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Bracket expansion, now to 12 teams, is back on the table for NCAA women's hockey tournament

And the women's hockey community, including the Bulldogs, doesn't want to wait any longer for expansion. They want a 12-team tournament, and they want it to happen this season.

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Minnesota Duluth's Mannon McMahon (16) and Naomi Rogge (9) celebrate McMahon's second-period goal against Northeastern during an NCAA National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship semifinal game on Thursday, March 18, 2021 at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. A proposal will go before the NCAA Competition Oversight Committee next week to expand the tournament to 12 teams. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Two months after tabling a proposal to expand the National Collegiate Women’s Hockey Championship tournament from eight to 10 teams, the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee is set to once again consider a proposal that would expand the field for the first time since 2005.

The COC is scheduled to meet next week on Wednesday, Nov. 10, via video conference from 1-2 p.m., only this time, the proposal put before the committee will be a 12-team tournament, not 10.

And supporters of the proposal — emboldened by last week’s release of Phase II of the NCAA External Gender Equity Review Report — want to see the changes go into effect right away for the 2021-22 season.

“We think the time is right,” said Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell, whose Bulldogs program was among the many in women’s college hockey on Thursday who took part in a coordinated social media campaign to push for immediate bracket expansion. “A hundred more student-athletes get into the NCAA tournament, and not only get in, but deserve to get in based on our access ratio numbers that should be higher than they are. We’ve been sitting at this number for way too long.”

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The disparities between the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey championships were featured prominently in the Phase II report that was released last week, but it also included more information about women’s hockey’s stalled push for expansion this offseason.

The report cited the tabling of bracket expansion for women’s hockey as an example of how the lack of a set process for bracket and field expansion requests can lead to gender equality. According to the report, the proposal was tabled for more than just the budgetary reasons cited by the oversight committee.

  • Stakeholders reported that after submitting their request, the Women’s Ice Hockey Committee was told that they had missed a deadline of which they were not aware. And though their proposal was tabled, they were also told unofficially that they could have asked for an even larger bracket expansion. As those who worked on the proposal described it, “our committee spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out how to get things submitted to [the Competition Oversight Committee],” but found there is “no clear path.”

The original proposal that was put together by a working group of coaches and administrators, as well as the NCAA women’s ice hockey championship committee, and tabled in September, went with only 10 teams instead of 12 because they were advised 10 was a more viable number based on the percentage of qualifying teams compared to other sports.

Crowell said it was tough to read and hear about things, such as budgeting deadlines and a willingness to go beyond 10, after the fact, instead of before or during the process leading up to the consideration of the bracket expansion proposal.

“Oh man, putting together 10-team brackets — several of them — took a long time just to figure it out,” said Crowell, who was part of the working group this offseason. “And we did the finances too, because we try to do the work on the front end so (finances) is never an issue. A 12-team bracket is a lot easier to format, as you can imagine.”

The NCAA has hired an outside firm to conduct its gender equity review following posts on social media last spring that showed the disparities between the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

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Phase I of the review focused solely on the disparities between men’s and women’s basketball, while Phase II looked at the rest of the NCAA’s championships, including the disparities between men’s and women’s hockey.

Notable disparities between the NCAA men’s and women’s Division I championships detailed in the report include:

Staffing

The men’s hockey championship has 11 NCAA employees working the tournament, including three championship staff members, a media coordinator and seven others who are described as “external operations” staffers. Meanwhile, the women have just two total staff members.

According to an unnamed hockey coach in the report, “Because there is a point person for each aspect of the men’s tournament, there is more attention to detail in a wider range of areas. On the contrary, those serving on the women’s staff need to multitask.”

Spending

The NCAA spends approximately $4.2 million on the men’s tournament compared to $656,827 on the women’s. When broken down by student-athlete, that’s $9,805 vs. $3,421.

For comparison, the men’s tournament brings in approximately $5.8 million in revenue compared to $154,189 for the women’s tournament.

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The report cited Division I men’s hockey tournament is one of just five championships the NCAA considers revenue-producing, along with men’s basketball, baseball, men’s lacrosse and wrestling. However, the NCAA’s general practice of maintaining budgets from prior years results in the favoring of established championships — generally men’s sports — over newer, growing events — generally women’s sports.

“For example, because bracket expansions are expensive, some women’s championships, like beach volleyball and women’s ice hockey, have had to wait to get the necessary committee approval for a bracket expansion for which they have long been eligible,” the report reads.

Promotion

The NCAA spends $193,000 a year on promotional expenses for the men’s tournament compared to just $11,000 for the women’s tournament. According to an unnamed stakeholder in the report, “The NCAA has committed to spending money in order to make money over time in men’s hockey. This is a generosity it has never afforded women’s hockey.”

Participation

While 16 out of 60 men’s hockey teams (26.7%) make the national tournament, only eight of 41 women’s teams (19.5%) do. The 10-team proposal that was tabled in September only brought the women up to 24.4%, while a 12-team tournament will give women the edge with 29.3%.

Roster sizes also differ. Men’s teams are capped at 27 student-athletes while women are capped at 24.

Crowell said the women’s hockey community isn’t asking the NCAA to address all of the issues brought up in the report by next week. All they want at the present time is to expand the 2022 NCAA National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship tournament by four more teams.

And they are flexible with how the 12-team tournament might work, Crowell said. The important thing is to get to 12 teams, and do it right away, she said.

“We understand that it might not be perfect, but I think getting 100 more athletes into the tournament and getting our access ratios to an equitable number is way more important,” Crowell said.

“Why wait? This report came out. It’s really bad. Make it happen. Do right by women’s hockey. Let’s go.”

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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