Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Regional Solutions

So, from looking at the breakdown of regional attendances, there are a couple of different things that become apparent. First, the top attendees are almost all home teams at their home rinks. The second is the difference between attendance in the vaster west and the more compact east.

So what's the solution? Having some games played at campus sites has been brought up with some frequency, but there are pros and cons to the idea.

Could we potentially go back to the previous system of having a best of three series at campus sites? Unlikely. That would bring up two possibilities. One would turn the Frozen Four into the Elite Eight following the best-of-three, forcing a three-day single-elimination death march to a national championship. That would be difficult to coordinate, with eight different schools getting access to tickets, a quadruple-header on the first day of the competition... it would be a logistical nightmare.

The other option is to have two best-of-three rounds ahead of the Frozen Four, but there are issues with this as well. First, you're looking at a team ending up playing as many as eight contests AFTER the conference tournaments are over, twice the current maximum of four. Second, unless you push the Frozen Four back another week, now fully into mid-April, there's no bye week between the determining of the Frozen Four and the event. Part of the reason the Frozen Four draws well and many regionals don't is simply the timing - fans are more apt to travel long distances when they have more time to plan a trip, and two weeks is better than one.

No, the best option is to keep the tournament single-elimination. But what options do we have to improve on what already exists? Super regionals of eight teams each? Since no teams have byes as they did in the super regional days of the 12-team tournament, you're looking at one day with four games at the same location. As with the Elite Eight notion above, that's a logistical nightmare.

The best option, in my view, has got to be to award the #1 seeds the right to host each regional.

In the west, it seems that the only time crowds come out is if the home team is playing. This is frequently viewed as a negative because it's not always the #1 team that's hosting, and that can put a team that's produced better results over the course of the season behind the 8-ball. So why not just create a system whereby at least the hosts have earned that right through their play, rather than just fortunately being the pre-determined hosts?

Let's look at how last year's regionals might have turned out if this had been the plan in 2013.

1 Quinnipiac
2 Minnesota
3 UMass-Lowell
4 Notre Dame
5 Miami
6 Boston College
7 New Hampshire
8 North Dakota
9 Denver
10 Niagara
11 Minnesota State
12 Union
13 St. Cloud State
14 Wisconsin
15 Yale
-- Canisius

Hamden, CT (TD Bank Sports Center)
1. Quinnipiac
2. New Hampshire
3. Denver
4. Canisius

Minneapolis, MN (Mariucci Arena)
1. Minnesota
2. North Dakota
3. Niagara
4. Yale

Lowell, MA (Tsongas Arena)
1. UMass-Lowell
2. Boston College
3. Union
4. Wisconsin

South Bend, IN (Compton Family Ice Arena)
1. Notre Dame
2. Miami
3. Minnesota State
4. St. Cloud State

This is actually extremely close to what the brackets played out to be in real life. The West Regional in Grand Rapids is exactly the same as it was, only now it's in Minneapolis. The Midwest Regional is also exactly the same, only now it's in South Bend. The two eastern regionals are close, but they have swapped 2-3 matchups. Why? Well, because instead of #2 seed New Hampshire being required to be placed in Manchester as a host, they can instead slot into a more natural position in Hamden.

There's another consideration to ponder as well - Brown was the host in Providence, and nearly made the tournament by winning the ECAC championship, considering that they made the title game. If they'd made the tournament, not only would they have displaced Yale, they'd have been automatically slotted in Providence, requiring conference-mates Quinnipiac to be moved to Manchester and making a mess of the bracket. This is better - because Brown wouldn't have been hosting as a #4 seed in this scenario.

How would this tournament have differed? Well, for one, Yale, having just barely made it into the tournament after imploding in Atlantic City, would be forced to play Minnesota on their home turf instead of the sparse crowd that greeted them in Grand Rapids. Is that fair? It's certainly more fair than Denver's lot in the real tournament, since they got what was basically a home team in New Hampshire, all because they were the pre-selected hosts of that regional. At least in this scenario, Minnesota's earning their home ice.

Perhaps, in a bit of irony, Minnesota fans might have turned out to cheer on Niagara against North Dakota, the way North Dakota fans had cheered Holy Cross to the upset over the Gophers in 2006 in Grand Forks.

Would attendance be an issue, though? We can cross Minneapolis and South Bend off the concern list right away - those arenas are past and future regional spots already. How much better can we expect the crowds to be when we're guaranteed that the home team will be there?

What about Lowell and Hamden? Tsongas seats about 6,500 for hockey, while the TD Bank Sports Center sells out at 4,074. Both of those figures are lower than the actual crowd sizes in Providence and Manchester.

That's why there's no easy fix for the regional problem - because it's largely an east vs west issue. Eastern regionals at larger neutral sites don't frequently have a problem selling at least a decent number of tickets, and home rinks in the east are frequently smaller than their western counterparts.

But in balancing the desire to have important games played in front of large crowds, ticket sales, bracket integrity, and the single-elimination tournament, it's the only idea that really works. We can't guarantee that every year we'll have two of the #1 seeds from the east and two from the west.

Even then, you're not guaranteeing results, especially if the #4 team upsets the #1 team on their home ice. Two #1s were upset last year by #4s that ended up in the Frozen Four. If Yale still beats Minnesota at Mariucci, you'd still probably have enough North Dakota fans coming out the next night, but what about Miami-St. Cloud in South Bend? It's probably not well attended. But that's the chance you take in order to balance all those various factors.

What about small rinks hosting regionals? Union's doing pretty well this year, what if they were to be a #1 seed, forcing four teams to play for the right to go to the Frozen Four in that tiny dump in Schenectady? There's no easy solution, as we've already said. It's not like Union (and RPI, for that matter) can just have the Times Union Center on hold for that weekend, just in case. Quinnipiac and Yale can't just ask the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport to keep some dates open for them.

It's not perfect. But it's at least merit-based, more likely to produce full rinks, and hopefully, up the excitement for teams seeking to reach the Frozen Four.

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