Regional Sites: No Easy Answers
by Mike Machnik/CHN Senior Editor
MANCHESTER, N.H. Campus sites or neutral regional sites?
It's become the hot topic of late, with regard to the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Tournament. The tournament moved to regional sites in 1992, with two single-elimination, six-team regionals making up the 12-team field. Prior to that, for three years, the first two rounds were held as best-of-three series on campus. Since the tournament's expansion to 16 teams in 2003, the format has been single elimination at four regional sites, with each sending a regional champion on to the Frozen Four.
But in recent years, with dwindling attendance at some regionals, discussion has increased on the possibility of moving one or more of the early rounds back to campus, perhaps returning to a series format.
This year's Northeast Regional in Manchester was well attended, with over 8,000 at the Verizon Wireless Arena each night — helped by the appearances of host school New Hampshire and Massachusetts-Lowell, both from Hockey East and both within 40 miles of Manchester.
But that hasn't been the case everywhere — for example, out West where distances between schools and the regional sites are much greater. For example, the first night attendance in Grand Rapids on Friday for the West Regional was just 2,289, despite the appearances of two schools that routinely draw 10,000 or more to their home games in Minnesota and North Dakota (both are at least 600 miles away). And in Toledo for the Midwest Regional, Saturday's crowd was just a bit higher at 2,988, with none of the participants within 150 miles of the city.
With the current format, often, schools that play in front of packed houses during the season, and good crowds at their conference tournaments, step up to the NCAA Tournament and play even bigger games in buildings that may be much less than half full and a lot quieter in terms of atmosphere.
The committee emphasized attendance factors this year while seeding the Regionals, but there's only so much it can do under the current criteria, and it didn't really help.
No question the makeup of the field is a factor — there was no Michigan, Michigan State, Ferris State or Western Michigan in Grand Rapids (none of them made the tournament), and Toledo host school Bowling Green didn't qualify either. Attendance especially out West is heavily dependent on whether or not schools near the neutral sites get in — and bids for hosting regionals are awarded several years in advance, so there's no way to be sure who will or won't make it.
The attendance issues in general only seem to be spurring discussion that it may be time to think about a move back on campus — but the answer isn't an easy one. The alternatives present their own issues.
"Whether we're on campus or at a regional site like this, with four [sites], or first round campus sites, it depends on how we work it in with the scheduling and what we've got," said Kristin Fasbender, NCAA Associate Director of Championships.
"We've got the week off right now, but with the [basketball] Final Four and the windows with the ESPN perspective, with both the men's and women's Final Four, I think it could be interesting if we tried to push it and add a week in. I think we have some work to do in looking at that and seeing what we can do and what we can make work. We've heard everything from eight first round sites, with a series, and then do you take two winners and play them at two super regional sites.
"I think there's a lot to be discussed and [the committee] has talked a lot about it."
Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon is the Hockey East representative on the NCAA Men's Division I Ice Hockey Committee.
"From a coach's perspective, when we presented down at our national meetings — 'What do you think of the tournament' — there was no 'Let's abandon [the current format],'" said Sneddon. "[The coaches] think that there's a lot of merit to having neutral sites, and that if there's a way — we're always trying to find ways to improve attendance, that's a big factor, and when we see something like this in Manchester, it was outstanding."
"Our criteria right now says, they'd like neutral facilities with NHL size ice," Fasbender said. "That's the preference right now. It doesn't exclude campus sites, so if there was a campus site and if the cycle was such that that was what the committee wanted to do, they can.
"But to Kevin's point, when it gets presented, the coaches are thinking of it as, 'This is our chance to get to the Frozen Four, and I want to make sure it's as fair and neutral as possible.'"
A move to campus sites would almost certainly mean extending the tournament by a week, and would possibly re-introduce a conflict with the NCAA basketball tournament — something Fasbender said the NCAA would like to avoid.
"[Changing the format] would take some looking at schedules, looking at the weeks and time, and with the Frozen Four being one of our championships that we get a lot of people to, we don't want to put it up against the Final Four," said Fasbender.
"I think there's options. We just have to figure out what works best for the sport right now."
Among some options worth trying, perhaps, before moving back to campus sites, would be to change the ticket policies, to allow for lower prices and other things that would make the event easier to attend. The committee could also concentrate on finding better venues, as opposed to accepting good venues that may not be in traditional areas.
And then there's television. Right now, ESPN televises every game of the men's Division I tournament. They know well in advance where the games will be played.
A move to eight first round best-of-three series on campus would probably impact TV coverage.
"We've talked to [ESPN], if you go to eight first round sites [for hockey], what does that do to the television window," Fasbender said. "What does that do to our ability to be on TV? Right now, we have 12 live games, four that are syndicated that are tape delayed later, but what does that do, if we go to eight first round sites and you're playing series.
"So I think there's a lot of things to think about, and ESPN's been a really great partner in the [Division I hockey] championship and they like covering it, and we want to continue to work together with them on it."
Overall, support for the current format still seems to be strong. But it's a discussion that continues to take place.