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NCAA Hockey Tournament: Last Weekend Was Another Case For On-Campus Regionals

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Providence and Fargo had good crowds last weekend. Hm, wonder why?

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Aside from the fact that BC lost, last weekend's East Regional in Providence was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had at an NCAA hockey regional. The city of Providence and its Dunkin' Donuts Center were certainly a step up from its counterparts in Manchester, Worcester, or Bridgeport as a destination and a good place to go see a game.

But more importantly, there was a good crowd and a good atmosphere in the building, probably better than I've ever experienced at a regional. A large contingent of BC fans made the short and pleasant trip to Providence, filling up an entire end of the arena. And of course, a huge contingent of Providence College fans was there as well. The end result? The best-attended regional: 14,228 fans over two days, averaging over 7K per night.

The second best attended regional was in Fargo, which sold out its small arena within about 40 seconds when tickets went on sale. 10,590 fans witnessed North Dakota play in Fargo over two nights, creating a raucous atmosphere and cheering the [redacted] on to the Frozen Four.

The other two regionals, however, were a little less successful. Manchester, anchored by BU's presence, drew a decent 4,922 fans per night—not bad, though not the greatest atmosphere in an 11,700-seat arena. South Bend, as is usually the case for the Midwest regional, was a disaster, drawing 3,916 fans per night (allegedly, though it certainly didn't look like that on TV).

On the one hand, you could make the argument that the system worked this year. Fargo and Providence were actually enjoyable experiences with great atmospheres. Manchester was acceptable, if not great. South Bend could have worked if Notre Dame had made it, but no such luck (Thanks, dastardly Hockey East refs!).

But to me, last weekend's divergence in the success of the various regionals goes to show how fragile the attendance at these events is; it's dependent entirely upon having a local team with a big fan base present. No matter who's in a regional, even if it's BC, Minnesota, North Dakota and Michigan, you're never going to get a critical mass of people willing to get on a plane, fly, and pay for lodging to attend an NCAA regional.

It's all well and good when you can essentially guarantee the "home" team will be present like you can for North Dakota. Providence, however, barely made it in to the NCAA tournament; replace the Friars with, say, Quinnipiac, and you're looking at significantly lower attendance.

The other problem is the general unfairness of the hosting system, and the shifting of teams to various sites for attendance purposes. North Dakota was a #1 seed, and nobody can begrudge them the fact that they got to play in their home state en route to the Frozen Four. As a #4 seed, there are certainly going to be some who feel aggrieved that Providence got to play at home.

The success of the Providence and Fargo regionals show that ultimately, for all the talk about ticket prices, "hockey fatigue" (3-4 straight weeks of shelling out for playoff hockey tickets, plus the chance of a Frozen Four trip), unpleasant venues, inability to sit back and watch all the games on HDTV, etc., the #1 factor is really just whether there's a home fan base present or not. If there is, people will come, even at the ridiculous price the NCAA charges for these games; if there's not, they won't. It's as simple as that.

If the NCAA shifted to a format where the top 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament hosted regionals, they could preserve the TV-friendly single-elimination format, but still come closer to guaranteeing good environments and good crowds at regional games. Such a format wouldn't be a panacea; the problems have been thoroughly discussed, including potential arena availability issues, the problem of what happens when a Merrimack or someone else with a tiny arena is a 1 seed; and the question of whether you'd still get a good crowd for the regional final if the home team goes out on day one.

But all things considered, such a format would be a step up. They've already dropped some of the standards for who can bid on regionals, letting a very small Fargo venue host and also allowing the on-campus Joyce Center at Notre Dame to host. Time to make the next step and let the four #1 seeds host.