Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Seriously - Don't Mess with the NCAAs

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on March 24, 2006.)

Last Friday I was in the Sports Depot in Boston, watching the Georgetown Hoyas sneak past Northern Iowa. Of the seventy-two plasma televisions in the bar, not a single one was tuned in to the Boston College-Boston University NCAA hockey match. Not one. Arguably the most heated rivalry in college hockey, played that night in Boston’s Garden, with the Hockey East title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line… and it’s not on a single TV in a Boston sports bar. And that’s when it occurred to me – I can fix college hockey, and a lot of other fringe sports as well.

In some ways, the lack of television time is understandable: the bar was full of basketball fans from schools of all pedigrees and reputations. What do they care about NCAA hockey? But come on! There had to be somebody in that place (besides me) who cared about that game, which BU eventually won. This was the height of NCAA hockey championship weekend. Hockey East is one of the major conferences, arguably the most talented in the nation and certainly on the east coast. This game was a big deal. And no one in that bar cared?

I don't think that's what it was. Rather, I think it speaks to a bigger problem that NCAA hockey and other fringe sports have: competition from center sports. And here’s my friendly advice to those sports: don’t mess with the NCAA tournament. Or the World Series. Or the All-Star game. Or the Super Bowl… for the love of God, don’t mess with the Super Bowl. You’re only going to get yourself hurt.

This is just a numerical fact. If you want your sport to grow, you need to attract new fans. And the best time to attract new fans is when there’s nothing else to distract them. This was a problem that a number of people noticed in the World Baseball Classic. Sure it was scheduled during a portion of the calendar year when it wouldn’t interfere with baseball's regular season, but in doing so it ran smack into the pick n’ roll of the NCAAs, severely decreasing its potential media exposure (of course maybe this was part of conspiracy to blame any initial failures on local media outlets…).

College hockey does the same thing, except it does it every mother-loving year. And honestly, the NCAA hockey tournament is only hurting itself by going head to head against the NCAA basketball tournament.

How much is it hurting itself? Well, I don’t have an exact answer for that, but there are a few ways to guestimate. First, let’s look at the internet. Try googling “ncaa basketball tournament” (it’s ok I’ve already done it for you). There are over 1.7 million results. Now try googling “ncaa hockey tournament” (again, I’ve taken care of it). There are over 17,000 results. That means that by a factor of one hundred there is greater web coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament than there is of the NCAA hockey tournament.

What about television? Well, NCAA basketball is doing just fine. It attracted 10.78 million viewers nation wide last week during the first night (8-11 pm) of tournament coverage, and last year over 45 million people watched all or part of the championship game between UNC and Illinois. In contrast, the NCAA hockey Frozen Four achieved its highest rating ever in 2002 when it 3.27 million people watched. Of course, that was the total for 3 games over 2 days.

The lesson here? When people are spending all their time writing on the internet about another sport or watching another sport on TV, it’s very hard for them to squeeze your sport in. Give them time to care.

It also helps if people have more time and options to gamble on your sport. Go google “ncaa hockey gambling” and “ncaa basketball gambling”. I didn’t think any internet search with word gambling in it could return fewer than 100 hits, but I was wrong. “NCAA hockey gambling” brings in 58. Fifty-freaking-eight. “NCAA basketball gambling”? Thirty thousand eight hundred. I’m not saying that arranging for more convenient gambling would guarantee a greater fan following for college hockey, but it couldn’t hurt.

That’s because a key problem of all fringe sports, to one extent or another, is access to a larger audience. Geographic fringe sports have the hardest time getting to a larger audience. It’s hard for sports in Bemidji, Minnesota to get New York City’s attention. But topical fringe sports like college hockey can make some scheduling adjustments to appeal to a broader audience.

Media abhors a vacuum and can be manipulated accordingly. If college hockey wanted to increase its audience and start to straddle the line between fringe and center media, it should move its schedule forward one month, starting their exhibition season in September instead of October and their regular season in October instead of November.

How does this help or fix college hockey? The sport still has to face college basketball, and now competes with the entirety of the college football season, not to mention the World Series and the Super Bowl. How could this possibly be a good thing?

Here’s how. College hockey already competes against college football, the Super Bowl and college basketball. Adding the World Series isn’t great, but it’s doable. What this schedule avoids is going head to head against the NCAA tournament, the number one impediment (besides, well, being hockey) to increasing its popularity. Those other sports don’t compete with college hockey directly, just in the round about way that sports compete with each other.

The NCAA basketball tournament and conference championships are different. Right when college hockey is getting ramped up, right when rivalries are becoming heated again, right when the home-and-homes matter that much more, right when NCAA hockey bracketology should be most popular… college basketball comes in and shoots its iced brother in the foot. By moving one month sooner in the calendar, the heart of college hockey hits the slump of college basketball, the end of the regular season. I like this match up.

This year the college hockey’s championship game is scheduled on Saturday, April 8th; it probably would have been on the 1st, but that competes with the Final Four, so the Frozen Four weekend will be given a momentum killing two-week break in between the tournament’s first weekend and Frozen Four championship weekend. If this year’s Frozen Four had been played on my schedule, the championship game would have been held on March 4th, and its stiffest television competition would have been #10 Illinois at #23 Michigan State.

Don’t get me wrong – that’s still a big hill to climb for a fringe sport. But it’s a lot better than trying to compete with the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, which is what college hockey does this weekend. As it is, this year’s championship game is during MLB's opening weekend. If they’re still playing, BC and BU will be ignored in Boston and around the country as the Red Sox and the other 29 teams prepare to take the field.

Media abhors a vacuum. By scheduling itself around more popular sports, college hockey can take advantage of that. Had that happened this year, we probably would have heard more about everyone’s favorite mid-major hockey team, Bemidji State University, which won the first automatic bid in this year’s tournament by besting Niagra for the College Hockey America conference championship. The tournament only takes 16 teams, and according to US College Hockey Online Bemidji is only ranked 28th, the weakest of the field. As such they’ll face the top seed, Wisconsin. That’s the equal of any story on Wichita State or George Mason.

And I would love to see my UNH Wildcats get some more national love. At the beginning of March, they were left for dead, but stormed through the month and much of Hockey East to show up as an at-large bid in the tournament. Had that happened throughout February instead of March, they would have been on Sports Center.

Fringe sports need all the help they can get if they want to grow. Sure, some of the tournament games will be played on ESPN's bastard red headed step children and the championship game will air on ESPN Proper, but that’s basically throwing a bone to college hockey. College hockey has all the support it needs from fringe media to make the jump to center media, it just needs to schedule itself better. That way the next pivotal BC-BU game won’t go unnoticed in Boston. Seriously, fellas – leave the NCAA tournament alone.

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