NCAA hockey tournament regionals suffer at box office

Posted March 27, 2012, at 8:56 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — For those who watched Boston College beat Minnesota-Duluth 4-0 Sunday night in the NCAA Hockey Tournament’s Northeast Regional championship game, it appeared that the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., was mostly empty.

That’s because it was.

The crowd was listed at 4,470 and when you figure in the capacity of the DCU Center, which is 12,239, that means 36.5 percent of the seats were filled.

Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said there was a good reason for the low attendance.

“Eight o’clock on a Sunday night is too late,” said Bertagna. “I bought 10 tickets apiece for Saturday and Sunday because in the position I’m in, I get a lot of calls [for tickets]. I wound up eating three of them on Saturday and eight on Sunday.”

Saturday’s games pitted Maine against Minnesota-Duluth and Boston College against the Air Force Academy and the two-game bracket attracted 5,925 fans.

The 8 pm. starting time for the final was dictated by ESPN-TV.

The network wanted to air regional games live, particularly the regional championships. That required staggered starts. There were two regional finals on Saturday and two on Sunday.

Earlier on Sunday, ESPN aired the West Regional final between Minnesota and North Dakota at 5:30 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

On Saturday, UMass Lowell and Union played at 6:30 p.m. in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., and the Midwest Regional final between Ferris State and Cornell in Green Bay, Wis., started at 9 p.m.

University of Maine coach Tim Whitehead said it would have made more sense to play the Minnesota-Duluth-BC game at 5:30 p.m. and the Minnesota-North Dakota game at 8 p.m., especially considering that it would have been a 7 p.m. Central time start in St. Paul.

The reason ESPN has so much pull is simple: The network has paid the NCAA $500 million for the multimedia rights to 24 NCAA championships through the 2023-2024 season.

Mark Bedics, the NCAA’s media coordinator for the men’s Division I hockey championships, explained that Sunday night games attract more TV viewers than Sunday afternoon.

Bertagna and Whitehead said another reason behind the low attendance was ticket prices.

It cost $85 to watch all three games in the Northeast Regional while a one-day ticket cost $47.50.

“Money is still tight,” said Bertagna.

The commissioner used the plight of some loyal University of Maine fans as an example.

They dished out money to attend the Black Bears’ Frozen Fenway game against New Hampshire on Jan. 7, bought tickets for Maine’s three home Hockey East quarterfinal games against Merrimack, more tickets for the Hockey East semifinals and final at the TD Garden in Boston, and then there was the Northeast Regional.

“Gas is close to $4 a gallon,” said Bertagna.

“And then there’s food and hotel rooms,” added Whitehead.

Whitehead also noted that the team’s 5-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth was purchased by WABI-TV of Bangor and aired on The CW, which made it easy for fans to stay home and watch it rather than spend the money to go to Worcester.

“They need to lower the ticket prices and to realize that if they are going to allow local [TV] carriers to [purchase and] show the game, that’s going to hurt attendance,” said Whitehead.

ESPNU broadcast the games and that station is carried in 73 million homes as compared with the 100.5 million homes that have ESPN and ESPN2.

One Frozen Four semifinal will be carried on ESPNU and the other on ESPN2. ESPN2 will carry the championship game instead of ESPN.

None of the regionals did well attendancewise.

The two days’ attendance at the Northeast Regional averaged out to 5,197 fans per day and that represents 42.5 percent of capacity.

The West Regional in St. Paul averaged 10,180 per day, 56.4 percent of capacity (18,064), the Bridgeport Regional attracted an average of 5,209 for 61.9 percent capacity (8,412), and the worst regional was in Green Bay with an average of 3,286 for 37.7 percent of capacity (8,709).

The University of Wisconsin failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament which was the primary reason for the attendance woes in Green Bay.

Bedics said the NCAA Hockey Tournament format is discussed every year at the American Hockey Coaches Association meetings in Naples, Fla., in April. The Men’s Division I Ice Hockey Committee will discuss it at its meeting in June.

There won’t be any format change for next season because the four four-team regional sites already have been set: Manchester, N.H.; Providence, R.I.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and, for the first time, in the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, which was built in 2009. The Frozen Four will be held for the first time in Pittsburgh.

Regional sites haven’t been awarded for the 2013-2014 season yet but the Frozen Four will be held in Philadelphia, also for the first time.

Other regional formats have been discussed including a best-of-three series in the first round at the home rinks of the top eight seeded teams followed by two four-team regionals which each will produce two winners for the Frozen Four.

There also has been discussion of two eight-team Super Regionals which each will produce two Frozen Four teams.

Whitehead prefers the current format.

“It just needs to be tweaked,” he said.

“The best-of-three format [for the first round] gives the home team too big of an advantage,” said Whitehead. “The Super Regionals would be a logistical nightmare. You’d need eight locker rooms and how would you divide up the tickets among so many teams [and sets of fans]?”

Bedics said changing the format would require a consensus among the coaches and athletic directors and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus at this time to change it.

Whitehead led the Black Bears to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006-2007, but don’t look for the university to pocket any money for its accomplishment.

“The NCAA covers our expenses: our travel, food and lodging,” said Maine athletic director Steve Abbott. “We don’t make any money off it.”

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