Attendance woes spark debate over neutral sites for NCAA Regionals

Cameron Levasseur, Associate Sports Editor

3,256. That’s the number of fans that were in the PPL Center Sunday night as Michigan, the most talented team in the nation, faced off against Quinnipiac in the NCAA Regional Final in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

That’s the the second-fewest fans in 41 games this season. The fewest? Two days earlier in its semifinal matchup against AIC (2,155 fans).

In Michigan’s two biggest games of the season, it saw its lowest turnout by a substantial margin.

Allentown, one of four neutral sites chosen for the 2022 ice hockey regional tournament, is more than an eight-hour drive from Ann Arbor, pitting Michigan locals against a full day of travel just to support their team in person.

This is not an anomaly. Of the 16 teams who qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament, 10 played at a regional site more than 500 miles from their campus, Michigan being the closest of those 10. Even Quinnipiac, the fourth-closest school to its regional site, is still three hours from Allentown.

“I think it’s the worst idea in sports,” Michigan alumnus and New Jersey native Chris Hughes said. “It should be at the home arena of the No. 1 seed, just like baseball, softball, women’s basketball. If this was at the Yost (Ice Arena, Michigan’s home ice), it would be packed tonight, sold out, great atmosphere. Instead, you’re going to have, if we’re lucky, 2,000, 3,000 people.”

Home-site regionals are not a new idea, as the NCAA used the system from 1977-91, but abandoned the concept in favor of neutral sites from then on.

There were rumors of a comeback in 2015 when NCAA Men’s Hockey Committee Chair Brian Faison told Midco Sports Network’s Dan Hammer that he would “move for alignment of NCAA Regionals to include home sites,” at that year’s coaches convention. But the idea was shot down with a resounding 52-6 decision, with one abstaining vote.

Despite the low attendance, that vote seemed to match the opinion of many at Sunday’s game.

“I like it because it gives fans more of an experience,” Michigan fan and New Jersey native Rick Card said. “Fans from other places can come see the games.”

Other fans in the stands shared his sentiment.

“It gives people a chance to see games that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to see,” Pennsylvania native Mike Ferrara said.

Anna Ciacciarella, a Quinnipiac alumna and current graduate student at Michigan, said she can see the merits of both arguments.

“I think that’d be awesome (to have home-site regionals),” Ciacciarella said. “I’m a fan of the arena back in Ann Arbor, but this is a pretty cool place too, and it’s a great way to meet in the middle.”

One reason fans cited as a cause for low attendance was a lack of local advertising.

“Maybe a little more exposure (is needed),” Card said. “I’m out here five days a week, and I didn’t even know this was going on.”

The PPL Center boasts a capacity of 8,500 for hockey games. All three games’ attendance from the weekend combined barely came within a thousand of that number.

“The arenas are way too big for the crowds that you’re going to get,” Hughes said. “You have no idea whether you’re going to get any teams who play anywhere near the arenas in regionals … in terms of all the teams and the environment, it should be somewhere where you’re going to have big crowds.”

Home sites usually house the big crowds, where teams are able to fill larger arenas. Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena holds 5,800 people. Of 23 games the Wolverines played there this season, 14 were sellouts and only one game, which took place during spring break, fell short of 5,100 fans in attendance.

 

Peyton McKenzie

The same can be said for other Western powerhouses such as North Dakota and Minnesota, who average 11,300 and 7,900 fans per game, respectively. They also saw their smallest crowds of the season during the regional tournament, pulling in less than 3,000 fans each.

The NCAA cannot expect sellout crowds when its bracket creates matchups such as Western Michigan and Minnesota in Worcester, Massachusetts. Students or local fans would have to fly or drive halfway across the country to watch the game.

The highest attended game of the tournament was UMass facing off against Minnesota in the semifinal round, which brought in 6,002 fans. Given the semi-local proximity of UMass (57 miles) to Worcester, more fans made the trip out.

This suggests the formula that proximity equals attendance which — as much as the NCAA may not want to admit it — is backed by numbers. If turnout is to grow for these games, home-site regionals could be the way to go.