As talk of conference changes continues, commissioner says he understands why

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna is watching the autonomy issue that could affect college hockey (photo: Melissa Wade).

When a story surfaced in a local student-run newspaper in South Bend, Ind., that Notre Dame may be unhappy with its current situation in Hockey East, red flags began going up all over the college hockey world.

Last week in this space, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson denied any rumors that the Irish might be looking for a new home.

This week, Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna referred to everything as gossip, stating specifically that he has no knowledge of Notre Dame wishing to explore other league opportunities.

But Bertagna did admit that life in Hockey East isn’t easy for the Irish. Notre Dame is located halfway across the country from all of its league opponents. Whereas every other member has to hop on a plane and travel to Notre Dame just once every two years, the Irish have to hit the road for 11 of their 22 league games, all of which involve air travel.

“It’s hard for those of us not on the Notre Dame campus to appreciate how different it is for them compared to their opponents,” said Bertagna. “My job is to try to treat every team the same, but there are some realities to their challenge that are different.”

In addition to travel, the league’s main television deal with NESN doesn’t benefit Notre Dame much with the network available only in the New England area or on satellite. Notre Dame is the key component of the league’s deal with NBC Sports and most of the Irish’s games are available either on national television or online via NBC’s Sports Extra platform. But given that a portion of the television money the league is spending on NESN doesn’t benefit Notre Dame puts the school at a disadvantage.

Thus Bertagna said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame or many other schools not just in Hockey East, but across all other leagues, are exploring options for where they fit best.

The basis for Bertagna’s belief lies in what is being referred to in Division I college athletics as autonomy.

Last summer the NCAA granted its five largest conferences — the Big 10, ACC, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 — the ability to govern themselves. Although these conferences and their members still compete in NCAA championships, the rules which member institutions will follow will be dictated by these five conferences with the blessing of the NCAA.

Largely, the move toward autonomy is meant to impact two sports — football and men’s basketball. And the first — and possibly the main — issue on the table that will be game-changing is the potential ability for these schools to provide stipends to their players that, until now in the NCAA landscape, have never been allowed.

Before we get too far ahead, understand this is all in a proposal stage and no one has any clear indication of exactly what the end result will be. Will schools in the Power 5, as the conferences has been dubbed, provide stipends above and beyond tuition, fees and room and board, that which is currently offered to Division I student-athletes, in all sports? Or will this simply be used as a tool in the highest revenue-generating sports?

And if schools in these conferences begin providing these additional monies for student-athletes, might other conferences want to get involved in order to level the playing field?

It is all of this uncertainty, particularly as it relates to how significantly the overall athletics budget at any school must increase to remain competitive, that concerns Bertagna.

“Athletic directors and commissioners are trying to grasp what the effects are going to be coming out of this new NCAA governance world where certain conferences get to pass rules to their liking,” said Bertagna. “The first [issue] getting attention is the ability of schools to increase athletics grants to include what is being called the ‘full cost of attendance.'”

Full cost of attendance includes everything now issued to student-athletes along with other costs and benefits — travel reimbursements, additional meal money, health insurance, among other things — and could be offered as part of a four-year package as opposed to year-to-year scholarships that are currently available.

When it comes to college hockey, there will be issues with how these “full cost of attendance” grants will be handled. It is common practice for schools to take the maximum of 18 scholarships that is allowed in five or the six conferences (Atlantic Hockey allows 13 scholarships, 14 starting next season) to divide them so that more players receive at least partial assistance with tuition. For example, a team might take the 18 scholarships and award full scholarships to 14 athletes and half scholarships to eight, stretching the available resources to impact more of the roster.

Will the schools who are members of a Power 5 conference — Boston College, Notre Dame, Arizona State and all six of the Big Ten schools — now be permitted to provide every rostered player with full cost of attendance? And if that is the case, will non-Power 5 schools be permitted to extend the same offers to maintain a level playing field?

If the latter is the case, it could have earth-shattering consequences as there will likely become an even more defined line in the sport between the programs with deep pockets and unlimited resources and those schools with more limited budgets to fund not just a hockey program but a full cadre of Division I sports for both men and women.

“Will everyone give this extra money because they can?” Bertagna wondered. “The early response for schools has been all over the map. Some say they would do it. Some say they can’t in the first years and some say they need more answers to questions.”

So how does this all effect Notre Dame and its decision to be in Hockey East? Directly, it may not. But Bertagna said that if funding college athletics — not just hockey — becomes an arms race, many programs will need to find ways to make other aspects of their operations — travel, coaching salaries, team resources — more cost-effective.

And that need may force the hand of programs to align with similar schools, both financially and geographically. That doesn’t suggest that all conferences need to be comprised of teams that are a bus ride away; that is really only feasible in the East. But for a school like Notre Dame, it might make sense for the Irish to be in a conference where all of these programs have to spend extensively on travel — like the NCHC or the Big Ten — and not automatically have higher travel expenses than the other 11 programs as is currently the case in Hockey East.

“We have changed the travel patterns of a number of schools with the current league landscape,” said Bertagna, who admitted that he believes that there is a possibility for a league in the middle of the country to pop up, similar to what was once the CCHA. “It just seems to make sense that there might be a reason for a group of schools in the middle of the country to come together.

“Let’s say there is some reshuffling to save money because [travel] is already a cost burden. Now you’ve got this other cost situation [related to ‘full cost of attendance’]. I just say it bears watching. Each is a separate issue, but one is upon us already with the cost of attendance. If there are other things that have cost implications, we all have to look ahead and see what it means for the sport.”

Notre Dame has most of its home games broadcast either on NBC Sports Network or its online platform (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Seeking a TV deal beyond New England

Hockey East’s television deals with NESN and NBC Sports end at the conclusion of this season, and Bertagna said that the league’s next deal will need two key components: flexibility and reach.

Stating simply that “technology keeps changing,” Bertagna intimated that the next TV deal may need to include cross-platform visibility, with many viewers watching hockey not just on their home television sets or at the local sports bar, but also remotely on tablets and smartphones. For that reason, Bertagna suggested that a shorter deal may be part of this year’s goal at the bargaining table.

“At one level, you think longer is better because you don’t have to go through [negotiations as often],” said Bertagna. “But the longer [the contract] is, you get locked into it and then if the technology changes, you can’t be as flexible.”

That flexibility also will tie into the geographic scope of the contract. While NESN for quite some time was the league’s exclusive television partner, two years ago the league added NBC Sports Network and its online platform to expand the league’s television reach nationally. That is critical when you look at where players in the league come from.

“In the last 10 years, the six New England states are a net minus-69 New England players,” said Bertagna. “But if you look at Florida, California and Texas, it’s like a plus-35. There’s a big shift, so part of our television audience has to be outside of New England.”

Both NBC Sports and NESN already had in place relationships with TSN in Canada, something that came in handy this season when the Canadian sports network looked to fill programming holes left by losing the NHL’s Canadian TV contract to Rogers Sportsnet. That placed a number of Hockey East games on the network this season.

The bottom line is that Bertagna hopes to craft a TV package that provides maximum exposure without too many restrictions related to exclusivity.

“We’re trying to rid ourselves of some of the limitations so we can get games on [TV],” Bertagna said. “We want to be seen in as many places as possible.”

The last two weeks

Alex Faust took a team-by-team look at final standings possibilities with two weekends left. Check it out here.