The women's Beanpot has carved out a pretty solid niche for itself in the women's hockey world. Unlike, say, the baseball Beanpot, which teams don't take seriously enough to use their top pitchers in, and which has suffered from a nonsensical series of venue changes, the women's Beanpot has had a consistent formula that has allowed it to develop a tradition in the style of the men's version.
Each year, one of the four Beanpot schools hosts the tournament, meaning there's a stable venue situation and the tournament is always played in Boston. The four schools of the men's Beanpot also participate in the women's tournament, even dating back to when BU only had a club team—unlike the silliness of UMass being in the baseball Beanpot. And all four teams at various points have been nationally competitive programs, so there's significance and importance to the games.
However, much like everything else relating to women's hockey aside from USA-Canada at the Olympics, there's always the struggle and question of how to get more people to show up and/or tune in.
One idea that has been floated for years is the idea of playing the women's Beanpot final at 5 PM on the day of the men's Beanpot final at TD Garden, hoping to give the tournament something of a built-in audience of people who bought a ticket to the men's final. This move would also increase the likelihood of NESN broadcasting the event, since they are already set up there to broadcast the men's final anyway (though it's worth noting that NESN does not currently televise the Beanpot consolation game).
Well-placed sources close to the situation told BCI that there were very serious discussions about pulling the trigger on this move in 2015, and that one of the only reasons why it didn't happen was that TD Garden had already sold Beanpot tickets for this year advertising the consolation game and championship game, making it unfair on ticket buyers to switch what they were paying for. The source strongly suggested that 2016 is quite likely to be the year the move happens.
So, it looks like this may well be moving past the idea stage and into reality. But would it work? Would it help grow the event and the sport at large?
Color me skeptical.
There are a few small things I don't like about this plan, which could be dealt with reasonably easily. First of all, there's the issue of what to do with the Beanpot consolation game. You still have to have it no matter what, since teams use the Beanpot to fill their out of conference schedule. This issue could be pretty easily resolved; either play it at 2 PM and make it a hockey tripleheader at TD Garden, or pre-select a neutral site (perhaps the venue of the women's Beanpot semifinals) to play the consolation game on the Tuesday, as a doubleheader with the women's consolation. There might be some novelty in, say, a BC vs. Harvard men's game at Matthews Arena, for instance.
There's the issue of messing with the tradition of the Beanpot, which has had the consistent formula for 60+ years of two semifinals one week, then consolation/championship the next (weather permitting). The consolation game, as mocked as it is, is part of the whole deal; avoiding playing at 5 PM on the second Monday becomes part of the narrative of the season. Of course, the way to deal with this is pretty simple: sometimes change happens, and then you get over it. So, no worries there.
But my skepticism comes in whether playing at 5 PM prior to the men's championship game is really best for the goal of increasing exposure to the women's Beanpot and making the experience better for the players. As anyone who's been to the Beanpot consolation game knows, it's pretty much always completely empty; heck, the meaningful 5 PM semifinal on the first Monday is usually pretty empty, as is the early game at the Hockey East tournament.
Would turnout be any better for the women's final? I would argue that turnout might be worse—especially when you get a nightmare scenario like this year, where the women's final is BC vs. Harvard and the men's final is BU vs. Northeastern. Are we expecting the large mass of BC and Harvard fans (okay, BC fans) who have either sold off their tickets or just planned to eat the cost to change their mind and go to watch the women's final? I have my doubts. When one team is in both finals, you might get a semi-decent chunk of students and fans from that school to come early and catch the end of the women's game, but that's about it, I think.
The end result of this move would almost certainly be playing the women's Beanpot final in front of a 90% empty TD Garden every year. The question is whether this dead atmosphere and spectre of empty seats would be worth a) getting the game on NESN and b) the opportunity to pick up stragglers who've never seen women's hockey before, but manage to catch the end of the game when they head in for the men's final.
I don't know the answer to this question and it's certainly a matter of opinion. However, put me in the "No" column. I don't think making this event the undercard is the way to give it the spotlight that could help grow the event and the sport.
If the women's Beanpot wants to find a way to shine on its own and feel more like an "event" than just another set of games, I have two suggestions:
1) Find a (different, smaller) neutral site for the tournament, and
2) Move it to the two Sundays immediately preceding the men's Beanpot, rather than the two Tuesdays following.
May I suggest Agganis Arena as the neutral venue? BU's women play at Walter Brown Arena, so you're not permanently playing at someone's home rink. Agganis is a modern, premier mid-sized facility, so it would have a kind of "event" feel to it—and it's intimate enough that you wouldn't need too huge of a crowd to make for a good atmosphere. Play it on a Sunday and you might draw in a better crowd than you do on a Tuesday night. And try your best to get NESN to commit to broadcasting it, even though it may be an uphill climb.
Other options for neutral sites could include Matthews Arena, given its history as the initial home of the men's Beanpot; Walter Brown, due to its small size; or something totally off the wall like UMass-Boston or Suffolk University's home rink, Steriti Rink in the North End. This would be the opposite approach of going to the Garden—you'd be taking the approach Hockey East took in moving the annual conference championship to a small, local rink in Hyannis—no big stage, but a fun, intimate atmosphere, and a predictable venue with a commitment from NESN to broadcast each year.
What say you? Go bigger or go smaller? Or just keep the tournament as it is now? If reports are to be believed, a decision could be coming soon and the women's Beanpot will change, for better or for worse.