College Hockey Held Hostage By ESPN, But Many Wounds Self-Inflicted

USCHO.com's Jim Connelly eloquently captured what was on every Boston College hockey fans mind on Saturday afternoon -- college hockey is being held hostage by ESPN. This was very evident to Superfans on Saturday when a regular season men's lacrosse game between Virginia and Johns Hopkins went to overtime, preempting the first 24 minutes of the broadcast of BC's NCAA Regional Semifinals matchup with Air Force.

Even worse, ESPNU decided to broadcast a men's lacrosse doubleheader between Maryland-North Carolina and Virginia-Johns Hopkins, sending North Dakota's and Minnesota's Regional Semifinals games to find a home on a Regional Sports Network, namely Fox Sports North+ and NESN.

Boston College fans got screwed once again by the Worldwide Leader on Sunday when the Northeast Regional Final started at 8 PM on a Sunday. Understandably, Coach York was not pleased.

I just wish the game was earlier and a little more user-friendly for our audience here in Worcester," said York. "It's great for TV, but it's going to be very difficult for us to draw a big house on a Sunday night at 8 o'clock.

"It boggles my mind that Worcester and all the money they put into this that they can't get a better game time than 8 o'clock on a Sunday night.

Part of the problem is that ESPN now owns the broadcast rights for all the NCAA's Championship Events for the next 12 years. So while college hockey fans can clamor for a network like CBS Sports Network or NBC Sports Network to pick up the NCAA Tournament, that's not happening any time soon. ESPN has flexed its muscles here -- in the first year of their new 12-year deal with the NCAA -- by relegating NCAA Tournament games to the internet (ESPN3.com), regional sports networks like NESN or Fox Sports North (who have to pay ESPN for the privilege) or ESPNU.

Many college hockey fans don't have access to any of those broadcast options.

I'm not disagreeing that college hockey is being pushed around by the Worldwide Leader here, but many of these wounds are in fact self-inflicted. ESPN didn't decide to tuck the East, Northeast and Midwest Regionals in smaller, regional cities that are difficult to get to for fans. The NCAA did. ESPN also didn't decide to charge over $50+ for each session or prevent re-entry in between sessions. That's all the NCAA again. As the Western College Hockey Blog points out, the NCAA managed to run a less successful event than one of the conferences, which hosted its conference tournament in the same building as the West Regional.

Since NBCUniversal and CBS Sports aren't winning the broadcast rights for the NCAA Tournament for at least another decade, college hockey can make changes to its postseason format to both better Regional attendance and earn better TV slots on ESPN.

1. Regional location changes. We've been through this ad nauseum, but the NCAA is doing itself no favors but holding the Eastern regionals in places like Worcester, Bridgeport, Manchester, Albany, Rochester and Providence. Particularly in the East, the NCAA needs to embrace hosting regionals in major cities. Boston, New York, Newark, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are all better options to host the regionals that in small, AHL cities.

2. Scheduling changes. We can all bemoan the fact that we missed Chris Kreider's game-winning goal in BC's 2-0 win over Air Force, but what is the NCAA doing holding FIVE of the 11 games on Saturday? It should now be painfully obvious to everyone involved at this point that ESPN would rather air regular season college lacrosse games instead of NCAA Tournament hockey games involving college hockey blue bloods like North Dakota, Boston University, Minnesota and Maine. So why does the NCAA even give ESPN the opportunity to select college lacrosse games to broadcast over NCAA Tournament college hockey?

If the NCAA insists on chasing the dream that is neutral site Regionals and doesn't put the games on campus, why does the NCAA follow the same scheduling format that the men's basketball tournament follows for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight?

Extend the Regional round back a day and use the following schedule:

Thursday
6 PM -- East Regional Semifinal #1 (ESPNU)
7 PM -- Midwest Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPN2)
9 PM -- East Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPNU)
10 PM -- Midwest Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPN2)

Friday
6 PM -- Northeast Regional Semifinal #1 (ESPN2)
7 PM -- West Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPNU)
9 PM -- Northeast Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPN2)
10 PM -- West Regional Semifinal #2 (ESPNU)

Saturday
5 PM -- East Regional Final (ESPN2)
8 PM -- Midwest Regional Final (ESPN2)

Sunday
1 PM -- Northeast Regional Final (ESPN2)
4 PM -- West Regional Final (ESPN2)

This year the Tournament would have gone head-to-head with the men's basketball Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but you could probably play with the schedule (moving back or forward one week) to avoid the conflict. Anyway, ESPN doesn't own the broadcast rights to the NCAA Tournament (CBS and Turner do), so maybe college hockey is used as an alternate programming choice for those timeslots? This schedule would also remove any scheduling conflict with the all-important Saturday morning regular season college lacrosse games.

3. Session Ticket Prices. More than $50 to attend a Regional semifinal is far too pricey after you ask fans to travel to such choice locations as Bridgeport, Connecticut and Worcester, Mass. Few students are going to shell out over $100 to go to Worcester on a Sunday night at 8 PM These prices need to come down if the NCAA is at all serious about improving the Regional round attendance.

4. Consolidate Regionals. Some regionals draw much better than others. St. Paul is great out west. Green Bay is a disaster, unless you count all the red seat backs as Cornell fans. The NCAA has enjoyed its largest Regional round crowds when the tournament was just 12 teams and two Regionals. You can still keep the same four-region, 16-team format that we have today, but why not consider collapsing the regional rounds to just two locations -- one East and one West. Cities like Boston, Buffalo, New York, DC and Pittsburgh in the East and St. Paul, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago out West would be good Regional site locations for an 8-team Regional where two teams advance to the Frozen Four. Adopt the above schedule format and you can easily accommodate two Regionals in one arena.

The selection committee sometimes obsesses over travel costs and travel distances, but the reality is that almost all the programs have to hop on a plane to get to their Regional with few exceptions (this year, Minnesota and BC come to mind). Plus the cost difference of getting a team to say, Boston instead of Bridgeport or Detroit instead of Grand Rapids, is probably negligible (or even cheaper in some cases).

More teams in one regional -- increasing the chances of landing a big time college program -- in a major city would do much more for the regional attendance than any Tournament seeding tweaks based on attendance concerns.

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