Sunday, July 10, 2011

'Super League' Official; Now What?

Saturday was not a quiet day in college hockey, which is somewhat weird, considering that it's July.

Perception became reality, and rumors were confirmed Saturday, as six NCAA schools jointly released a statement announcing their intent to start a new Division I men's hockey league.

The unnamed league will begin play in the 2013-14 season, and it will make its presence official at a press conference in Colorado Springs Wednesday.

(The media have dubbed it the "Super League," but I can promise you that won't be the final name. I've been told there is a name, but I don't know what it is. I'm also not 100 percent certain that name will be announced Wednesday, though I hope so.)

Despite the fact that the ink is not yet dry on this deal, and it's barely dry on the unification of six Big Ten schools to form their own league, there are many who have declared that this is a disastrous development for the sport of college hockey, a sport that hasn't seen any significant growth -- in terms of teams or in terms of interest -- in so many years that it's nearly impossible to count.

Maybe that's part of the problem. Outside of the rise and fall of College Hockey America, and the loss of programs like Wayne State and Findlay, which were practically doomed from the start, there just hasn't been much change in this sport lately. Now that change is coming, people aren't sure what to make of it.

That is totally understandable. What isn't understandable is the rush to blame schools for the demise of college hockey before it actually happens.

It's not like anyone is rooting for the sport to die. At the same time, we don't need to jump to conclusions.

I already covered most of why this is happening. If you didn't trust me when I wrote that, go look at the front page of the WCHA's archaic, not-so-easy-on-the-eyes website. There is no mention of this bombshell. None. The league hasn't updated its site since Kyle Schmidt of UMD joined two women's players in winning WCHA Post Graduate Scholarships on June 7.

(In fairness, it's worth noting that the CCHA hasn't officially responded to Miami leaving, either. But that's one team, not five. And while Miami is a marquee program, the CCHA can at say they still have Notre Dame. For now.)

The WCHA continually drops the ball in moments where leadership is critically important. Many times, this has cost its members money. This time, it does nothing but harm the reputation of those in charge.

Know, too, that none of this is personal. I'm certainly not trying to attack anyone's character. Over my six years doing UMD hockey, Bruce McLeod has been as good to me as he's been to most everyone in the media. Questions are asked, and he answers them. Time is requested for interviews, and he gives it. Same goes, frankly, for much-maligned officiating czar Greg Shepherd. People don't have a problem with that, and that's not where this league has struggled.

I don't know if anyone among the five -- or the seven if you count Big Ten-bound Minnesota and Wisconsin -- tried to make a change at the top of the WCHA. I also can't tell you how easy or difficult it would be to do that, but Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal probably said it better than I could ever.

The idea that Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth would prefer to start their own brand instead of sticking with one that’s been around since 1959 — claiming 37 national titles in the process — is a clear indictment of the WCHA and the suspect management style of its commissioner, Bruce McLeod.

Do you think these five schools set out to blow up this traditional power? Or did they simply decide they didn't have enough clout to make the changes they felt were necessary for the WCHA to move forward?

You can draw your own conclusions.


The most common question I think I've been asked via Twitter ( if you aren't already following along) is "UMD got in. What do you care?"

For some reason, this really burns me. Can't stand that people say it. Until this past week, I didn't think UMD was in. And if you asked me about this new league -- which was going to happen with or without UMD -- I don't think you would have gotten much of a negative response.

I've been pretty consistent in my position. When rumors started of this league's formation (if memory serves, Kevin Pates had a blog post about it after the Frozen Four, and I felt like an idiot, because I was at the Frozen Four, too, and didn't hear anything about what he wrote), I remember having a long phone conversation with a source. During the course of that conversation, we made some sense of this whole idea, even though neither of us had ever heard it before.

There were still a ton of questions (still are, frankly), mainly surrounding where the money will come from to make this worth the effort of leaving the WCHA and starting a new league. Again, the fact that these six schools are leaving their leagues to start this new one should tell you that they've largely satisfied the athletic directors of the institutions with answers to those key questions. After all, you're going to see an increase in travel costs for each of the seven. More flights will do that, even if you look at the five WCHA teams not having to fly to Anchorage three times over five years. With money tight at so many schools these days, there better be a way to pay for this all, because they won't be keen on the money coming out of the general fund.

The six schools are linked in that hockey is a huge part of their athletic departments. This announcement will do nothing to change that. In fact, it will probably enhance hockey's importance at each institution.

(If Notre Dame and/or Western Michigan were to join, they would not necessarily join the six in this regard. Western's a Division I school that draws decently for football, and Notre Dame ... well, duh.)

Anyway, I'm frustrated by people dismissing my opinion because UMD got in. Does that really matter? Would things really change if UMD didn't get in? We'd still be looking at (potentially) five homeless CCHA teams, Alabama-Huntsville is still homeless, and we would need to figure a lot of things out going forward.

Take UMD out of the (This Space For Rent) League, and you have the Bulldogs serving in St. Cloud State's role as the leader among Minnesota schools left behind by the rat race. It doesn't make anything easier for anyone. Plus, with Notre Dame still indecisive, you don't know what kind of timeframe we'd have on this league announcement, since they wouldn't announce their league until they had at least six (minimum league size for NCAA automatic bid).


As we await the impact of this move, people are (predictably) jumping to conclusions and playing the blame game. It's an emotional issue, yes, but there are a lot of people out there who need to calm down and quit assessing blame for bad things that haven't happened yet.

This isn't Penn State's fault. I mean, really? We spend years and years begging for a big-time Division I school to add hockey. They add hockey, and then we blame them for destroying it? There's a real inviting attitude for you. Penn State hasn't destroyed anything yet. Neither has Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, or Ohio State.

Leagues break up. They rebrand. They change. If we lose the WCHA and/or CCHA as a result of these changes, it will be a tough thing for traditionalists to swallow. But if we don't lose any programs, I'm not sure how anyone can say it's a bad thing.

The prevailing "Programs will die!" attitude is unfair. There are a number of programs that are in trouble around college hockey. Too many, I believe, for comfort. Among them are Alabama-Huntsville and Bowling Green, programs that people have thought were in trouble for many years. This announcement doesn't change much for either of these schools. UAH is an independent after the CCHA told them to get lost, a reprehensible and illogical move at the time (still is both of those things). Their status is unchanged, because they're still on shaky ground out in the wilderness.

Bowling Green is one of those CCHA schools that people claim really benefits from playing Michigan and Michigan State, and they just can't survive without that increased gate. You know, like last year, when they averaged 1,650 per game for two games against Michigan, then hit about 2,200 per game for a series against Alabama-Huntsville (2,167 average for the season).

Lake Superior State and Ferris State also fit this label. Ferris has fielded some pretty good teams in recent years, so I can probably buy that they will run into trouble without Michigan and friends coming to town. However, Lake State can't compete in the current layout of the CCHA. They're simply not good enough, and attendance is suffering as a result. After all, why would you want to pay money to watch a non-competitive team?

That said, saying these programs will die is simply not fair. It's not fair to the schools who are leaving their current leagues for the Big Ten or the (This Space For Rent) League. It's also not fair to the schools. Give them a chance to figure out what they are going to do before we decide that their hockey programs are dead.

Oh, and this could be a good thing. Maybe fanbases in Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette, Houghton, Mankato, Big Rapids, and other places will be energized by their teams forming a league in which all of them are on much more even ground. Perhaps St. Cloud fans (attendance there isn't as good as it once was) will be excited to see their team in a league where they should be a perennial contender for an NCAA automatic bid.

It's a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It's a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

(I know many people will claim that the chance to play in big arenas and against big schools is enticing, but if a kid is looking at a school like Lake Superior State, he isn't looking at Michigan. And if he's looking at Lake Superior State, what's going to be more appealing -- a chance to get his ass kicked at Yost once in a while, or a chance to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where anything can happen?)

The kid Lake State recruits simply isn't going to pick Michigan because they're in the Big Ten, because Michigan isn't an option for that kid. Even if Michigan was an option, ice time becomes a factor, and Lake State can offer more to that kind of player.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn't a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.


Jeff said...

Bruce, the one thing you didn't address is the loss of revenue for the smaller schools (especially SCSU, MSU and BSU). They are going to be losing revenue from the large gates (assuming the larger schools don't play away games as often), revenue from the conference tourney, and are likely going to have larger expenses. There is a reason that BSU made it to the Frozen Four and were still on the borderline of having a viable program before joining the WCHA. Now, the larger financial powerhouses are even more closely tied and the dollars are centralized to just a few.

It's not impossible for these teams to make it. I don't buy that, but to suggest that this is only a good thing for everyone isn't exactly looking at it deeply enough. As an MSU fan, I was immediately angry, but know this is going to happen one way or another. I'd love to stick it to the Super League and repeatedly take away an NCAA spot from a more "deserving" school. Financially, this is a different beast for us though. Time will tell what happens, but one thing is for certain: Things are much more difficult for the smaller schools.

Bruce Ciskie said...


Thanks for the thoughts. There's no real easy way to measure the loss of revenue. Quite frankly, though, those schools are going to suffer more from the Final Five becoming a much less lucrative tournament than they are from smaller gates for less marquee opponents.

Bemidji has a history of drawing well, no matter the opponent, though they've never had to fill a building the size of Sanford Center.

I never said it was only a good thing. But we're judging the impact of this before the impact has actually happened. That's all I'm saying.

Not only that, but for a program like MSU, which should draw better than it does for all opponents, the chance to be in a league where they can be more competitive MIGHT lead to bigger gate revenues. In some places, you don't need to win to draw nice crowds. In others, people will follow your team if it's competitive, something MSU really hasn't been for a lot of years.

Jeff said...

MSU is definitely the school that gains attendance when winning. It's happened each time MSU has started winning (albeit, that's not been often). It's a bit of a different culture in S. MN than it is in N. MN. While hockey is king in the north, basketball is king in the south. It takes winning to draw attendance.

You're right though, the loss of the FF is the key to this all. That might have been the case regardless due to the loss of MN. Those tickets probably wouldn't have been in as high of demand anyway.

The part that rubs me the wrong way, personally, is the way this all took place. IF, and that's a big if, there was back room dealings as the UAA AD says, I think the "have nots" have a legitimate grievance. That's not the way it should have happened if it did.

In any case, now is the time that we need leadership from our administrations. I know it was kind of a silly statement, but the SCSU statement of holding the flag for the new conference impressed me. He's not going to turn his back (or so he says) on the rest. He seems to be in it for the long haul and wants to be the catalyst to make it happen. We can only hope that the rest of the schools show that initiative.

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