Across the spectrum of college sports, we've been hearing talk in recent weeks about a familiar subject — growing some of the NCAA's national tournaments.
In men's basketball, there's a movement toward broadening the field from 65 to 96 teams, making that first sub-regional weekend bigger than ever while giving 32 teams first-round byes. And you'd have to figure, given the desire to follow Title IX guidelines, a similar discussion would follow for the NCAA women's tournament.
Meanwhile, many also are wondering if the men's hockey bracket should expand again, perhaps jumping from the current 16 teams to 24.
Elsewhere in this April 1 issue, you might see other content that pushes the limits of believability. But not in this column. Those rumors really are spreading about NCAA basketball and hockey. They're fueled by the money and excitement that March Madness creates each year in basketball — not to mention the fascination with all those second-tier teams that make their year by pulling off huge upsets — as well as the remarkable balance that has taken hold in major-college hockey.
There's just one problem. And if you've been watching the tournaments on TV, surely you've noticed.
Empty seats. They're everywhere.
Camera shots throughout the basketball tourneys have shown you vast expanses of unoccupied space. Granted, some of it has been high up and in the end zones, but other times they've been in what most arenas would refer to as the "lower bowl" of primo seating locations.
Especially for basketball, it does no good to check the attendance figures. Tickets are sold for blocks of games, and you'll hear announced crowds based on those numbers, not actual bodies in the stands. Trouble is, many fans don't go to games except when "their" teams play. Unlike the past, when thousands would jump to buy unused tickets from fans of teams that have lost early, many of those tickets are turning into no-shows.
Last weekend during the men's basketball regionals, empty seats were visible from Houston to Syracuse, Salt Lake City and St. Louis. In each case, we heard about sellouts. But that simply didn't translate into jammed arenas, even taking into account some obstructed-view sections going unsold in the larger venues.
What would adding more teams do to that? It would bring more teams and fans to competition sites, which would help host cities, and it would add more games, meaning more ticket revenue and TV money. But in these tougher times, the concept of fans traveling by the thousands is becoming less and less realistic.
It's even more true in men's hockey. At last weekend's regionals, the crowds were pathetic despite the NCAA making every effort to create favorable circumstances.
At St. Paul, Minn., where Wisconsin and nearby St. Cloud State won in the semifinals and played for the regional title, attendance each day was a little more than 7,000 — in an 18,000-seat facility. In Fort Wayne, Ind., with a 10,500 capacity, fans from Miami (Ohio) and Michigan had less than a half-day drive. But the Miami-Michigan finale drew only a paltry 3,204, less than half the average for minor-league hockey there. In Albany, N.Y., the finale matching New Hampshire and Rochester Institute of Technology (both within driving distance) attracted just 3,737. And at Worcester, Mass., with Boston College and Yale no more than an hour away, the best crowd was just 6,054. That doesn't bode well for the Frozen Four.
We could debate all day about adding teams. To me, it wouldn't help in men's basketball, because mainly it would allow 32 more also-rans from power conferences to make the tournament, making it even tougher on teams such as Butler, St. Mary's and Murray State to go far.
Hockey could be a different story. There really isn't much disparity, and eight more teams would add eight more potential national champions. But if the fans won't go, is it worth the expense?
As long as those empty seats are so prominent, it just doesn't make sense to talk about expanding the tournaments.
Unless, of course, TV money comes into play. Then everything could change.