INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA Board of Directors has officially denied this year’s proposal to expand the men’s ice hockey tournament from 12 to 16 teams. The decision became final when the proposal failed to gain approval during the Board of Directors’ meeting on April 27.
There was unanimous support in the men’s ice hockey community for the expansion of the tournament. The Men’s Ice Hockey Committee sent the proposal to the Championships Cabinet, which recommended its approval in February.
But, because of budget and gender equity concerns, the proposal was not recommended by the Division I Budget Subcommittee, and failed to get approval from the Board of Directors.
“We are disappointed, but we understand all the issues involved,” said Joe Bertagna, commissioner of Hockey East.
In early February, the Championships Cabinet approved 15 different proposals, including the men’s ice hockey expansion. Those proposals were officially forwarded as “budget requests” and placed on the agenda of the Management Council’s meeting on April 10-11. The MC, however, cannot approve budget items, only make recommendations.
Meanwhile, the Budget Subcommittee, at the behest of the Committee on Women’s Athletics, recommended that only women’s tournament expansion be funded this year in order to achieve a 50/50 ratio between postseason championship opportunities for men and women. The current ratio is 52/48, according to the Championships Cabinet.
The WAC and Championships Cabinet seem to be at odds over this issue. According to the CC, in the last seven years, participation in women’s championships has increased 40 percent, to over 8,400, while men’s participation has risen slightly to just over 9,100, creating a 52/48 ratio. But the WAC contends Division I-A football bowl games should count, making the ratio more like 59/41.
The WAC therefore recommended that “the equalization of postseason opportunities be achieved before any new championships opportunities for men are funded.”
Therefore, only women’s tournaments — or events held at the same site, like men’s and women’s diving — were created or expanded for next year. Included was final approval on the creation of a four-team women’s ice hockey tournament.
“It’s a complicated issue, but we’d like to feel that if we get 60-0 support [among the hockey schools] on the issue, it should be enough,” said Bertagna. “Obviously that doesn’t work. And we’d like to think it would pass on the merits of the argument (see sidebar), but it never got to that.”
Many in men’s ice hockey expressed disappointment that the men’s and women’s issues were played off of each other, instead of allowing the entire hockey community — men and women — to work as a whole. They believe the extra revenue created from the men’s tournament could fund the women’s tournament, too.
“I would like to see the women go to eight teams,” said Bertagna. “For one, they’ve got enough quality teams to go to eight, and second, from a self-interest standpoint, if they got eight, maybe we get four [more].”
According to Championship Cabinet figures, if the top eight items on the priority list had been approved, it would have resulted in an additional 500 opportunities for men and 897 for women. (The 15 budget items were prioritized, with men’s hockey bracket expansion ranking No. 7.)
Taking men’s ice hockey expansion out of it gets the NCAA closer to the 50/50 ratio, but it also costs, according to estimates, some $336,000 in lost revenue.
“A problem for the men’s ice hockey community is the politicization of the gender equity issue by certain [women's sports] advocates,” said Richard Ensor, commissioner of the multisport MAAC. “In my 12 years of being involved in NCAA governance, any proposal for bracket expansion has always been made on the merits of the case, not on political concerns, caps or quotas. To see such influences come into the process would be very unfortunate.
“I hope to see the NCAA just continue the expansion of sports opportunities on the merits of school sponsorship, conference sponsorship and fan interest. I expect that process will continue to provide sustained growth for both men’s and women’s sports opportunities as it has for the past decade.”
According to budget estimations from the NCAA, the expansion of the men’s ice hockey tournament would have cost an extra $254,000, but generated an additional $590,000 of net revenue — the only one of the 15 proposals that would have made a profit. Hockey already is the second-highest revenue generator of any postseason NCAA tournament, behind only men’s basketball.
“NCAA Division I ice hockey has demonstrated continued program, conference and fan growth that warrants bracket expansion,” said Ensor. “Its business plan for expansion is sound and would provide funds for the cost of expansion. That is why the NCAA Division I Championship Cabinet endorsed the bracket expansion. It is why the MAAC supports expansion.”
The men’s bracket was most recently expanded from eight to 12 in 1988. There are currently 54 men’s teams in six conferences, a figure expected to reach 60 teams in the next few years.
The issue is sure to be revisited next season.
“Last year, we didn’t get it by the Championships Cabinet,” said Bertagna. “This year it got to the Board of Directors. If it takes two to three years, we’re still on track.”