MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — If you watched the Big Ten or WCHA conference hockey tournaments this weekend, you undoubtedly noticed a common theme.
Lots and lots of empty seats.
The WCHA was in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Big Ten at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The NCHC Tournament at Target Center drew more per session than both of them combined.
Ever since college hockey’s major realignment three years ago, conference tournament attendance has taken a major hit.
Which is why commissioners from the WCHA, Big Ten and NCHC are discussing a rather interesting possible solution.
“I call it ‘The Big Idea’ for college hockey,” WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson said.
Robertson says he didn’t come up with the idea, but he told WCCO he is pushing to make it happen. He’d like the WCHA, Big Ten and NCHC to team up and coordinate their conference tournaments so they’re all in the same city the same weekend. Ideally, the Twin Cities.
“So it’d be one week of college hockey, and bring us back to the old Final Five days, where it was jam-packed every night,” Robertson said. “And I think that could be very successful.”
To be clear, it’d still be three separate tournaments, Robertson said.
“All playing at the same time, in different venues,” he continued, “And we’d stagger the start times, so you could buy those packages for all three.”
You could buy individual tickets for the teams or tournaments you’d want to see, or what Robertson calls a “Super-ticket” for all three.
“We have the venues in this marketplace where it could work, with the Xcel Energy Center, Target Center, and Mariucci Arena,” Robertson said. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s about drawing attendance and drawing exposure to your product.”
The idea being, maybe there’s a segment of college hockey fans who wouldn’t buy a ticket just to see the Gophers, but if they could see Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Duluth, North Dakota, Michigan and more, all in the same city, for one ticket price, that’d pull more people to all the tournaments instead of dividing them up by making people pick just one.
“I think you’d get the casual fan to be able to see, and mix and match what they want to go see,” Robertson said. “They might want see one game in the WCHA and then go over and see the other conferences play. I think that’s a valuable asset.
“Not necessarily competing against each other for the entertainment dollar is a big piece of this. And then you could share in the revenue piece, and then also share in the expense piece. And that would help us, and probably help all the other conferences in many different ways.”
Brad Traviolia, the deputy commissioner of the Big Ten who oversees hockey for the conference, told WCCO he’s absolutely open to the idea.
“We’ve talked internally about what a format would look like if we wanted to partner with one or two other conferences,” Traviolia said. “It’s a college hockey festival, and so if you’re able to get people to buy into that, and you can cross-promote effectively, and you get more people coming to watch college hockey in general, then perhaps all three or all two parties can win in a scenario like that. The con is that perhaps not all the attention is on you.
“That’s an option,” he continued. “I think there’s other options out there as well.”
Traviolia said one of those is moving the tournament to campus sites and letting the higher seeds host home games.
“We really haven’t dived in deeply yet with the coaches (to) find out what their preferences are,” Traviolia said. “But nothing’s off the table at this point.”
That includes not changing anything. But Traviolia said he is well aware that some kind of change is needed and says it’s likely.
“We recognize that the attendance hasn’t been what we had hoped,” he said.
The NCHC hasn’t had the same attendance problems. Both sessions this weekend drew more than 10,000. Commissioner Josh Fenton has reservations about changing what he feels is a formula that’s working, but told WCCO he is willing to explore the option.
The big question in his mind is whether such an idea would make things better or actually make it worse. Would it really draw more to all three, or just divide attendance three ways instead of two?
“We’re always open to discussion, that will focus on what’s going to improve the game,” Fenton said. “And so if that means some level of championship where we’re all in the same market and we’re trying to attract fans from all over to come and just (say), ‘Hey, it’s a college hockey weekend’ in whatever market, we’re open to that discussion… I would have to see how that would work, and what is the model, and how does it all come together.”
At this stage, the three leagues have only had initial conversations, so we’re in the very infant stages. But it’s on the table.
“The dialogue has been started and opened up,” Robertson said. “And I think it could work, and I’m hopeful that the other conferences see the value in something like this, and want to see it work for the future and the good of the game.”
The Big Idea, as Robertson calls it, still wouldn’t change what many believe is the actual problem — they still wouldn’t be playing each other, like they used to. But he believes this would be a big step in a better direction.
“What a concept,” he said, “if you’re a college sports fan, and a college hockey fan.”