Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Longer Season?

The Stanley Cup was awarded this week, and as I watched the Carolina Hurricanes skate around their home arena with sport's greatest trophy, I thought back to almost two and half months ago when it was another team dressed in red, the Wisconsin Badgers, skating around their (almost)home arena with the NCAA championship trophy. It was a little hard remembering though, as the college hockey season seemed like a distant memory to me. Many collegiate prospects at the NHL's pre-draft fitness camp earlier this month were out of shape, as they had not skated competively since the end of March, while their Canadian counterparts were in top shape after just recently completing their season. That made me think: should the college hockey season be longer?

There are many arguments against expanding the college hockey season. College hockey already has the longest season of any NCAA sport, spanning from October to March. People argue that by making the season longer, players will wear down physically, and it will take them away from their efforts in the classroom.

I don't believe that the NCAA needs to adopt a season as long as the NHL's season. No major college sport plays as many competition as their corresponding professional league. But college hockey is one of the only sports where college teams play significantly fewer games than other leagues at or below their level. One of the major selling points for Canadian major junior hockey when competing for college prospects is that they play almost twice as many games as college teams. Moreoever, junior leagues where the large majority of college hockey players play before attending college play almost twice as many games as a college hockey team. If players have shown the ability to play 60-80 games a season before and after college, it's not difficult to believe they could handle the same schedule during college. If anything, college players are probably more prepared for a long season because games are usually played on the weekend, giving them an entire week to rest between games.

A longer season wouldn't put much of an additional strain on academics either. College hockey players have already proven that they can handle the rigors of the classroom. According the NCAA's most recent Academic Progress Rate numbers, college hockey players have the highest likelihood of staying on track to graduate of any of the major sports. If they can excel academically already having one of the longest seasons in college sports, they should be able to handle it if their season was made a little longer.

College hockey teams would actually be aided by a longer regular season as well. By playing more games, teams would have more scheduling flexibility, and more games would equal more revenue for the programs. Teams are currently handcuffed in terms of scheduling by the number of games they are allowed to play. Once a team's conference games are scheduled, teams are only left with 6-8 non-conference games to play. Because of this, teams feel like they have to schedule home games, in order to get some extra revenue for their program, and they're afraid to schedule quality opponents for fear of hurting their end of year Pairwise Ranking. This has led to many bigger schools filling their early season schedule with cupcake teams from the CHA and Atlantic Hockey who are willing to play on the road, in order to get the revenue from the home game, and pad their record. It's very rare to see a top team like Michigan or Minnesota ever play a non-conference series on the road.

But if the season was lengthened and teams could play twice as many non-conference games, college hockey would be more like college basketball, where teams don't have to worry about traveling on the road and taking a loss to a quality opponent, because they know that they can still get into the NCAA tournament and they know they'll still make money with their other home games. One of the best parts about the current conference set-up is that powerhouse programs have to travel to smaller campuses to play. These games bring in tremendous amounts of revenue for the smaller programs, and are often the most important games of the season for these schools. Playing more non-conference games would make big programs more likely to travel to a smaller school for a non-conference series. There would also be incentive for teams to schedule games against quality opponents. Teams wouldn't have to worry about taking a few losses, because it wouldn't hurt them as much.

The advantages of a longer season would also trickle down to the fans. Ticket prices around the country have gone up considerably over the past 10 years as teams try to squeak out as much money as they can from each home game. If teams played more home games, that means they could reduce ticket prices. It would make the price of season tickets higher for many fans, but they would be getting more games for their money. There is also the potential for cheaper half-season ticket packages. Many fans would probably be willing to pay a little more knowing that they would be seeing more games against the top teams in the country as opposed to paying to see their team blowout an Atlantic Hockey they've never heard of. More games also means that more tickets will be available to the public, which could help bring new fans to the sport.

This is probably just a dream, because the NCAA has no intention of increasing the length of the college hockey season, but I feel that it is an idea that makes a lot of sense, and something that should be looked into.


Anonymous said...

Obviously you were never a STUDENT athlete. What are you nuts. These guys start in August, stay for "volunteer" spring conditioning until the middle of June if not longer. Ever take a Calc. II, Microbiology, Biochem, Lit, and some money making fluff class, while your missing as many as three or four class days at the end of the term as well as spending 5 hours a day in a weight room, on the ice and team meetings. I thought not.. And by the way how many of these guys are on full scholarships. Yeah lets make em play more so that you can see more college hockey games and the school can make more money. Very thoughtful of you.

Chris said...

I'm not sure what beig on full scholarship has to do with anything.

Being a student-athlete is incredibly tough to manage. But players also have a lot of valuable resources at their disposal such as tutors, advisors, and mandatory study time.

Like I said, while managing academics is a challenge, it's not like the majority of college hockey players are failing to do so. Looking at the NCAA's data on academic progress over the past two years, only two schools scored below the NCAA's minimum, while 7 schools had a perfect score. I have a hard time believing that those numbers would change significantly if you added a month onto each end of the season.

Kevin said...

Most student athletes who are in competitive sports with a large time commitment take a lighter load during the season and balance it out by taking classes in the spring/summer term.

Badger Backer said...

I do think there is a tendency for us, as fans of big schools like Michigan or Wisconsin to think of college hockey vis-a-vis major juniors more than a lot of other schools do.

Certainly, teams like the Badgers or Wolverines are competing against major junior teams for players and are filled with guys that think playing at the highest level is in their future. So, we naturally think that a longer season would be good because the players would have more opportunity to play and develop their skill and more top players would go the NCAA route. Plus, the academic rigors aren't exactly paramount to us since a lot of the players are athlete-students rather than student-athletes, using their time in school to groom themselves for playing professionally either in the USA or in Europe rather than as an actual scholarship to learn.

However, at a lot of the more "minor" schools, like Bentley or something, academics is a lot more important to those guys. Sure, they probably decided to go to Bentley because of hockey, and playing hockey is important to them, but very few of them are going to ever play professional hockey after they're done. Academics is a ton more important to those players, who are actually going to need their degrees, unlike the Skilles and Johnsons of the world that are just counting their days until they're making millions of dollars in the NHL.

So, I mean, in theory I agree with you that it would be a good idea for college hockey to have more games. I also don't think it's that unrealistic that it could happen - after all, football gets a longer schedule almost every year.

But, the season is long as it is, and players do need the offseason to catch up on academics, especially for some guys who are actually student athletes rather than the other way around.

gmf1a said...

I believe all sports seasons are already too long - this is especially true in the pro arena. I can't support a longer college one.

Going pro from college is interesting but it doesn't drive college sports to me at all. Very few college guys actually make it to the NHL anyway.

They are student athletes and need the class room time more than the ice time.

Colin said...

Personally, I appreciate the length of the season at the moment, but I wonder how much longer it could really get? At Michigan, the season ends about a month or so before finals. Any closer, and the students would really start to suffer. Or, I suppose, they could get extensions on their finals, but I don't like the idea of making the athletes exceptions any more than they already are.

Kevin said...

Doesn't softball season go on straight through finals?

Anonymous said...

a little late back but... No full scholarship means some of them also have to work to pay their tuition. Add that to their time responsibilities. Manditory study time? Whats up with that. All students have "manditory study time" if they want to pass their flippin classes. Oh one more thing it the are playing a D-I sport some of the programs want them to take curriculums that are B.S. (not Bachelor of Science). They want them to major in hockey. Good Luck.. How many NHL jobs are there.. Sorry you are very mistaken on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Softball,,, no. And it is a one semester sport as is football, soccer, baseball, volleyball et. al. Basketball and hockey, to my knowledge are the only two, two semester sports. (Refer to basketball graduation statistics)