March 22, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Commentary: Big Ten Is Worth It

by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter

The first two games of the Big Ten Tournament both featured thrilling overtime finishes that pleased Big Ten fans — well, at least the fans that were actually at the Xcel Energy Center.

The paid attendance of the first two games was 7,333 and 7,408, in an arena that seats 18,568. There were several factors that contributed to the low turnout. The two teams that are closest to St. Paul — Minnesota and Wisconsin — were not playing in the first round. It was a Thursday, and three of the four schools playing in St. Paul were also playing NCAA tournament basketball games the same day. 

However, attendance didn’t get much better on Friday. Just 7,963 saw the Badgers defeat Penn State, and only 9,753 saw the hometown Gophers play.

Some have used the low attendance on the first two days of the first-ever Big Ten Tournament as an excuse to criticize the conference. Some Minnesota fans even found their way to the front row and held up a sign that said “B1G Mistake.”

Yes, the creation of Penn State’s program and the subsequent start of Big Ten hockey triggered a seismic shift in the college hockey landscape — a shift that saw the demise of the CCHA. A lot of feathers were ruffled. Several small schools wound up on the wrong end of the realignment game of musical chairs. Change is never easy, and it benefits some more than others.

But overall, college hockey has never seen this much national exposure — and most of that is thanks to the Big Ten and Penn State.

The Big Ten had 84 games televised this year, 40 of them nationally. It’s a lot easier for ESPN and NBCSN to justify airing college hockey when the game features two schools that the casual hockey fan actually knows.

Sure, a true college hockey fan would tell you that a game between St. Cloud State and Minnesota would be a good, intriguing matchup. But to a national audience that doesn’t follow the game closely, they’ll likely be wondering who St. Cloud State is. That’s just an unfortunate reality.

If we want to truly grow the game, we need to market the game to new audiences — like audiences in Pennsylvania. Robert Morris and Mercyhurst have slowly been building a small fan base in Pennsylvania, but all it took was the name “Penn State” to pique the interest of hockey fans in the Keystone State.

I spoke to a friend in Pittsburgh on Thursday. She was at a bar watching NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness is a big deal in Pennsylvania, with strong teams on both sides of the state. She said, “I actually heard people talking about college hockey in the bar” after Penn State knocked off Michigan in double-overtime.

Two years ago, most Pennsylvania sports fans would not have even been aware that there were college hockey games going on during the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The Big Ten schools have that kind of reach. There is now potential to grow the game even more. Now, schools like Illinois and Northwestern have a safe, strong home conference if they ever want to make the leap to Division I hockey.

It won’t be a seamless transition, and not everyone will be happy. But the decisions have already been made, so let’s move forward and try to grow the game even more.

We shouldn’t be judging the legitimacy of an entire conference based off the low attendance of its first-ever conference tournament. With six teams that are pretty far apart from one another, it will take a few years to find the right balance of proximity and convenience for the tournament. Next year’s tournament will be in Detroit, much closer to the four teams that played here Thursday.

Michigan State coach Tom Anastos was previously the commissioner of the now defunct CCHA. He addressed the attendance after his team’s 2-1 overtime loss to Ohio State.

“Obviously the crowds are going to be something that’s going to have to take time to build,” he said. “The proximity of the schools to the locations is not accessible to the old league structure.”

He also said that the league will definitely look at this year’s tournament and improve going forward.

“I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from our first go-around in this event,” he said.

A few possible ways to boost attendance would be to combine the two games into one session, instead of selling tickets individually for each game. It would encourage fans of other teams to attend both games. They could maybe even play both games in the evening, at 6:00 and 9:00, rather than 2:00 and 7:00.

Anastos thinks it will just take some time.

“Those things don’t happen overnight,” he said.

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