of its capacity.
In 2010, however, not one of the four sites – Fort Wayne, Ind., Albany, N.Y., Worcester or St. Paul – could even achieve half full, all falling short of 50.0 percent.
Peek back into college hockey’s recent history, and you’ll find more of the same.
It’s clear the current policy is not working, and why would it: who wants to visit Fort Wayne in March? Who wants to trip to Green Bay? Or Manchester? These are smaller cities with little to offer. More importantly, they cannot match the hockey foundations – in terms of fans, brand and marketability — that traditional hot spots like Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis and New York possess.
College hockey is not college basketball. It has not gone mainstream yet, which means you can’t just assign four regional sites, often in the middle of nowhere – Green Bay is 2.5 hours from the closest Division I school (Wisconsin) while Fort Wayne is two hours (Notre Dame) from a Division I program – and expect the fans to show up.
What the NCAA must do is treat college hockey different than college basketball, understanding its uniqueness and challenges, and how it can succeed in the postseason.
To start, the NCAA should collaborate with the NHL to form six permanent sites, rotating among the six for the four yearly locations: Boston, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto. The Frozen Four would also rotate among those six cities instead of taking us to Tampa Bay or Washington D.C.
Currently host cities bid on the regionals and the NCAA awards them, but this policy can be abolished if the NCAA were to seek out the NHL.
So why those six? Each is an established hockey-centric city with built-in fan bases that would be more likely to grab tickets to a quality hockey tournament even without allegiance. The six are each located within close proximity of numerous NCAA Division I programs with one exception – Toronto, which I will explain shortly – and offer far greater accommodations and attractions, encouraging fans from the four competing teams to travel.
They are also home to some of the most famous hockey venues in the world — four of the six sites are home to Original Six franchises and would be a terrific selling point to college hockey recruits that long envision playing for the Rangers or Bruins, Maple Leafs or Red Wings.
There will be challenges … coordinating with the NHL franchises for use every season will require effort and negotiating, but imagine the Red Wings’ marketing machine appealing to the masses of hockey fans in southeast Michigan to attend a game, or for Bruins’ public relations staff to reach out to Bostonians. These franchises have the resources and the know-how to fill their arenas with hockey-rabid fans that will heighten the atmosphere of the regional semifinals and finals.
And let’s face it, not being in Michigan, not being in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Canada is stupid when 67.5 percent of Division I hockey players hail from those places and 57.3 percent of the 58 programs in college hockey are from those states.
The state of Michigan, for instance, hasn’t hosted a regional sine 2009 and won’t again until 2013, going three years without one. That doesn’t make any sense for a state that is home to seven Division I programs (12.1 percent of the 58 total) and 10.0 percent of all players in college hockey.
The same goes for Minnesota, which has hosted more frequently (2009, 2010 and 2012) and should. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is home to five Division I programs (9.0 percent) and 15.3 percent of all college hockey players.
Perhaps the most eye-opening figure from this research, more than a quarter of all players – 28.5 percent – hail from Canada. That is, by far, the largest concentration of college hockey players and, thus, deserves some consideration.
But putting a site in Toronto would make sense even before acknowledging college hockey’s demographics. The fact is the NCAA is battling with the CHL for players both before they arrive as freshmen and then throughout their collegiate careers. The CHL has shown no respect pilfering college hockey rosters and recruiting classes.
For the NCAA to win this battle, or at least close the gap, it must show Canadians its appeal, putting its product in the conscious of families and players as they contemplate their futures.
The reason the NCAA is taking the Frozen Four to Tampa is to grow the game, and while college hockey is already reaching Canadians, it needs to become more identifiable in Canada – the fans there need to have a rooting interest in the product so they will be less likely to abandon it. In that respect, it would do far more for the NCAA to be in Toronto three of every four years than it would to be in Florida.
At the end of the day, the NCAA has to understand that college hockey is a niche community in a niche sport, but that doesn’t mean the student-athletes and coaches should be competing in half-empty arenas lacking the intense environmental elements that are supposed to invigorate the postseason. The NCAA should adopt a new policy in which its regionals occur in six great hockey towns, with built-in advantages, loyal, passionate fans, and the acumen to grow the game’s appeal.
Boston, New York, Toronto, Detroit, Minneapolis and Denver make sense. They make WAY too much sense to continue suffering the ills of trips to remote locations with lackluster hockey communities that offer nothing of benefit to the game, fans and the postseason.