The NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee convened on Wednesday afternoon, presumably somewhere deep within the bowels of Bureaucratic Hell, to discuss expansion of the NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey tournament. The meeting came in the wake of a summertime push to expand the field from eight teams to 10 that was eventually tabled due to uncertainty around the future of the CHA’s autobid after Robert Morris dropped their program, and more recently, after a major social media push that highlighted the disparity into the effort the NCAA put into their men’s and women’s D-1 tournaments.
The committee recommended that the women’s tournament field expand from eight teams to 11 teams, and for the change to either be implemented for the 2022 tournament or at the latest, the 2023 tournament. Once the final logistics of the 11-team tournament are hammered out, the proposal will be sent to the Division I Council for final approval.
Eleven teams seems like an odd number, though the Oversight Committee made it quite clear that their intention was to bring into proportion the number of women’s teams making the NCAA tournament (11 of 41 programs) with the men’s tournament (16 of 60 programs) at roughly 27% for each. That’s certainly a step in the right direction of addressing one of the issues brought up by the NCAA’s recent gender equity audit, though I’d classify as farther down the list of issues that were raised, behind some of the bigger ones like spending the money for bracket integrity and better marketing of the event.
Logistically, it’s not that hard to make 11 teams work. Think of a 12-team bracket with the top four teams getting a bye and the other eight playing a quarterfinal qualifier. An 11-team field is essentially the same except the fifth-ranked team also gets a bye to the quarterfinal without having to play the 12th-ranked team. Realistically, at least at this point in time, #5 playing against #12(or more likely, much lower than #12 since it’s likely to be a CHA or NEWHA autobid) isn’t likely to be a super-competitive game anyway.
The other big question with the expanded tournament field is where these games will be played. There are two options here.
First is moving to a Super Regional format like the men’s tournament used to do when it was a 12-team field, with six teams in one regional(two R16 games on one day, two QFs the following day) and five teams in the other regional (one R16 game one day, two QFs the next day). There are issues here, specifically finding venues that can accommodate six teams over the course of a weekend, plus the extra burden of travel on fans seems limiting at a time when the NCAA should be working to grow the women’s hockey fanbase.
The other option is to keep the tournament similar to what it is, with the higher seed hosting their quarterfinal match-up, but simply adding the R16 games the day before. There’s a bit of a drawback in that those R16 would be a pretty dead atmosphere playing in someone else’s rink. But that issue would exist for most, if not all games if the tournament moved to pre-assigned regional sites. Moving away from home ice tournament games is slowly choking the life out of men’s hockey, and I think it would be a mistake to move away from that in women’s hockey too.
Regardless of how they choose to proceed, it’s a good day for women’s hockey to see the tournament moving forward and expanding. There is still a lot of work to be done, both in terms of the NCAA treating the sport in an equitable way, and in terms of generating the type of audience the sport is capable of. But this is at least another step towards that goal.