The NCAA is leaving open the door for its premier hockey tournament to return to campuses for the 2017 and 2018 regionals, all while announcing their regional sites for the 2015 and 2016 Division I Men's Ice Hockey Tournaments this week. They previously announced the Frozen Four sites for the '15 and '16 tournaments, including a return to Boston for next year at the TD Garden.
By not announcing the regionals for the '17 and '18, it would instead leave open the door to return to the on-campus sites, according to RPI athletic director Jim Knowlton, the chair of the selection committee. "We did not want to tie our hands with four years of regionals," he said in a recent USCHO report. "So we went out two and we’ll continue to assess how the regionals do and whether or not the fan experience and the student-athlete experience will benefit from being on campuses."
There have been major complaints due to sagging attendance at regionals and the limited selection of sites in the past few years. The NCAA Tournament has rotated between several major locations for its regional selections, usually with Manchester, New Hampshire; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and St. Paul, Minnesota making the cut
But the biggest concern has been that the NCAA, while outgrowing its popularity in terms of awareness and visibility, reached too big in terms of its national tournament regionals. Television exposure has grown much larger thanks to national contracts, but attendance at the regionals continued to drop as it became tougher for teams to travel to large sites on short notice. Last year, attendance dropped nearly 50%, creating large swaths of empty seats at the national level.
The NCAA did award its regional selection sites for the 2015 and 2016 tournaments, using the next two years as a case study for if it will remain in professional arenas. The 2015 tournament will feature both professional and collegiate rinks as it heads back to Providence (host school: Brown University) and the Compton Family Ice Arena (host school: Notre Dame). It'll also utilize the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH (host: UNH), and it'll head to Fargo, North Dakota at the Scheel Arena (host school: North Dakota Athletic Department Hockey Team).
The 2016 rink will exclusively be at professional rinks.
Perhaps the most interesting case study for the '15 tournament will be the success of the Notre Dame regional against the Providence regional. Providence College is the cream of Hockey East this year and look to be headed for a top seed after the first half of the season. If they continue this trend upwards next year and make the tournament as a #1 or #2 seed, it's likely they would stay close to home and play at the Dunk. Even though the host school is their Mayor's Cup rival, the Dunk is the host arena for their basketball program. There is also talk that the Friars and Bears could begin using the arena as a home arena for a tournament that would feature schools from another conference. This could create a scenario where attendance skews and sells.
Likewise, Notre Dame is a host school. If the Irish make the tournament, by rule, they have to play in their own regional. Compton is located on campus in South Bend. That would likely skew attendance as well since they'd be playing home games. What does all this mean towards awarding future sites? That's what's open to interpretation, something that I personally would really like to hear discussion about since I'm honestly not sure.
As for Boston College, the move back to on-campus regionals would make it a destination and a definite landing spot for a host school spot. It's unlikely that any move into Boston would result in the Eagles as a host school because of the proximity of so many other schools. Boston University served as a host school for a regional in Worcester in 2008, but that usually is reserved for Holy Cross because of their location. With a lack of smaller professional arena in Boston, the only way the tournament would come to a professional rink in the city is if it were for the national championship, in which case it becomes the conference hosting.
A move to regional on-campus sites would clearly benefit the Eagles. Given their history, they would absolutely end up playing at home in front of the Superfans for games if named a host school. The host school factor could play a huge role, especially since it's the reason they were sent to St. Louis in 2011 for a loss to Colorado College. That year, UNH made the tournament as the last team in. Because they were the host school in Manchester, the NCAA had to give them the #4 seed in that regional. That meant BC, who was a top seed in the touranment, a) couldn't play them because they were conference foes and b) had to go to St. Louis for a group of death. BC lost in the first round. UNH, meanwhile, nearly won their regional and lost, 2-1, in the regional final to Notre Dame.
But since the NCAA only rotates between essentially the same spots, only a select few teams are eligible for that type of free pass. A move back to on-campus sites would spread that wealth around. It would also force other programs to step up their efforts to build Division I rinks. Schools like RIT and Penn State are building or have built bigger, more populous rinks on par with some minor league arena. And rinks like Meehan Auditorium at Brown or Yost Ice Arena at Michigan could become ideal landing spots. Based on that success and exposure, it could force other teams to step up their ability to host. I'm looking at you, Merrimack (I know you just renovated, but you should've rebuilt). And, yes, I'm looking at you, half of Atlantic Hockey (including my beloved Bentley Falcons).
What do you think? Would the move back to the on-campus rinks work? Please comment and discuss below.