Increased revenue and attendance, and reduced expenses are the major reasons for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s new playoff format.
Starting next season, the WCHA Final Five will be replaced with best of 3 semifinal series and a single-elimination winner-take-all championship contest. The semifinal series and championship game will be played at campus sites.
The semifinals will be played at the top two remaining seeds after the quarterfinals, and the championship game will be played at the highest remaining seed after the semifinals.
The top eight teams in the 10-team league still will qualify for the playoffs, with the top four teams hosting best of 3 quarterfinal series.
During the last three seasons, the quarterfinal winners have advanced to the WCHA Final Five for single-elimination semifinals and finals.
The league announced the new format Tuesday afternoon.
The Final Five was held in Grand Rapids, Mich. in 2014 and 2016, and St. Paul, Minn. in 2015. The event was scheduled to be played in St. Paul again next season, but the new format replaces that.
“This was a chance for us to make a splash and a name for the WCHA,” league commissioner Bill Robertson said during a conference call.
The format change was approved by a unanimous vote, Robertson said.
The WCHA receives the income from playoff games and pays the travel expenses of the competing teams. Instead of having four teams traveling to the Final Five, two teams will travel for the semifinals, and one will travel for the championship game.
The WCHA hopes the move of the semifinal series and the championship game to campus sites will increase playoff attendance.
“We feel we have a better chance with this tournament to be successful from a financial perspective, with what the revenues would look like going forward,” Robertson said.
The WCHA Final Five has been plagued by poor attendance the last three seasons, the result of the league’s far-ranging geography after college hockey’s realignment for the 2013-14 season.
This season’s Final Five at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. drew an announced two-day total of 9,092 fans. The 2015 Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. drew 15,048 fans.
The 2014 event drew 11,162 fans in Grand Rapids, but a separate admission was charged for all three games. One ticket was good for both semifinal games in 2015 and 2016.
Because of the sparse attendance, the atmosphere in the arena was similar to that of a morgue. The Xcel Energy Center has a capacity of 17,985, and Van Andel Arena has a capacity of 10,834.
Alaska (Fairbanks) and Alaska-Anchorage are eligible to host playoff games in the new format, Robertson said.
“We believe it’s all about the best experience for the college athletes and our fans,” said BGSU president Mary Ellen Mazey, who chairs the WCHA Board of Directors.
“This new format will really be what the fans and, in particular, our student-athletes and everyone associated with the WCHA will find is a real win-win,” Mazey added. “It’s what is best for our future.”
Although the new format still could require some long trips for the semifinals and the championship game, BG head coach Chris Bergeron likes the change.
“The exciting part of it is potentially playing meaningful games in front of your fans,” Bergeron told BGSUHockey.com after the conference call. “It’s really exciting. When you think about playing in front of a fan base, and the energy in the building and the excitement in the building, there’s some potential for some real excitement and some real good college hockey.
“Some of the energy and excitement hasn’t been in the buildings because we were trying to build the brand of the championships,” Bergeron added. “They’re just such big buildings. They’re hard to fill at that time of year.”
Although the league schedule will remain 28 games next season, the quarterfinals will be held the first weekend in March on March 3-4-5 next season, followed by the semifinals on March 10-11-12 and the championship game on Saturday, March 18.
The last weekend of the regular season has traditionally been played during the first weekend in March, but will be played Feb. 24-25 next season.
The next-to-last weekend of games was moved to earlier in the season. The last weekend of the regular season will still consist of games matching the league’s rivalry pairings, meaning BG will continue to play Alabama-Huntsville to finish the regular season.