Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Regional History

To understand the problem with the NCAA regionals, first we have to understand where they've come from So a little history lesson is in order.

Regionals are a relatively new concept in the history of the NCAA tournament. For the first 30 years or so, there were only four teams that qualified for the tournament in the first place, so no additional games were required to determine the Frozen Four once qualification was over. The concept was very simple during this time - two teams from the east, two teams from the west. Every year, no exceptions.

In the late 1970s, there was some experimentation with play-in games to determine the second semifinalist from one or both of the two regions - especially due to the advent of the CCHA and its automatic bid to the tournament - but it wasn't until the tournament expanded to eight teams for the 1980-81 season (and four teams from both regions) that the pre-Frozen Four element of the national tournament became a real thing.

From 1981 through 1987, the quarterfinal round consisted of two-game series of inter-regional matchups, played at the higher seed. The team that scored the most goals in the two games advanced to the Frozen Four, with overtime taking place in the second game if the two teams had scored the same number of goals. RPI hosted two first round series during this time period, infamously falling to North Dakota at the Field House in 1984 and defeating Lake Superior State the next year on the way to winning the national championship.

The tournament expanded again to 12 teams in the 1987-88 season, which required the awarding of byes in order to get down to four teams for the Frozen Four. Initially, the top four seeds earned a free pass to the quarterfinal round, with the remaining eight teams competing in the first round - still a two-game, most goals series hosted by the higher seed. The winners would then travel the following weekend to the four highest seeds, and compete in yet another two-game, most goals series, with the winners advancing to the Frozen Four.

That lengthened the tournament by an entire week, pushing the Frozen Four into the month of April for the first time. The following season, and for the next three years between 1989 and 1991, the two-game series that had previously comprised the first and quarterfinal rounds became best of three series, turning the national tournament into a battle of attrition. For instance, Boston University in 1990 played seven NCAA games before losing in the semifinals at the Frozen Four.

So for 30 years, there wasn't much beyond the Frozen Four, and for another 10, series were played at the higher seeds on campus. In 1992, the first neutral-site regionals took place ahead of the Frozen Four in Albany. Six teams were sent to the East Regional in Providence, while six were sent to the West Regional in Detroit. The top two teams in each regional were given a bye to the second round of the regional, while the other four played each other in the first round, the winners advancing to take on the top seeds the next day.

That's pretty much how things played out for the next 10 years. However, there was a perceived problem in the west, as a number of West Regionals were hosted in campus rinks - in 1994 (Michigan State), 1995 (Wisconsin), 1996 (Michigan State), 1998 (Michigan), 1999 (Wisconsin), 2000 (Minnesota), and 2002 (Michigan). Each of those seasons, with the exception of 1996, 1999, and 2000, saw the home team playing on its own ice sheet. In 1998 and 2002, Michigan teams that hadn't earned a bye to the second round won twice on their home ice and earned a trip to the Frozen Four. (The East didn't have the same problem, as the Regional basically alternated between Albany and Worcester for most of the 1990s.)

With the expansion of the tournament to 16 teams in time for the 2002-03 season, the NCAA basically had two options. They could either continue the East/West regionals, seeding eight teams in each regional and eliminating the bye, or expand to four regional sites per season, seeding four teams per site playing three games to determine a regional champion that advances to the Frozen Four. They chose the latter, and since 2003, the tournament has proceeded in that fashion.

The problem? Practically since the very beginning, most regionals have been practically devoid of spectators, with some major exceptions coming only when a notable host team is present.

The record for attendance at a regional final came in 2006 at the West Regional as North Dakota took on Holy Cross in... Grand Forks, North Dakota. For the geographically challenged, that's where UND's campus is, and the game took place on their home ice surface at Ralph Engelstad Arena. 11,492 took in the Fighting Sioux's victory over a Holy Cross team fresh off the biggest upset in the recent history of the tournament. One has to wonder how many of the 11,153 at that game were Sioux fans cheering fervently against their hated rivals from Minnesota.

In fact, five of the top six best attended regional finals involved a team either playing on its home ice surface or within 10 miles of its campus. All of these occurred in the west, and involved one or both of Minnesota, North Dakota, or Wisconsin. The one exception was the 2007 West Regional in Denver, which drew 11,217 for a game between Minnesota and North Dakota in a regional that also included Michigan, played in an easy-to-travel-to city with teams that have large followings.

But these are the exceptions and not the rule. The median regional final attendance is somewhere around 6,250, and in most cases, special circumstances - the right teams in the right place - are necessary to drive that figure up.

Take the 2010 East Regional in Albany, for instance. It featured Denver as the top seed, Cornell as the second seed, New Hampshire as the third seed, and RIT as the fourth seed. It was seen as a bit of a compromise situation for Denver to be in Albany, since they would have to fly to whatever region they went to, and the other three teams, from relatively nearby schools, would be able to draw some fans, especially considering that those three schools have solid fanbase sizes.

The end result? For starters, Denver played an ostensible road game in front of an almost entirely pro-RIT crowd and lost a close one, 2-1. But the total attendance? Between DU-RIT and Cornell-UNH, the total listed attendance was 4,073. Surely not all of those people were at both games, played in a building that holds over 14,000 for hockey, creating a pretty dead atmosphere. Only 3,737 were on hand to watch RIT earn a trip to the Frozen Four the next night. By comparison, last year's RPI-Union game in the same building drew a shade under 6,000, but the upper bowl was closed and tickets were included in both schools' season ticket package.

Which draws us back to the west. In the Midwest and West regionals, outside of the aforementioned 2007 West Regional, no regional final has ever cleared the median average without having a team with significant local interest involved, and with the exception of the 2008 West Regional in Colorado Springs, none have ever even cleared 5,000.

Tonight, we'll post the attendance figures from each of the 43 regional finals that we have figures for - the 2011 West Regional in St. Louis was unreported. That was almost certainly due to the paltry crowd that was in attendance for a game between Michigan and Colorado College in a building that seats over 19,000. Draw your own conclusions on what makes for worthwhile attendance.

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