Expansion to 16-Team Tournament Passes First Major Hurdle

For the second time in two years, the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet has given preliminary approval for expansion of the men’s Ice Hockey Championship bracket from 12 to 16 teams.

The proposal now must be approved by the NCAA Management Council and the Board of Directors, each of whom will discuss the issue in meetings in April and June respectively.

Also approved during the winter meetings of the Championship Cabinet were expansion of the Men’s Lacrosse (from 12 to 16) and Women’s Softball (from 48 to 64) tournaments. With four additional teams in both hockey and lacrosse, gender equity would be strengthened across the NCAA by adding 16 women’s softball teams, often a key factor in the NCAA’s decision.

“The best thing we did was link our proposal with women’s softball and men’s lacrosse,” said McDonald, athletic director at Quinnipiac University and chairman of the ice hockey committee. “It gave the proposal national attention along with gender equity and revenue potential.

“Softball couldn’t have done it by itself because it’s expensive to expend by 16 teams. Hockey couldn’t have done it by itself because it didn’t have gender equity.”

The proposal didn’t even get by the Cabinet in 2000. In February 2001, the Cabinet approved an identical expansion proposal that was later rejected by the NCAA Management Council, citing gender equity and budget constraints. At the time, the hockey bid was not accompanied by any balancing women’s sport.

“Two years ago, there was an approved priority list [of sports to expand],” said McDonald. “At that time, many other sports were ahead of us such as women’s soccer, women’s lacrosse, field hockey and men’s soccer. All of these sports have expanded.”

Ian McCaw, athletic director at Northeaster and a member of the ice hockey committee, agreed that this year’s proposal was different.

“The championship cabinet has prioritized [men’s ice hockey] within its budget, and that’s a significant step,” said McCaw, who is a likely candidate to replace McDonald as committee chairman after his term expires this spring. “It’s now more than likely that the expansion will take place for 2003.”

The big hurdle is the Management Council, since the Board of Directors often rubber-stamps such proposals.

If expansion were approved, the NCAA would immediately investigate the logistics for expanding the tournament sites. Most likely, two regional venues will be added — one in the New England/New York area, and a second in the geographic territory of the West region, that includes states such as Michigan,
Minnesota, North Dakota and Colorado.

McDonald said the two current venues for the 2003 regionals — the Centrum Centre in Worcester, Mass., and Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich., will be notified of the proposed expansion. These venues may want to reconsider whether hosting the event is still economically viable, since, instead of six teams — along with all of their staffs and fans — traveling to the area, there would be only four.

McCaw, though, does not believe that is a major concern.

“It’s something we haven’t yet addressed yet,” McCaw said. “But the popularity of the regionals has grown to be so great that we’re confident that any building of the 10,000-seat side would be able to meet the need of the fan base.”

McDonald also didn’t rule out the thought of remaining with two venues.

“There’s still a concept of a ‘Super Eight’ regional, hosting all the games in one building,” said McDonald, noting they could use a Thursday through Sunday format now in place in college basketball. “These are all the sort of possibilities that we need to address in the coming months.”

Without final approval, though, there still remains the question of when the actual expansion process can begin. If it were necessary to await final approval before any planning takes place, the Committee could find itself very short on time.

“We’re looking into the logistics to see if we can go ahead conditionally and begin the bidding process [for additional regional venues] or if we have to wait [for final approval],” said McCaw.

Tournament expansion has been an issue ever since the NCAA increased the field from eight to 12 teams in 1988. Many coaches and administrators believe the top two seeds in each region are given an unfair advantage by receiving a first-round bye. Teams advancing past the first round face rested opponents one night later in the regional final and rarely survive the second game to advance to the Frozen Four.

“Expansion will address the fact that the top four teams receive byes and we currently don’t have a balanced bracket,” said McCaw, who also said financial profit is a strong reason the proposal holds weight within the NCAA. The Division I men’s ice hockey tournament is the second-biggest money maker for the NCAA, behind men’s basketball.

The outcry to expand picked up more steam in 1999, when the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference first petitioned for an automatic qualifier to the tournament, which it received more than a year ago. Its bid knocked another “deserving” team out of the tournament. This was further magnified earlier this season, when College Hockey America received initial approval for an automatic qualifier. Based on the current format, six teams (representing each conference) would receive automatic bids to the 2003 tournament, leaving only six at-large berths. Expansion to a field of 16 would result in 10 at-large bids.

“One of the things that has been important to me is that for four years the MAAC has been blamed for taking a slot away from the established college hockey programs,” said McDonald, who as a member of the MAAC ice hockey committee, began the petition of the NCAA for tournament expansion in 1999.

“I would hope that as time goes on, the MAAC could be given some credit for adding more spots than for taking one away. This expansion would make everyone in college hockey welcome new programs and give all of our Division I programs access to the national championship.

“Every college athlete goes to school for two reasons: first to get an education and second to play for their sport’s national championship. Today, there’s a good possibility that 100 more [ice hockey] student-athletes will have a chance to do just that.”

The NCAA Management Council will meet on April 8, 2002, just two days after this year’s Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., concludes.

There still could be one caveat to this process, notes Tom Jacobs, director
of championships for the NCAA: Budget. Should the final NCAA budget not be sufficient to support all the packaged proposals for all three sports, the proposal may not survive.

“I don’t know what would happen if the management council says that there’s
not enough money to cover all three [sports expanding],” said Jacobs. “From
a gender standpoint, the numbers make sense in terms of keeping those
percentages [of male and females opportunity] relatively equal by expanding
all three brackets.”