On Monday, the Western Collegiate Hockey Conference Association announced that they were changing their playoff format for their conference playoffs. Starting in 2017, the WCHA will move away from neutral sites for their conference playoffs. The WCHA will hold their entire conference championship at on-campus sites.
Per WCHA release — Starting in 2017 and continuing for at least the next three seasons, the “WCHA Playoffs” will consist of four (4) best-of-three, quarterfinal round series hosted by the league’s top four regular-season finishers on the first weekend of March, followed by two (2) best-of-three semifinal round series hosted by the highest remaining seeds on the second weekend of the month. The “WCHA Championship” will be a single game, hosted by the highest remaining seed, on the third Saturday of March (the same weekend as the “Final Five” of previous seasons). As has been the case since the 2013-14 campaign, the top eight teams from the WCHA regular season will qualify for the postseason
The WCHA might not be the only conference making this move. According to Gopher Puck Live, the Big Ten Hockey Conference will also announce that they’re going to hold their conference playoffs at on-campus sites beginning during the 2017-18 season. While the Big Ten Hockey Conference has yet to officially announce the move, it would probably bolster the B1G low attendance numbers, especially during the conference championship games.
Low Attendance Plagues Conference Championships
Looking at the WCHA’s announcement, moving the conference tourney to on-campus sites makes a lot of sense. During the first three seasons, the WCHA has suffered low attendance numbers for their conference championships. In the first three season after alignment, the WCHA has averaged 3,721, 7,544 and 7,068 fans per game/session.
In essence, the WCHA has been playing in half empty NHL building. Some of this can be blamed on taking the biggest schools out of the WCHA and aligning them with another conference.
Another reason for low attendance numbers could be the large geographic footprint of the WCHA. The WCHA includes teams from Alabama, Alaska, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. Fans from Alaska and Alabama aren’t going to attend the Final Five in Minnesota or Michigan if their favorite teams don’t make it. Also, some of these teams have very small fans bases.
Positives of Holding Conference On-Campus Sites
There are going to be fans that don’t like the WCHA moving the entire conference tourney back to on-campus sites. Whether fans like it or not, there are quite a few benefits to making this move. Obviously, the first round of the WCHA will remain the same. However, the second round will change to a best-of-three semifinal. This move should improve the fan’s overall experience. Now, more fans will be able to watch the semifinal games at on-campus sites than they would’ve if the WCHA had decided to keep the status quo.
“There is no greater thrill for hockey fans than watching their favorite team play for a championship on home ice,” said WCHA President and Men’s Commissioner Bill Robertson. “Much of what makes the WCHA so special are our passionate fan bases and fantastic in-arena atmospheres, which will only be heightened in a playoff series or in a single game with a championship and NCAA Tournament berth on the line.”
Increasing the number of games in the second round could allow fans to see two or three extra games and will probably increase attendance two-fold. Increasing attendance will raise much-needed revenue for the WCHA. Looking at the average attendance figures for WCHA teams, last season, Minnesota State Mankato averaged 3,753 fans per game. If you have a couple of playoff series in Mankato, there’s a good possibility they could outdraw the last three Final Fives. The same could be said for Michigan Tech which averaged 3281 fans per game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Eric is a 1996, 1999 graduate of the University of North Dakota. Eric covers the University of North Dakota Hockey and Division I college hockey. Eric is the Contributing Editor for Inside Hockey.