Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Big Ten Hockey Ready to Ruin, Save Sport

As we await the arrival of Penn State on the college hockey scene, we also await the arrival of Big Ten Hockey.

(CHN says that the Nittany Lions' new arena is coming along nicely, which speeds up the timetable for all this.)

It seems a foregone conclusion that the Big Ten will form a hockey conference, with members Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the WCHA, and Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State leaving the CCHA. That six-team league might not have a long conference schedule, but they will be formidable in terms of television revenue.

This has left many college hockey supporters to do a lot of hand-wringing over the potential impact of the Big Ten.

Some will tell you that this is a good thing for the sport. The addition of a Big Ten conference increases the sport's national television footprint, thanks to the success being had by the Big Ten Network, and its obvious role in televising college hockey games. Bumping the WCHA back to ten teams and the CCHA to eight would mean the leagues have room for future expansion, which might open the door for new programs to sprout up in the Upper Midwest.

There are others, though, who sit fearful of the Big Ten's unknown impact. They believe the CCHA could suffer, with smaller programs like Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan having problems without the revenue they get when Big Ten schools visit for conference games/series.

My friend Jess Myers wrote this last week for 1500 ESPN in the Twin Cities.

Strong and successful programs like Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame (which also has a new rink under construction) would remain. However, small-school programs in Michigan like Ferris State and Lake Superior State have budgets that rely in at least some part on the revenue they generate from the yearly home games versus those high-profile teams. Those two schools, along with the likes of Michigan Tech and Bowling Green (which flirted with dropping hockey two years ago), could face fiscal extinction if a Big Ten hockey league comes on-line.

Does it matter? Well, there are 58 Division I programs currently. That's just enough in the eyes of the NCAA to field a 16-team tournament conducted at four regional sites. Take away three or four of those 58, and we might be back to the somewhat goofy 12-team arrangement that had top seeds needing only one win to get to the Frozen Four.

One thing is abundantly clear.

Jess isn't right or wrong, because we don't yet know the impact the Big Ten will have on college hockey.

Maybe it would inspire further expansion. Maybe it would be a death blow to small programs.

In the end, the prospects of further expansion are interesting. College Hockey, Inc., head Paul Kelly has not hid from the fact that he'd like to see California schools add Division I hockey. Giving them a traditional power league like the WCHA to join could be attractive.

Perhaps serving as a bit less of a pipe dream, schools like Illinois and Nebraska could have interest in joining the Big Ten.

(Remember, Nebraska joins in all sports this year.)

What bothers me are the absolutes some fans on Twitter and message boards are using to describe this. The Big Ten could be bad for the sport, but it's hard for me to buy that argument, given the information currently available.


Instead, I am trying to see this as a positive.

The new league's members will have scheduling arrangements with their old leagues, so rivalries like UMD/Minnesota, St. Cloud State/Minnesota, and Michigan/Northern Michigan won't go away with the snap of a finger.

With only six teams, the Big Ten needs to keep a good relationship with the existing leagues in Division I. They can't rely on Atlantic Hockey tomato cans like American International for all their non-conference games. Assuming four games against each Big Ten team, that makes a 20-game conference schedule. If there are no trips to Alaska involved, the Big Ten teams would have to play 14 non-conference games to fill their schedules.

Minnesota and Wisconsin aren't going to want to play Boston College and Boston University all the time, so logic dictates they'll have to schedule WCHA and CCHA teams.

As far as other moves that could happen as a result, it makes sense for Alaska to join the WCHA at some point, because they'd no longer have the big-time draw of the Big Ten teams in the CCHA. Moving would allow them to play four games per year against rival Alaska-Anchorage, and it would allow the WCHA to exempt -- for at least some teams -- two road series per year instead of one, opening up the chance to play more non-conference games.

That might be a scheduling nightmare for the WCHA, but it's something they could deal with, because it's a move that would be good for business in the end.

No idea if that would ever happen, but I thought I'd throw that idea out there.

No matter what, the Big Ten could just as easily be a huge positive for the sport. Since it's virtually inevitable, it might be a good idea to be more accepting of the idea and try to figure out ways that this could be good ... rather than waiting for it to be bad.


AdamW said...

Agree. Been saying that for years :) Might as well embrace it, because it's inevitable. And the inevitable is finally arriving.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see some California schools start up programs. I could also see a couple of D-III programs in the Midwest making the jump.

Anonymous said...

"My friend Jess Myers..." Bruce, you're sounding like Sid Hartman.

JS said...

I've had some email contact with the clubs of the PAC-8 hockey conference and there are at least a couple of them that could make the jump with the right financing, a la Penn State. California is becoming a larger contributor to North American hockey talent and would probably be able to sustain itself with teams like USC or Oregon signing on. As far as support goes, that's usually something that takes a while, but would be more likely to catch on at a place where other winter sports don't do as well. Perhaps Washington State or Arizona State.

Carlton Banks said...

when is the NCAA college hockey video game coming out?