This past weekend was the the third year of conference championships played in the west since the creation of the Big Ten Conference and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and results were once again beyond dismal.
The Big Ten announced crowds of roughly 4000, 5000, and 6000 for their three days, numbers sad on their own, and roundly mocked for being at least double what the actual attendance appeared to be. The WCHA Final Five pulled in respectable crowds of 5000 and 4000 for their two days.That is great considering the challenges the leagues faces, but that's ultimately not a sustainable number for a league with the geographic challenges and expenses they have. The NCHC remains the closest thing to a success, but this year, with their most geographically-friendly field yet, they showed no growth from last year. In fact, they lost about 500 people on Friday from last season, and came up nine people short of matching last year's final. The fact remains that the tournament is 100% dependent on North Dakota making it to the Target Center, and they are in line for a disaster the year the Fighting Hawks don't make it.
Despite frequent assertions from coaches and league officials that some of these tournaments just need a few more years of declining attendance and fan interest to really turn into something special--those people at the XCel Center booing the announcement of next year's Big Ten Tournament seemed particularly excited about the future--the current set-up does not seem to be working at all.
Enter WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson, who has a plan for the future.This rumor has been floated around a bit over the past year, but now that the tournaments are officially over, Robertson went on the record with WCCO in Minneapolis about what he calls 'The Big Idea'.
While the logistics, of which there would be many, still need to be worked out, the basic idea is to host all three conference tournaments for the WCHA, Big Ten, and NCHC in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on the same weekend, and stagger the start times as much as possible to allow fans the opportunity to see as many games as possible. While not mentioned in the article, one rumor suggested all three conference tournament finals then being played on the final day of the season at the XCel Energy Center. The idea is to turn the weekend into a festival of college hockey for the city.
There is of course a myriad of issues standing in the way of making it happen, starting with participation from the other two conferences. The Big Ten seems the most interested at the moment, with B1G deputy commissioner and most hated man in college hockey Brad Traviolia admitting that is one of many potential options they will discuss and consider for the future, saying "We recognize that the attendance hasn’t been what we had hoped" under the current set-up.
NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton seemed more reticent, which makes sense given the NCHC is currently in the least desperate position of the group, but at least said the league would look into the possibility. Traviolia mentioned that the Big Ten has had discussions about what a combined tournament would look like with one or two other conferences, indicating that an option where just the Big Ten and WCHA combined would also be on the table if the NCHC decided not to join.
Getting all three conferences to the table would be just the first issue though. Lining up appropriate venues, cost considerations--tickets to just one conference tourney are likely too high as it stands right now, let alone for a "super pass" to all three, not to mention the added costs of parking at multiple venues on the same day--and the fact that people might not even be interested in watching anything outside of their own conference are all major issues to consider.
The other issue is for the 13 western teams to the east of Madison that would never see a conference tournament in their region. Though if that were to hasten a split to a more geographic conference realignment, that could be a very happy unintended consequence to this whole thing.
But give credit to Robertson, who came to the WCHA with a tremendous track record of sports marketing experience, for trying to come up with something. He may not have the strongest pure hockey background(not that he's the worst commish in that regard), but he's someone that understands how to draw casual fans to sporting events, and his work so far with the WCHA speaks for itself. The fact that the WCHA Final Five last year at the XCel Center managed to outdraw this year's Big Ten Tournament at the X is absolutely astounding when you consider the programs in each conference.
It's clear that what is happening right now isn't working and that something will have to change. Of course there is a simple solution to all of this and everyone knows what it is. But everyone also knows that solution will very likely never happen. So instead, it's all about finding a solution that maybe could work in the current college hockey landscape, and finding a way to bring all the old friends back together again, even if they're not competing directly against each other, may be the right path to explore.