Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The CCHA Conundrum

This College Hockey News story, which disclosed that Penn State might begin conference play in 2013-2014, a year earlier than planned, hit on Monday. It was treated as news for some reason, even though the Daily Collegian crew reported more or less everything in that article back on February 7th.

The CHN story contained quotes from Joe Battista, including these:
"We don't want to put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage by joining a league too early, but we're part of a bigger picture here. Change is never easy. I think ... if you're looking at the opportunities we have to grow the sport and maximize the exposure, having Penn State and the brand that it brings with it, is a positive thing."

"Michigan has long-standing rivalries (in the CCHA) and they've tended to dominate, so it will push a lot of people outside their comfort zone. I understand, I empathize, but I believe in my heart any time you can add another nationally recognized school to the mix, it can only in the end mean good things. There may end up being smaller conferences that come out of this, which means more opportunity for automatic qualifiers."
A little bit brutal with the honesty, but ultimately, hard to argue with the points made. Unfortunately, and predictably, this once again drew the wrath of some in the NCAA establishment who feel like Penn State is destroying college hockey as we know it.

This Penn State hockey guy Battista obviously doesn't understand D1 hockey. Simply has a woody for the BTHC, doesn't care he's ruining CCHA.
Where was all this concern for the CCHA when UNO decided take the talents of its up-and-coming program to the W?

Can you smell what JoeBa's cooking? Clearly a diabolical scheme to reduce DI hockey to six teams. Or he's just looking out for his school's best interests. One or the other. 

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Big Ten hockey is bigger than Joe Battista, bigger than Penn State and even bigger than hockey for that matter. Battista himself implied as much in that CHN piece:
"When it's all said and done, any of the members of the Big Ten know their conference affiliation on an athletic department basis is what allows their athletic departments to function. That revenue sharing from television and tickets is what pays for a lot of other sports. So that allegiance to the conference is important."
Basically, quit making us a scapegoat when all we really did was a) want an NCAA program and b) accept a large donation to make it happen. The Big Ten hockey impetus comes from the Big Ten university presidents and athletic directors, a majority of whom are not named Graham Spanier or Tim Curley. And it's not an entirely flawed line of thinking either, as the Big Ten in other sports has enabled us (collectively) to dominate the list of wealthiest athletic programs.

For the little that it's worth, I'm on record as being against Big Ten hockey. If you visit the link in the last sentence, you'll see that I have concerns about the future of the small programs and PSU's competitiveness in a meat grinder conference with some of college hockey's most storied programs.

But at the same time, I recognize that it's pretty much inevitable and that it's also the stated preference of PSU administration, so I might as well learn to like it. Part of that process: doing something that may get me killed, at least metaphorically - openly questioning the impact of the departure of the Big Ten schools on the rest of CCHA. Let's take a look at attendance for the schools most consider to be the primary victims of the situation, the CCHA leftovers outside of Notre Dame and Miami.

Since I don't have room to give very descriptive headings, the first column is actual 2009-2010 attendance. The second is the 2009-2010 attendance minus Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, while the third is an extrapolated total based on the average from the second column and the number of home games from the first column. The format is Total Attendance/Home Dates (Average).

My source for all data is USCHO. I used last season instead of this season because the data for this year isn't complete just yet.

             2009-10 Actual      Minus B10      Extrapolated

N. Michigan  56102/19 (2953)  48867/17 (2875)  54625/19 (2875)

Alaska       51965/19 (2735)  45628/17 (2684)  50996/19 (2684)

W. Michigan  43078/18 (2393)  32844/14 (2346)  42228/18 (2346)

LSSU         37029/16 (2314)  26880/12 (2240)  35840/16 (2240)

BGSU         35248/16 (2203)  24457/12 (2038)  32608/16 (2038)

Ferris State 32355/20 (1618)  24230/16 (1514)  30280/20 (1514)

Forgive me for not seeing a drastic difference there, especially outside of the bottom two. Yeah, Michigan and to a lesser extent Michigan State and Ohio State are name programs that are a better-than-average road draw. They are not, however, keeping otherwise doomed programs afloat, at least not at the gate.

Take it a step further. The adult single-game tickets at these schools range in price from $10 to $20. Multiply each school's price by the change in total attendance, and you get gate receipt losses ranging from $11,890 (Lake Superior) to $31,680 (Bowling Green). Keep in mind that this number is inflated - surely, the cheaper student, youth and senior tickets are part of the ticket sales, and season tickets are generally sold at a discount too. Unfortunately, I don't have access to percentages of each type of ticket, so I'm erring on the other side of the argument. Another factor would be the scheduling agreements with the Big Ten schools mentioned by Battista in the CHN article which, again, mitigates the impact of the transition.

I realize that any financial hit at all is hard to stomach, especially when you're already stretched pretty thin, but let's face it, if $20,000 per year breaks your program, you probably weren't long for this world anyway. Don't forget that - even if Penn State and the Big Ten never happen, what were your odds on Bowling Green still being around in ten years? And even if they do survive, what are their hopes of being competitive at the highest levels? Or giving the university any kind of return on its investment other than the opportunity to gaze longingly at banners commemorating seasons constantly drifting further and further into the past?

That last paragraph probably sounds pretty callous, but you know I'm right. The Big Ten is not bringing big money and program disparity to college hockey. Not in a world where Wisconsin pulled in 316,014 fans at roughly $18 a pop last year (that's $5.7 million in ticket sales alone - Alaska was best from the table above, with an inflated number of $987,335). And certainly not in a world where the CCHA leftovers have a combined three trips to and one win in the NCAA tournament in the last decade. Don't tell me they would mind a better crack at an autobid.

I'm not naive, I know there are other pieces to the puzzle. Big Ten hockey probably impacts the CCHA television deals with Comcast and CBS Sports - only six of 44 CCHA regular-season television games this season did not involve a Big Ten school, for starters. Maybe a frustrated donor backs out. Problem is, I can't predict any of those things and neither can you. All we can do is sit back, watch things unfold (another thing we can't do: control any of this) and hope for the best for all of the schools I've named here, because it's my sincere hope to see every current DI program not only survive, but thrive. They're a vital part of what makes college hockey special, and without them, something important would be lost.

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