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.

Michael Spath has been covering college hockey and college football for 10 years as the University of Michigan beat writer/columnist for TheWolverine.com. He also served as the publisher of CollegeHockey247.com from 2010-11, and has done freelance work with a number of hockey and general sports publications/Web sites. Michael is an active member of his community in Ann Arbor, serving as a middle school forensics coach, a youth baseball coach, and as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters. You can reach him at mspath@comcast.net.

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Toronto would be a fine place for a hockey tournament. The problem is that a passport is required for U.S. citizens to travel to Canada. This would be a significant burden for many college hockey fans, especially students, wishing to follow their teams, especially since regional seedings are not announced until a week before the games. It’s one thing to hop in the car and road trip to St. Paul, or even Tampa, on a whim; it’s another to go to a whole different country.

    Also, while I agree that the CHL has been a big problem, I’m not sure that ceding our national championship to Canada is the solution. Canadians may go to a U.S. college hockey tournament out of curiosity, just like Brits will go to an NFL game, but those games don’t really help the fans of the competing teams, and their value in promoting their respective sports is questionable.

    It seems to me that the reason the regionals have been sparsely attended is only partly because they have been held in “smaller cities with little to offer.” St. Louis is a big NHL city too. The bigger problem is that the sites are too far away from the fan bases of the teams competing. Grand Rapids is not exactly a big city, but it’s only a few hours from Ann Arbor and East Lansing, so when Michigan or Michigan State are there for a regional, it sells out. And, of course, the regionals at Yost and Munn always sell out. So maybe the NCAA should go back to having the top seeds host the regionals in their own rinks. That’s really the only way to guarantee a built-in audience of actual college hockey fans.

    Also, while the regionals definitely suffer from being placed in relatively arbitrary and often faraway locations, I don’t think it’s as much of an issue for the Frozen Four. These tend to sell out even in California, as, unlike the regionals where you don’t know where your team is going to be until a few days beforehand, hopeful fans make travel plans for the Frozen Four months in advance.

    And yes, fans may plan ahead to obtain passports for the Frozen Four as well, but a lot of tickets get bought and sold right before the event when the teams are set, since fans are more willing to travel at the last minute for a chance to see their team win a championship than they are to go to a regional. Would fans of RIT have been able to see their team make an unexpected appearance in the 2010 Frozen Four if it had been held in Toronto?

    By the way, this question of tournament sites isn’t just an issue for the NCAA; it’s already become a big issue for the upcoming Big Ten hockey conference. Where do you host a tournament among teams spread out from Minneapolis to State College?

    Instead of Toronto, I suggest that Chicago be in the mix for both Big Ten and NCAA tournament sites, since it’s as big of an NHL city as any of the ones listed, and it’s at least centrally located in the Big Ten. And U.S. hockey fans don’t need a passport to get there.

  2. This article seems to make TOO much sense which is probably why the NCAA won’t change the locations. I couldn’t agree more about some of the locations you suggest. Having lived in Chicago and Boston for better parts of my life, I have a pretty good idea of each market. Amazingly, Chicago is NOT a big college hockey town, UIC Flames were their last representative before the program folded many years ago. That said, it is a big NHL city and is a virtual melting pot for all of the Big Ten schools. We will see how Chicago does hosting the potential Sldier Field outdoor game featuring Wisconsin. Boston, much like Detroit and Minneapolis are no brainers and would provide a great atmosphere for all visiting schools. Really enjoyed your take on this subject.

  3. How can a fan from UND and Boston get along? Give them a common enemy. It seems like the NCAA is stickin’ it to hockey fans. I’ve caught a few periods tonight, March 23, getting ready for UND’s game tomorrow afternoon and can’t believe my eyes.

    We see it every year empty seats, empty arenas. In Grand Forks, ND UND is used to playing for crowds over 11000 every home game, preseason and holiday breaks included. Now you get a series against the Gophers, Pioneers, squealing Eagles from BC and we blow the roof off the joint.

    If I didn’t already have enough conspiracies to follow I would assume the NCAA wants to ruin college hockey because they are not doing it justice when it comes to the regionals and Frozen Four. If the NCAA is trying to sell the game and get more viewers for a televised D-1 Game, nothing screams change the channel more a passive and bored spectators who are outnumbered by the ushers. Thank God the teams have family members!

    I don’t have the answers. I like the idea of having the regionals in designated spots, having the number one seeds host, or having some of the schools that never make the tournament host. Even though I can watch on t.v. the least the NCAA could do is get the games more accessible to fans.

    Fans, what about the players? Is the NCAA screwing the fans or the players more? Hey Barry! How about durning your next post game interview you ask the player of the game how it feels to score the winning goal in triple overtime against your most hated rival to make to the Frozen Four in front of 250 fans, 25 ushers, and 10 custodians?

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