Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The NCAA ice hockey tournament got off to a great start this past weekend. There was some very exciting hockey played by some of the best young athletes in all of North America. There was only one problem: Nobody watched. Sure, attendence was fine in the West thanks to local crowds in North Dakota and Wisconsin packing the stands to see their local team, but attendence bordered on pathetic out east, especially at the Albany regional where the arena was less than a third full to see Maine defeat Michigan State in the regional final. That's always been the problem with college hockey though. Those that leave the arena always walk away satisfied, but far too few get into the building to begin with.

One solution to this problem is so simple that it should be obvious to the NCAA: roll back ticket prices. The cost of attending NCAA tournament games is just too high. I understand that it takes a lot of revenue to fund an event like this, but the NCAA would actually make more money if they charged $25 for a pass to all three games and sold out a building like Pepsi Arena, as opposed to charging $72 for a pass to all three games and only having 4400 show up.

But would making the games cheaper really make that much of a difference? Absolutely. I’ll give you a personal example of why it would.

Believe it or not, about 13 years ago I went to the Arena Bowl. For those not familiar, the Arena Bowl is the league championship of the ever-growing Arena Football League. The question is, why did I go to the Arena Bowl? Prior to attending the game, I had maybe watched a tiny bit of a game or two on television. I couldn’t name another team in the league, aside from the hometown Detroit Drive, let alone name any players playing in the league. I was pretty much clueless about any rule that differed from the NFL. But there I was, sitting inside Joe Louis Arena with my dad watching what Detroit Drive owner Mike Ilitich described, shortly before selling the team, as “something stupid like arena football.”

The answer is easy. Why not go? On a lazy Saturday with nothing to do, my dad was able to pick up a couple tickets to the Arena Bowl for pretty cheap. We love football, but Michigan only plays 6-7 home games a year, and going to see the Lions play is usually more pain than pleasure, so the next best alternative was to go watch some arena football. We were able to go out to eat before the game and the game itself was a cool event.

Arena football itself didn’t really capture my interest. Detroit getting blown out by the Tampa Bay Storm probably didn’t help. I haven’t been back to, or watched an arena football game since. But that’s beside the point. The point is, I was there, and I got to see what the game had to offer. I may not have liked it all that much, but there were thousands of other people just like me who loved what they saw and decided to keep going back. That’s a big part of the reason why the popularity of arena football has exploded over the past couple years. Albany’s franchise draws between eight and ten thousand fans per game. Games can now be seen on national television, and the league even has their own video game. College hockey fans would kill for those things.

The high pricetag associated with NCAA tournament tickets isn’t going to scare away the hardcore college hockey fans. They’d pay just about any price you asked. I’m saving a kidney for when Minnesota State makes it back to the NCAA tournament. But the price is so high that you have to be a rabid college hockey to pay it. Very few families are able to justify spending that amount of money just to go check out something they’ve barely heard of and might be interested in.

Some people argue that by cheapening the tickets, you cheapen the event itself. They say college hockey, while expensive, is still a great bargain compared to most professional sporting events or other cultural events. While that is very true, not very many other people know that. You don’t convince them by telling them what a great bargain college hockey is. You do that by showing them what a great bargain it is. Let the people experience the excitement and atmosphere for themselves and the game will sell itself.

This was a great weekend of college hockey. As I watched tiny Holy Cross defeat powerful Minnesota, all I could think of was how much the tournament needs to be expanded. Imagine how great a 32 team NCAA tournament field would be, with small schools fighting desperately to pull off major upsets against top teams in great games would be. But in order for that to happen, you’ve got to increase fan interest, and there is no way that is going to happen if the casual fan is left on the outside looking in.


At 6:28 PM, Blogger Ford & Alyson said...

WOW, great insight about the great sport of ice hockey; college that is.
I just wish I could have watched any of the games as no one carries them. If they could get TV to carry this NCAA Division #1 sport nationally (at least the quarterfinals), we would all have a chance to bring in new fans.
I can't move back north yet, so will suffer until the Frozen Four are on next week.
Go UMO!!!


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