Thursday, July 07, 2011

WCHA Hangs in Limbo

For the last few months, there have been rumblings about the future of the WCHA. The fun really started at the Final Five, as we all knew the upcoming announcement of a Big Ten Hockey Conference was nothing more than a formality.

The Big Ten's formation seemed to inspire other programs to look at their futures, and try to figure out the best fit for them. One of the prominent rumors out there in the last three months has involved the possibility of North Dakota starting a new league with, among others, Denver, Colorado College, and Notre Dame.

Now, UMD is in that mix, as well, according to reports from Kevin Pates here and me on the ol' radio this week.

These reports -- along with a rumored timeline of "potentially next week" for an announcement -- have left a lot of people confused, upset, excited, angry, and virtually everything in between.

There is a lot to digest, and I'm here to help as much as I can. At the end of the day, however, if your favorite college hockey team is one of the ten in the WCHA and CCHA who are not mentioned as part of the Big Ten or this new "super league" thingamajigger, you should be concerned.

Not worried, because I'm still not dancing in step with those who think this is going to be a disaster for the sport. Just concerned, because it's time for those programs to show some leadership through an uncertain time.

Why is this happening?

This is probably the most common question. After all, the addition of a Big Ten conference in hockey doesn't signal the need for any other programs or conferences to die. All it does is add some serious competition to the mix when it comes to the dollars and attention the Big Ten can generate. It forces other leagues to come up with a way to make the money their schools need to stay competitive. This is especially important in the realm of college athletics, because universities are typically not really rolling in money these days.

The WCHA has fallen behind. The league still doesn't have any kind of notable television deal (they're behind both the CCHA and Hockey East in this regard), outside of the deal with Fox Sports North to televise the Final Five. The league's website is less than ideal, and they have missed the boat with the potential revenue there, especially when it comes to making live games available via subscriptions.

From a leadership standpoint, there is much angst around the league. There are perceptions that commissioner Bruce McLeod has missed the boat on opportunities to grow the league's revenue (there is no question the league has been healthy, but in the business world, you're either growing or dying ... there is no standing pat), and there are issues with how supplementary discipline is handled. There are other problems with personnel within the league, as well.

North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison told the Grand Forks Herald that he has concerns with "the administrative side of the WCHA."

He's not the only one. For now, though, he's the only one on the record with this type of statement.

As for McLeod, he may have provided the money quote to USCHO.

At this point, I haven’t thought about Plan B at all. I’m still working on the assumption that we’re together as 10 [teams after Minnesota and Wisconsin leave for the Big Ten] and, as unanimously directed by the group in Florida [at league meetings in April], can consider extending an invitation to anybody that could strengthen the league. And that’s our plan.

In other words, McLeod has watched his two most prominent members leave, and word has leaked that his next two most prominent members -- North Dakota and Denver -- could be out, too. Oh, and he might lose the 2011 national champions.

But there is no Plan B. At this point, he should be formulating Plan R, and he hasn't even gotten to B.

Is this really happening?

I have a hard time answering this one. I have a message in to a couple people who would know the answer to this, but I haven't heard back. A third person has indicated that we may just indeed have past the point of no return.

There is no question in my mind that there are issues with McLeod and the WCHA leadership structure. And it's hard to argue the points made by that camp. The league has indeed fallen behind, largely by the inaction of the last five years.

(Yes, I know McLeod brought in two new members, Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha. But that doesn't grow revenue for the other ten teams. It shrinks it, because their piece of the pie isn't as big as it was before.)

Some believe this is a power play to get rid of McLeod. While I tend to think this is a possibility, no source will confirm it. And while Labor Day has been mentioned when talking about the timing of a potential announcement, I've been told by multiple sources that this could come to a head as soon as next week.

I don't say that to scare. I say it because I've been told it's the case, and I want everyone to be prepared for the possibility.

Are they really thinking this through?

In a Twitter conversation with Dan Myers of College Hockey News, I tried to make this point abundantly clear, amid cries that the North Dakotas, Denvers, and UMDs of the world were making a rash decision that hadn't been thought out.

The prospect of a new league has been researched, studied, and hashed over by the schools involved (reportedly UMD, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan).

I might not know everything about the administrations involved in these talks, but I can promise you that UMD athletic director Bob Nielson isn't going to make a rash, uneducated, uninformed decision that could impact the entire school for years to come. That's not how he operates. If he's jumping in to this league, it's because he has every reason to believe -- and may have actual evidence to support this -- that it will be a win for UMD, both competitively and financially.

What happens to everyone else?

This is probably the toughest question to answer. If the "super league" (I hate this name, and if this league is going to happen, it needs a real name ASAP) is formed, it leaves five WCHA and five CCHA teams without a home. Five is not enough to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. You need at least six for that.

Could the ten combine into one league? I don't see why not. Put the Alaska teams (Anchorage and Fairbanks), Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State in one division, then stick the upper Michigan teams (Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan) in a division with Bowling Green and Ferris State. Each team plays four games against divisional foes (two home, two away), and one series (home or away) against each team in the other division. 26 league games total. That's doable. Financially, though, this could be a nightmare. You'd have to have the league tournament on a campus site, or it won't draw. And if it's on a campus site, it won't draw the same kind of television interest it would if it were at a pre-determined site.

Plus, what happens to Alabama-Huntsville?

It's a mess.


In the end, the WCHA is left in limbo. It's a league with great tradition, a slew of national championships, and a vibrant, enthusiastic fan base. There are some great people who work for the league, or for the league's members, and some wonderfully talented folks who cover the league, whether it be on the air, in print, or online.

For now, we don't know what is next. Will that tradition continue in a different league? Will it fade away like the North Central Conference did a few years ago? Will nothing happen but some structural changes?

I can't definitively answer any of those questions, as much as I wish I could.

Things are fluid for the moment, and much could still change before the season starts. If you're a fan of the WCHA, I'd advise you to keep an eye on the developments.


Burly Beard Brew Blog said...

This is a mess. I was originally 100% against the WCHA breaking up after UMTC and UW leave for the BTHC, but after reading your blog and hearing the McLeod has 0 things in place for a plan B leaves me with the impression that he is blind and clueless. In he business world, as you put it, you're either growing or dying and I couldn't agree more. You always have to have a plan B in place, even if you are thriving. You have to be able to move with what's going on around you and I don't think that the WCHA has been able to do that. EVERYONE knew the BTHC was on the horizon, but I do think if the WCHA had some sort of a TV deal in place, better administration, better officials on the ice, a better website with a function message board for the most loyal fans in college hockey; that UMTC and UW would have had a harder time than they did leaving. I know it was a big push from the powers that be in the Big10, but it would have been more difficult decision. I have seen the NCC go away, and now I believe the WCHA is a thing of that past as well. The talent of the teams has always been top notch, but the remaining aspects of the WCHA have fallen behind the times.

In closing, if the new league can bring in a solid TV deal, top level officials, strong administration with a futuristic vision; then I'm all for it, as long as UMD is in the mix.

GO DOGS!!!!!

Allen said...

My biggest problem with it is losing the in-state rivalry (SCSU, BSU, MSU) like we already are with UMTC. I am sure we will probably still play them on occaision, but won't the same. I am a Bulldog fan living in St. Cloud and love it when they make the trip down here and love the budding rivalry between the teams. It just seems strange to abandon a rivalry 2 1/2 hours away to form one with a team from Ohio or Indiana.

To that point, why is Western Michigan in on this conversation? Are they just the first ones to jump at it? They had a decent year last year making the first round, but that's their first NCAA birth since 1996, the've lost >20 games in 6 of the last 10 years and haven't finished above 6th place in CCHA.

Sad to see the rivalries go, but if it will improve our team and advance college hockey in general, then I'm in. Go Dogs.