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Las Vegas Golden Knights forward William Karlsson hoists the Stanley Cup after the 2023 Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. on June 13, 2023.Stephen R. Sylvanie/Reuters

By every reasonable standard, U.S. college basketball should be in trouble.

Academia in general has never been less popular. The cost of doing business has jumped. The workforce is restive.

This year, Dartmouth’s men’s team signalled it will unionize. Schools are losing control of revenues from image rights. Players have been granted more freedom of movement between institutions. The best ones are there for year, maximum, before they leave for the NBA draft.

Imagine running a business like this.

College ball has one major advantage – it doesn’t pay its employees. But otherwise, you’d think it should be in terminal decline.

Then you look around at this time of year and it’s hard to imagine things being better. If you follow American sports feeds, it is wall-to-wall March Madness right now.

I don’t give a tinker’s damn about college basketball, but I know Yale is a sweetheart, Clemson is a spoiler and UConn is unstoppable. I didn’t read about or watch this on purpose. I absorbed it somehow. Osmotically, maybe.

This works in both men’s and women’s college ball. They share many of the same structural problems with the men, but the women’s Final Four audience grew by 50 per cent last year.

NCAA basketball has figured out something that pro leagues – the NHL in particular – can’t wrap their heads around. That when it comes to the public attention span, it’s better to ask for a lot over a little amount of time than a little over a long time.

College ball and the NHL are essentially the same enterprise. They begin in fall. They go half the year.

The good teams know they will be there at the end, and the bad teams can still depend on a full house most Saturday nights. Just like Ithaca or Iowa City, what else is there to do in Buffalo or Ottawa?

Though neither league says it, both have two seasons – one to eat up time, and one that matters.

This doesn’t make any sense, but the sports-loving public has come to accept it because they know only one sports outfit in the world that does all its seasons at once, and they consider that one – the Olympics – outside the rules.

Fifty years ago, the second, real season was, like everything else in this world, smaller.

College basketball’s men’s championship tournament featured 25 teams over three consecutive weekends. A little more than two weeks total.

The NHL was already demanding a huge chunk of your life – 12 teams and multiple rounds over seven weeks. Now we’re up to 16 teams, and it takes more than two months to complete the Stanley Cup playoffs.

College men’s basketball has tripled the number of teams in its championship (64), but they still manage to cram it all into three weeks.

It’s not just the overall amount of time, but the distribution of games. By Day Four, they’ve cut 64 teams to 16. The first weekend can be, and is for some, the extent of your Final Four experience.

Just about everyone can afford to arrange one weekend of their lives around a sport. Nobody understands this better than the NFL.

They offer boutique schedules for different sorts of fans. The completist can be there in August watching third-stringers trying to kill each other. The dilettante can show up in February for the Super Bowl halftime show. Their appetites are different, but the colour of their money is the same.

The NHL serves only one type of fan – the masochist.

It’s fine if your team makes it all the way, but that’s probably not happening. What’s more likely is that you give up two months of your life to end up with Carolina versus Dallas. Who prefers that system? According to the TV numbers, nobody.

Last year, Stanley Cup final games drew 2.7 million viewers on average in the U.S. That was down from the year before, but up from the year before that. Somewhere around 3 million is the benchmark.

NCAA women’s Final Four games are nearly double that. Last year’s championship game was more than triple it.

Why is professional hockey losing so much ground, so quickly to women’s college basketball? I’m sure many people have an inspirational social rationale, but what if it’s scheduling?

It could be the fact that college ball doesn’t try your patience by spreading their playoffs over months, and that every one of their ‘playoff’ games matters. One team wins, the other goes home.

What if the NHL playoffs took three weeks, included 12 teams and every round was best-of-three?

(I prefer one-and-done, but that would make an 82-game regular season seem so farcical that it might collapse.)

One suspects the major objection to an Ozempic’d NHL postseason would be that it isn’t fair. That you can’t show a team’s true quality in two or three games.

To which I would say, when did this become about fairness? The NHL is not a social program. It’s a TV show. Best-of-three with no days off is a lot more entertaining than two weeks of grinding that comes down to one hour at the end.

The NHL can’t even defend itself by claiming its thinking is guided by greed. Yes, arenas make money based on the number of nights they are open. But TV is where the real jackpot is.

The men’s Final Four – just that tournament – makes US$1.1-billion for the NCAA each year. Between U.S. and Canadian rights, the NHL earns roughly US$950-million for all of its games.

If you take the history out of it, the required schedule renovations are obvious. Do much less with much more high stakes and the audience and TV money will follow.

To keep doing it the way you’ve always done it is to court a slow decline. The exact one the NHL is sitting around watching happen to it right now.

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