Another tournament has come and gone. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for the fans. Empty seats once again lined the rows at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. As I watched from home I couldn't help but notice the emptiness. It was almost a glaring distraction from the on-ice action.
It's sad when the topic of conversation switches from the hard work of the teams to the attendance -- or lack thereof. Players worked hard all season to be celebrated at a conference tournament, only to have few more than mom and dad in the crowd.
"You get to this time of the year, and you want to play in front of good crowds," Gopher head coach Don Lucia told the Detroit Free Press. "Doesn't matter if they're cheering for you or against you. It's kind of what you're used to all season long."
But the more pressing issue isn't just the lack of attendance, it's the question of why. Why do fans continue to remove themselves from conference tournaments? Where has the passion gone and will it come back?
Why It Didn't Work at the X or the Joe
The Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and Joe Louis Arena demand attention. Both are NHL venues that are meant to support those types of crowds. In arenas that hold 20,000, it makes the emptiness of a college hockey tournament even more noticeable.
The Big Ten reported an average of 5,381 fans per day this year at the Joe. That's down from last year's grim showing at the X where average attendance peaked at 8,522. Neither of those numbers are entirely accurate, being based purely on ticket sales alone. A more accurate number is in the hundreds (and even that's generous).
The Big Ten isn't alone with attendances in decline. Both the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and National Collegiate Hockey Conference struggled to put butts in the seats the past two years. The WCHA took a home at the X while the Big Ten was away this season. There, attendance averaged 7,524 for the weekend. The NCHC had an improved showing from last year, totaling 11,563 in the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Simply put, for the time being, these venues are too big to support the conference tournaments. Yes, the former WCHA Final Five had zero problem filling seats but people had a lot vested into those teams (more on that later). The Big Ten is locked in to the X next year and the Joe the year after that. Why not try something new following the end of that contract?
College Campus Solution?
Here's an idea that many have discussed: move it back home to the students.
A rotating campus solution isn't crazy -- but is it reasonable? Yes and no.
The major benefit of having the tournament move from Mariucci to Pegula and everywhere in between is without a doubt the draw for students. Not only will host arenas be packed with students and alum alike, can you imagine the atmosphere created when you pit one student section against another in a tournament setting?
As a past WCHA fan, one of the best things about Final Five weekend -- aside from the fantastic on-ice display -- was that it gave me a chance to come face to face with my most hated rivals (North Dakota). With reputation and a trophy on the line, the Xcel Energy Center became a hostile place (in the best possible fan type of way). It was fun and it had me looking forward to each March in St. Paul.
Why not create that same atmosphere on Big Ten campuses? Let teams use the more intimate college arenas and give students the chance to show off their pride. Hell, the Big Ten could even consider marketing it as "Who has the best student section?" each year.
Student section competitions is just one of the many (many) ways the Big Ten can up its marketing game. The past two seasons have just been terrible. Not only has the conference itself dropped the ball, but it seems this year Detroit as a whole did, too.
A friend of mine made the trip out to Detroit to watch his son play in the tournament. After an early exit on Thursday he took his son and a few teammates out to places surrounding the Joe. Not only was it difficult to find a place open, it became increasingly hard to find a place willing to show the tournament on TV...and the game being played was Michigan-Michigan State...in Detroit.
It turned a terrible loss into a terrible time all-around. Needless to say he won't be visiting Detroit for a conference tournament again.
The Big Ten seems to still be navigating the proper marketing techniques to reach its hockey fans. Last year in St. Paul, winter hats seemed to excite fans more than anything else -- not that much else was offered for off-ice entertainment.
In order to up the desire to be at the event, the Big Ten has to make it a desirable event. Offer special giveaways, happy hours and tailgating for Big Ten fans before each session. If they don't come for the hockey, maybe they'll stay for the entertainment.
Buy-In to Sellout
Ultimately the fans have to take some responsibility for the lack of attendance. They are the ones the tournament leans on to buy tickets and fill seats.
I understand the argument of our loyal fanbase:
"Why do I want to go see X-team and Y-Team?"
"The competition sucks."
"Big Ten hockey sucks."
Even Gopher fans were sparse at games this season, and they can be as die-hard as any. I know the competition level isn't there yet. It won't fully be there next year either. It's a part of rebranding and it's a part of growing.
But the quicker you buy into it, the quicker those seats fill up. Until we as fans support the Big Ten conference -- or any of the other respective conferences -- attendance isn't going to change.
We can bring back the passion of college hockey and fill the seats at venues across the nation if we just give it a chance. Who knows, our teams just might perform better, too.
*Note: Hockey East's tournament attendance actually increased this year. I imagine in large part due to the success of the conference teams.
Other excellent articles reviewing poor attendance: