If you watched the NCAA Frozen Four last Thursday and Saturday, you saw some great hockey, from Massachusetts’ thrilling semifinal win over Denver in overtime to Minnesota Duluth’s utter dominance on the way to its second consecutive national title.
You also couldn’t help but notice swaths of empty royal-blue seats at KeyBank Center. The announced attendance for Thursday’s semifinals was 13,051 and for Saturday’s championship was 13,624 in an arena that holds 19,070. That’s nearly 5,000 fewer than each session at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center last year, and the championship game attendance was the lowest since 2001.
What’s the problem? Star Tribune assistant sports editor Chris Miller, a veteran college hockey writer with a quirky sense of humor, and Puck Drop editor Randy Johnson discuss the reasons.
Randy: Though I wasn’t sure if Buffalo would sell out the Frozen Four, I certainly didn’t expect a drop-off of 5,000 per game. In the Frozen Four’s previous visit to Buffalo in 2003, attendance averaged 18,582. Why? The first thing that pops out to me is price. The prices set by the NCAA for all-session tickets started at $475 for the lower level and $225 for the upper level. Single-session tickets were priced from $120 to $240. Though bargains could be had on the secondary market, it sure looks as if the NCAA is charging too much.
Another consideration was who didn’t make it to Buffalo to add to what looked like a strong Minnesota Duluth presence and a solid showing from UMass in the final. Two of the nearby schools with the most potential to help attendance in Buffalo are Penn State (200 miles away) and Cornell (150 miles away). The Nittany Lions didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and the Big Red lost in the East Regional final. Back in 2003, Cornell was in Frozen Four, along with New Hampshire and traditional powers Minnesota and Michigan.
Chris: If you’re going to a place like Buffalo, which is a snowier Omaha with more pro sports, it’s gonna be trouble, especially when the Sabres didn’t qualify for the tournament, which cost Phil Housley his job, sources say. In the golden days, and I’m talking before the NCAA’s brilliant idea to name it the Frozen Four, I was brash enough to proclaim the tournament should always alternate between Boston and St. Paul. But places like Tampa have been great. Who doesn’t want to go to Tampa? I think you’re right about the field, you’re right about the prices and you’re right about the Big Ten popping the balloon on college hockey. Let’s disagree about something.
Randy: So, it’s an argument you want, eh? We can’t treat the Frozen Four like the Charlestown Chiefs and threaten to relocate it to a Florida retirement community every year. Instead, I’ll take a hybrid of your Boston-St. Paul model and add Detroit. Each of the three traditional hockey areas – Minnesota, New England and Michigan -- hosts a Frozen Four twice a decade. That leaves the other four years to sprinkle it around. St. Paul had nine- and seven-year gaps between its Frozen Fours. Boston went from 2004 to ’15 without hosting and won’t again until 2022. That’s too long.
Chris: As usual, RJ, we see eye to eye. In fact, the only difference we’ve ever had is I don’t get “The Big Lebowski”, but I don’t want to mention it or you will treat me like Ovechkin treated Svechnikov. But you’re right – keep the tournament in cities where the casual college hockey fan will buy in without BOGOs. Keep the prices sane. We know folks in Florida love hockey, so give them an occasional tournament. Figure out the goofy headshot replay system. And for cryin’ out loud, forget about the two-week abyss between regionals and the Frozen Four. But I suppose that’s an argument for another day. Like most No. 1 seeds, I lost my focus in this discussion way too quickly and am going home early.