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Looking for revenue, WCHA changes Tourney Format

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Poor attendance and even worse viewership have created a troublesome duo for college hockey in the midwest. This week, the WCHA Men's League Board of Directors pulled the first of many chords on their escape chute and announced a change to their playoff format.

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Just about two months ago, the Golden Gopher's women's team won their 6th NCAA Tournament title. It was a good game and Boston College would have been just as worthy of lifting the trophy at the end of the day. But the Gophers did what they've done before and out-skated, out-shot, and out-worked every opponent in the tournament. And the game prior, where the Gophers exorcised their cardinal-red demons in the Wisconsin Badgers, was even better. In the span of two games, the top three teams all season faced off in a frenzy of some of the best hockey you'd see all season.

If you were able to watch it, it was a testament to the quality of the product the NCAA puts on the ice. If you were able to catch the action, it was an example of just how hard our collegiate athletes work to compete at this level. If you could navigate the byzantine series of channels to find where the NCAA Championship was hosted, you would have loved it.

If you were able to watch the Gopher's championship run on television, you were luckier than most. That's because it wasn't until a full week later, on March 27, that the championship game was first televised on CBS. As you can imagine, viewership was down for a game that was a week old and whose champions had already made their triumphant return home and lifted the trophy above their heads.

As you can imagine, viewership was down on March 27. And that's a problem.

It's a problem that the WCHA Men's Board of Directors addressed this week. The advent of the Big Ten conference for hockey in 2013 meant the end of an era as some of the biggest names in WCHA hockey departed for what was promised to be a better, brighter future for NCAA hockey on the whole. It was sold as a way to tap into collegiate fan bases at marquee universities with undergraduates eager to cheer and spend and attend any sport, as long as it's their team with their name and their mascot.

That was the promise. The reality has been more sober, with the Big Ten conference and WCHA hockey struggling to combat apathy which has translated into horrendous attendance and poor viewership which translate into massive hits in revenue. On Tuesday, the WCHA announced a more concerted effort to improve their lot, by adjusting the tournament structure. They'll replace the Final Five structure with a 3-3-1 system: four best-of-three first round series', two best-of-three seconds, and a one-game championship.

Each first round series will be hosted by one of the top four regular season WCHA finishers, with the top four presumably hosting their own series. The tournament stays with the highest remaining seeds in the second round and the championship follows the highest remaining seed for the #BigGame.

The WCHA has made a smart move in an era of very stupid moves.


In practice, the WCHA's changes directly address the issue of attendance. The old Final Five format hosted games at a "neutral site" selected by a raccoon sorting through and washing ping pong balls -- hardly random to say the least. The new system is designed to "ride the wave" of enthusiasm generated by regular season success. It's a smart system that is attentive to the logic of college hockey fandom and cognizant of the dynamics of attendance. It recognizes that the fans who are most likely to show up and pay for two or three or six or seven tickets over the course of the tournament are those whose teams played the best. The fans who are most excited about their team, all else equal, will almost always be those whose teams have given them the most reason to cheer and to be excited. In short, the WCHA has made a smart move in an era of very stupid moves.

What they'll reap from this change is yet to be seen, but it's clear that they are targeting a core issue plaguing NCAA hockey. Attendance, which has dipped since the departure of in-state and local rivalries for the dismal Big Ten pastures, has to be stoked somehow. With the tournament serving as a way to boost revenue late in the year, this change in format should draw in better and more enthusiastic crowds.

This isn't to say the WCHA's plan is perfect. By restructuring their tournament around campuses and specific schools, they ignore the broader issue of viewership. Alongside game day revenue gathered through ticket, concession, and swag sales, television airtime provides one of the biggest single sources of revenue for the WCHA.

This change in structure could encourage more local stations to carry the games, but more likely than not during these first few years, a different logic will prevail. The benefit of a single-elimination playoff series for television partners is the built-in drama that comes with the knowledge that any one goal or one play could end it all. In three game series, it becomes about the nuance of the game, nuance that's harder to impart upon small-market audiences by crews with limited hockey telecast experience.

In all likelihood, the WCHA's change may force their three-game series' off the air entirely. That may be an acceptable loss, and one that would maybe have happened anyway as collegiate hockey viewership dwindles behind the rise of specialized, regional cable channels like the Big Ten Network.

All in all, the WCHA was smart to pick its battle. It addressed an issue it could address and in so doing has probably bought themselves some time to think of a plan to increase viewership. They'll fill their stands a little better in the 2017 tournament, which will be a signal of health to advertisers and television partners. It will serve as a small victory within a larger series of losses for NCAA hockey, and one that could turn the tide going forward. It may not be enough to solve the WCHA or the NCAA's revenue problems, but their efforts here show they're willing to gear up for the bigger battle that's to come on the airwaves.