Inside the NCAA Frozen Four

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the hour or so before Boston University met Providence for the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four title game, the ticket re-sellers were having a heyday on the streets outside TD Garden in Boston. With the hometown Terriers facing the upstart Friars, whose campus is 45 minutes away, the fan interest and ticket demand was off the charts, prompting prices of $250 or more just to get in the door of the rink.

A year later in Tampa, Fla., the thousands of blue seats inside Amalie Arena became a sea of green. It is nearly 1,900 miles from Grand Forks to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s home rink, but passionate North Dakota fans by the thousands made the trip not only from the Red River Valley, but from all over the nation, to see the Fighting Hawks win their eighth NCAA hockey title and tickets were scarce.

In 2017 when the Frozen Four made its first stop in Chicago, there were no unsold seats inside the cavernous United Center, on the city’s west side, as Minnesota Duluth and Denver squared off for the NCAA title. The tournament’s attendance was surely boosted by local favorite Notre Dame getting to Chicago, despite the Irish bowing out in the semifinals.

In 2018 in St. Paul, the Frozen Four was a tough ticket, with nationally-popular Notre Dame facing local favorite Minnesota Duluth in the finale. Two other big schools with huge alumni bases — Michigan and Ohio State — rounded out the quartet of teams. The few available tickets for the tournament sold out quickly, and the resale market on West Seventh Street in St. Paul was hot.

With that history, it was odd to see huge swaths of empty seats this year in Buffalo, and see an official paid attendance figure (13,624) for the finale that showed more than 5,000 available tickets went unsold. It was the lowest attendance for the men’s hockey championship game since 2000 when there were 11,484 in attendance in Providence, R.I., for North Dakota vs. Boston College in the now-called Dunkin’ Donuts Center, which now has a seating capacity for 14,000.

It was the first time that attendance for a championship game was less than 18,000 since 2006 (Wisconsin vs. Boston College, Milwaukee, 17,758). Buffalo also hosted the 2003 Frozen Four, but the championship game between Minnesota and New Hampshire drew a crowd of 18,759.

Folks began asking why almost immediately and that’s a question that is still being explored.

“We have not debriefed internally or with Buffalo yet, but we will. My suspicion is it’s a combination of factors that all worked against the attendance,” Steve Metcalf said this week. A deputy athletic director at the University of New Hampshire, Metcalf serves as chair of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee. “When we have that conversation we will dive into those issues more. It’s pretty common to evaluate with the host and with Buffalo we will go into the reasons that it didn’t work as well as we thought.”

What one suspects that the NCAA will find when those discussions are held is in a place where challenging winter weather is the norm, there was a perfect storm of factors that seemingly hit Buffalo and affected Frozen Four attendance. This, despite the relatively good spring weather fans experienced during the three-day tournament weekend.

Fan bases

While Minnesota Duluth wore the white jerseys and was listed as the official home team for the title game, UMass had the majority of fans in the building for the finale. Their campus is roughly a six-hour drive from Buffalo, and as the Minutemen were making their initial Frozen Four appearance, there was extra incentive for their fans to experience all of this for the first time.

Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Providence are all relatively small schools with enrollments of 10,000 or less. All have passionate fan bases, but Denver fans in particular have never traveled in impressive numbers. Without a large-enrollment, large fan base “BCS” school (think Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Boston College, etc.) in the field, there were fewer potential ticket buyers with an emotional investment. Many fans of those teams traveled to Buffalo anyway, as Gopher, Badger and Wolverine apparel was easy to spot in and around KeyBank Center.