Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Obligatory Big Ten Opinion Piece

"Death, taxes, opinion on Big Ten hockey" pretty accurately lists the three sure things in life, at least when it comes to college hockey enthusiasts since September 17th (and really, before that as well). So in my editorial meeting last week, I said "Hey, we should be the 7,997th news article or blog post on the Big Ten's potentially sponsoring hockey. Maybe they'll give us free Frozen Four tickets for life!" What follows are the fruits of that faulty logic.

The quick background: with Penn State now in the fold, there are six Big Ten member institutions that sponsor NCAA Division I hockey. Minnesota and Wisconsin currently play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), while Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). Since six is both the minimum number of schools in a conference to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and the minimum number of schools needed for the Big Ten to sponsor a sport...I think you've figured it out by now, so on we go.

Oh, one more thing that's important to know for this post: the CCHA has 11 teams, since former member Nebraska-Omaha defected to the WCHA this season. The CCHA rejected an application from Alabama-Huntsville to fill that slot, and commissioner Tom Anastos is on record as being interested in Penn State. Here's a mindless blog post from someone not happy about that. Sorry for being more attractive to a conference than a branch campus about 17 billion miles removed from anyone else with a program. Our bad.

To be perfectly clear, Big Ten hockey is probably going to happen. Among the latest evidence comes from WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod, via USCHO poster mksioux on October 18th.
Bruce McLeod was on TV during the Friday night North Dakota-Bemidji State game. He said that [Big Ten commissioner] Jim Delany has personally told him that he fully expects to start a full-fledged BTHC by '14 or '15. McLeod said he has proposed a scheduling alliance whereby Minnesota and Wisconsin would play eight games per year against WCHA teams on a rotating basis (presumably one two-game series against four teams). If agreed upon, for example, that would mean each WCHA school would play Minnesota every 2.5 years and would get them at home once every 5 years.
In Colorado Springs, home to both Colorado College (WCHA) and the Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey), the freakout is in full swing. It even seems to be a foregone conclusion in ECAC Hockey, where they aren't directly affected, but are still worried about ripple effects.


Here are a few reasons why I don't think it's the best idea ever, for Penn State or for college hockey.

1. That conference is HARD. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State among the most storied programs in college hockey history. Toss in the Bostons U and C, North Dakota and Denver, and that's probably your top eight. Ohio State isn't quite on that level, but they're not a meatbag either with four NCAA tournament appearances in the last decade. So what's a start-up program to do? When will Penn State break out of sixth place with four Goliaths and a mostly regular-sized but pretty fat guy lying on top? Where are the conference wins going to come from?

Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that Penn State will have everything in place to be successful at the highest levels, and banners don't put on skates and play. But the growing process would be greatly facilitated with a few Bowling Greens and Western Michigans to climb over first in the standings, as would be the case in taking that 12th slot in the CCHA. Success breeds success, and small successes lead to large ones.

2. At best, it's neutral for college hockey as a whole. At worst, it damages it. This much is clear: nobody seems to agree on the effects of removing the Big Ten schools from the CCHA and WCHA. Will small programs like Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State, which depend on the larger programs for revenue in several ways, die off? Will they reach some sort of agreement to play the big schools out of conferences (including home games) and mitigate the issues? Is everyone overstating things? If you have any idea, you're lying. Here's what I feel like I do know: it's not going to be a positive.

There's been some thought that Penn State is the beginning of a tidal wave of schools adding NCAA hockey programs, and that any programs we may lose will be replaced. Based on what? The tremendous number of major conference programs we've added in the last 15-20 years (whoops, wrong list)? The fact that every school has a sugar daddy with $88 million lying around, dying to build an adequate facility and endow scholarships? The expansion of athletic programs generally in these robust economic times, especially in the south and west (wait, scratch that one)? I'm just not buying it. We need to protect the schools that have already invested in the sport from uncertainty.

3. Why not stash Penn State in the CCHA? Seriously, why not? There could then be a scheduling agreement where the Big Ten schools all play each other regardless of conference lines, then a Big Ten championship is awarded to the team with the best record. The Ivy League already does this, and I have yet to see a compelling argument against this setup. Everybody wins this way, except Alabama-Huntsville, who is counting on the Big Ten shakeup to lead to a conference home.

Here's a Penn State-driven reason for promoting the CCHA: better scheduling. That's usually a pro-Big Ten argument (familiar schools to Penn Staters leads to more interest), but I'm turning that one around. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are already in the CCHA. So is Notre Dame, which has far more drawing power to the non-hockey fan than Minnesota or Wisconsin. And if you are a hockey fan? Then you'll recognize that CCHA member Miami is one of the best programs in the country too, and you'll get excited for those games. And hey, you can still bring in the Gophers and Badgers via the Ivy League setup. Add it all together and you have quality and name recognition to burn without an overwhelming conference schedule.


I'm getting towards the end of the post and haven't even mentioned the Big Ten Network yet. There's a reason for that - I think it's an overrated factor in all of this. First of all, the lack of Big Ten hockey doesn't keep them from broadcasting games, they have in fact aired several hockey games involving the Big Ten schools, usually when they play each other, but sometimes when they play other schools as well. Yes, the rights issues are a concern, as Big Ten Network is at the bottom of the pecking order. But at the same time, when the defection of several power schools is at hand, I think the WCHA and CCHA can figure out a way to give Big Ten Network what they want, to give a little and get a lot. You do have a middleman in that situation, the opposite of what makes Big Ten Network successful, but how much money are we really talking about here? Which leads to...

Secondly, as much as we all love hockey, it's still a niche sport. The ratings still suck. And I'm supposed to believe that the powers that be will move heaven and earth to get a game of the week on Big Ten Network's Friday night schedule? Please. From a ratings and revenue standpoint, they'd be better off replaying one of their passel of horrible studio shows five times.

So what do Delany and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez see that I don't?

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