Commentary: Is NCAA ice hockey held hostage by ESPN?

The Worldwide Leader in Sports – the self-proclaimed title given to ESPN – has done a lot to help grow the NCAA men’s ice hockey championship over the years.  Now, though, it seems like “that network” is doing everything to hurt this tournament when interest in the event is at an all-time high.

Back in the tournament’s growth spurt of the early 1990s, you can point directly to ESPN’s programming that included putting the national title game on TV in prime time on a Saturday night with the late Tom Mees serving as the passionate play-by-play voice as a reason for the sport’s growth.

Back then, the move was sensible for ESPN as it also had broadcast rights for the NHL and hockey was a major part of the network.

The result was positive. At one point a few years back, almost every game of the tournament was given prominent positioning in the ESPN lineup. Even in the regular season, ESPNU was the broadcast home for a number of games from many of the top schools.

But in recent years, college hockey seemingly has become an afterthought for ESPN, particularly in college hockey’s most important time — the postseason. And as an outsider, it certainly looks like the Worldwide Leader has the NCAA by the “you-know-what.”

ESPN has plenty of leverage with the NCAA. They broadcast some of their less compelling championships — most notably women’s basketball and softball — and also give a prominent position to some of the higher-rated events such as the College World Series and the men’s lacrosse tournaments, two events that annually rival men’s hockey as the top revenue-generating championships for the NCAA behind basketball.

But ESPN seems to be taking too much advantage of its leverage, something on display throughout this weekend’s regional tournaments.

A number of regional games were not shown on live television (in this Internet world, is there any other kind?) unless the participating teams could convince local or regional networks to fork over ESPN’s syndication fees to broadcast these games.

The most egregious example of this came on Saturday afternoon when ESPNU decided to show a college lacrosse regular season doubleheader live instead of showing the North Dakota-Western Michigan West Regional semifinal, a battle of the CCHA and WCHA playoff champs. Want to see that? Head over to ESPN3, where your ability to see the puck is subject to the speed of your Internet connection (that and being on a network that ESPN supports).

Lacrosse again caused a mishap later in the afternoon when Johns Hopkins and Virginia’s 2 p.m. game went into overtime, preempting the first 24 minutes of the Boston College-Air Force 4 p.m. opener in the Northeast Regional. That was the third time in four years that ESPNU’s lacrosse schedule ran into the first NCAA hockey game on Saturday.

Now, as Sunday has arrived, fans in Worcester must wait until 8 p.m. for the regional final between top-seeded BC and defending national champ Minnesota-Duluth.

The odds of Worcester even having a half-full house are slim. What parent is going to travel with their kids from Boston to Worcester knowing full well that, even if the game ends in regulation, they won’t arrive home until well after midnight and that is if the game doesn’t go to overtime?

This was on display a year ago when New Hampshire and Notre Dame faced off in a similar 8 p.m. regional final in front of a half full house in New Hampshire.

It’s tough enough that regional locations are in somewhat obscure places for travel like Green Bay, Bridgeport and Worcester, but holding the games at such obtuse times simply takes away from student-athletes’ experience to play the biggest game of their life — in front of a half-empty arena.

I know I’m not alone on this rationale. Saturday night, the usually mild-mannered BC head coach Jerry York was massively vocal in his displeasure of having to play at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night.

“I just wish the game was earlier and a little more user-friendly for our audience here in Worcester,” said York. “It’s great for TV, but it’s going to be very difficult for us to draw a big house on a Sunday night at 8 o’clock.

“It boggles my mind that Worcester and all the money they put into this that they can’t get a better game time than 8 o’clock on a Sunday night.”

All of this comes at a time when two networks — CBS Sports Network (formerly CBS College Sports) and NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) — are champing at the bit to cover college hockey. Both networks dedicated significant resources toward robust regular-season TV deals (in the case of NBC, a postseason deal with Hockey East). You would think that either, if given the chance, would give this NCAA championship the appropriate treatment and coverage.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem like something that will change soon. It had the chance. The ESPN TV contract was to expire at the end of this season. That was until the NCAA signed a 12-year extension last December that gives ESPN exclusive rights to NCAA tournament broadcasts (with the exception of men’s basketball, owned by CBS, though ESPN gets the international broadcast rights for that tournament) through the 2023-24 season.

I may be the only one who sees it as ironic that college hockey’s ugly step-sister treatment this season (which includes moving one of the the national semifinals from ESPN2 to ESPNU, a network many people don’t get in their homes, and the national title game from the flagship ESPN to ESPN2) coincides with this signing. It seems as if ESPN knows that they have the NCAA hostage when it comes to this championship.

Jerry York is right. Regional host cities put a significant amount of effort and money into hosting, as do those cities that bid and host the Frozen Four. It’s just too bad that the regional is diminished by the power and control of one network that doesn’t seem to care much about hockey anymore.