In an article back in December right before the Michigan-Michigan State Big Chill outdoor hockey event, the WSJ asked the question "How Far Can College Hockey Go?" The sport has certainly grown in popularity in recent years, as evidenced in part by Michigan's record-breaking 113,000+ crowd that watched the Wolverines and the Spartans faceoff in the Big House back in December.
But for all the good that college hockey has done lately, it has also had its fair share of missteps. Take, for instance, the NCAA Tournament Regional round setup:
"The sport has also sabotaged itself in small ways. While the NCAA hockey tournament-with its single-elimination format and chaotic, unpredictable nature-is one of the most entertaining spectacles in college sports, its attendance in regional rounds can be weak. The problem: most games are held in neutral sites. Last season, when Miami (Ohio) beat Michigan in double overtime in Fort Wayne, Ind., for a spot in the Frozen Four, just 3,204 fans showed up."
Last year's Fort Wayne Regional attendance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the NCAAs Regional attendance woes. This year's West Regional -- where BC played and where the CCHA again hosted -- was downright awful. The CCHA can't even fill its regional when it is held in Fort Wayne or Grand Rapids, let alone when it is played ~400 miles from its closest conference member.
Here are the Regional attendance figures for the last three Regionals hosted by the CCHA:
2011 West Regional Semifinals (St. Louis) -- 5,024 of 19,150 (26% full)
2010 Midwest Regional Semifinal (Fort Wayne) -- 4,133 of 10,500 (39%)
2010 Midwest Regional Final (Fort Wayne) -- 3,204 of 10,500 (31%)
2009 Midwest Regional Semifinal (Grand Rapids) -- 4,052 of 10,834 (37%)
2009 Midwest Regional Final (Grand Rapids) -- 3,170 of 10,834 (29%)
They didn't even bother to report the 2011 West Regional Final attendance. Gee, I wonder why ...
The listed attendance for BC-Colorado College was 5,024, but that was the entire session -- both the Nebraska-Omaha-Michigan game and the BC-CC game. I'd be willing to bet no more than half those people actually stayed to watch the second Regional between the Eagles and the Tigers.
The Regional attendance issues aren't confined to the CCHA. The NCAA Tournament seems to have one of these regional attendance clunkers every year. Last year, it was the East Regional, where ~4,000 fans filled up the 14,236-seat Times Union Center in Rochester to watch R.I.T. knock off Denver and UNH to advance to the Frozen Four. In 2008, the Times Union Center was again the culprit, as 4,175 was the listed attendance for the Regional Semifinals (and 4,301 for the Regional final) -- just 29 and 30 percent of the arena's 14,236 capacity.
Since the NCAA moved to the current 16-team format for the Tournament, locations like Albany (ECAC), Grand Rapids (CCHA), Fort Wayne (CCHA) and Rochester (ECAC) have been the biggest offenders, as teams play in front of arenas that are only 1/3 to 1/4 filled.
It probably also shouldn't come as a surprise then that the best attendance Regionals since 2003 have been held on campus. The 2003 Midwest Regionals at the Yost Center in Ann Arbor were both sold out. The '03, '05 and '06 West Regionals also came really close to selling out (In 2003 and 2005, the West Regionals were played at the University of Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, while in 2006 they were played at North Dakota's Ralph Engelstad Arena).
The solution here is simple. All the NCAA has to do is move the Regional rounds to the campus of the #1 seed. This will both improve attendance and give #1 seeds an advantage during the Regional rounds. It also alleviates issues around the regional hosting rules that cropped up this year with UNH's Northeast Regional and have cropped up in the past. There will be an issue with attendance at the Regional Final if the host school doesn't advance past the Quarterfinals, but I can't imagine it would be much worse than some of the Regional Final attendance figures at these neutral site venues.
We are now nine years into the NCAA hockey tournament under its current format. I think its pretty clear that college hockey can't sell out these neutral site venues. The sport deserves better than to have the first two rounds of its postseason tournament played to half-full and one-quarter full arenas.