When the NCAA announced that this year’s East and West Regionals would be available in a pay-per-view package, the instinctive reaction was, “What are they thinking? This sport needs more exposure, not less.”
Fears that college hockey’s governing organization had sold its soul for a few pieces of silver, however, turned out to be groundless.
“The last few years, NCAA Productions has packaged the eight first-round and quarterfinal games for regional syndication,” explains Chris Farrow, the NCAA Assistant Director of Broadcast Services. “So if you lived in Boston, WABU picked up the BU game, but that’s the only game it picked up. If you lived in Minneapolis, Midwest Sports Channel (MSC) would show six or seven of the eight games.
“We acted as a packager and sold local rights to try to recoup some of our production expenses and pretty much got the games on. Last year, fans of 11 of the 12 teams that were in the tournament were able to see their home team play in their home market for free. But they weren’t guaranteed to see all the games.”
This year, the new pay-per-view deal allows fans with a DSS dish and either the DirecTV or Echostar packages the opportunity to buy all eight games for $29.95. The same holds true for selected cable pay-per-view networks.
All the games will be shown live, including West regional games at 5:00 and 8:30 ET on Friday, Mar. 27; on Saturday, East contests at 12:00 and 3:00, followed by West games at 6:00 and 9:00; and Sunday will wrap up in the East at 2:00 and 5:30.
“The main reason we did this was because we had received a lot of complaints from fans in non-traditional college hockey markets, such as California, Texas and Florida,” says Farrow. “Those fans were not able to see the games. Now we’re allowing access to them through ESPN Enterprises Pay-Per-View.
“Thirty bucks for eight games is a steal. People are paying 50 bucks for a thirty-second fight.”
The chief concern, however, wasn’t whether the price was right or not. It was the assumption that the pay-per-view package had replaced the over-the-air telecasts of the past couple years. For a sport still woefully underexposed, such a tradeoff appeared to be a short-sighted, self-destructive sellout. In exchange for a few bucks from the limited circle of DSS dish owners, the NCAA had appeared to pull the plug on the much wider over-the-air audience.
But the sport needed more exposure, not less.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what it will be getting.
“We still will sell local rights for over-the-air broadcasts,” says Farrow. “I’ve already done deals with four stations that are going to take the majority of the games. Cox Cable in Rhode Island is going to show all eight games. The PBS station in Washington, D.C., WNVT, is going to show all eight games live. The Warner Brothers affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, WTVW, will show all eight games live. And Midwest Sports Channel is going to show six of the eight games live.
“So, for example, if you live in Rhode Island and you’re a college hockey fan, you can watch every single game that weekend. On Saturday, that’ll be 12 straight hours of hockey.
“God Bless America!” he adds, laughing.
“Those are just what we have so far,” continues Farrow. “There’ll be others that will come to the table. There’ll be a lot of stations that will wait until March 22, when the selections come out, to see where their teams are playing. For example, a WABU might come to the table and take a BU quarterfinal game, depending on when it is.”
The NCAA website plans to provide updated information after the selection show.
“You’re almost guaranteed to see your home team in your market over the air, even though we don’t know for sure who’s carrying it and when the game is until the week of March 22,” says Farrow. “Looking at the top ten today — Michigan State, North Dakota, BU, New Hampshire — those kinds of markets, we’ll get those games on over-the-air for those fans.”
Phil Buttafuoco, the NCAA’s top hockey person, adds, “We want to build relationships with these stations. We don’t want to shut them out. They’re important to college hockey, especially throughout the regular season, so we don’t want to say to them, ‘Sorry, you’ve got no opportunities here.'”
Farrow likens the arrangement to the NHL’s pay-per-view package.
“If you live in Boston, you’re going to see the Bruins on NESN, but if you’re a huge hockey fan or the L.A. Kings are your favorite team, you can pay for the NHL package and get those additional games,” he says. “This is nothing different than what the pro games are doing.”
In regions where pay-per-view and over-the-air broadcasts clash, free TV wins.
“In the markets that have paid for the over-the-air rights, pay-per-view will be blacked out,” says Farrow. “So, for example, if you live in Providence and have Cox Cable, you will not be able to buy the pay-per-view package, because you’re already getting it for free over the air.”
College hockey will also be getting a boost in exposure this year because of scheduling changes instituted for the next two years to minimize conflicts with the NCAA basketball tournament. Hockey is one week later than in previous years.
“For the first time, the hockey regionals are the same time as the basketball Final Four,” says Farrow. “So there’s less basketball on TV, because you’re only dealing with three men’s games and three women’s games. In previous years, the hockey regionals were the same weekend as the basketball regionals.”
One week later, the semifinal games will move to ESPN2 and the championship game to ESPN.
“When we get to Boston, we’ll be the only show in town,” says Farrow. “The national semifinals on April 2 won’t be conflicting with basketball, as we have in the past. And the national championship game on April 4 will be in prime-time on ESPN. That’ll be terrific.”
Ladies and gentlemen, start your VCRs.