Addressing state tournament attendance

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By Joe Henricksen

The attendance at the state tournament is in decline. That is a fact. There are debates as to what is the major reason. The poor economy and the four-class system hit simultaneously, so those are the factors many throw around in recent years.

The tournament moved to Peoria in 1996, with the big school tournament drawing solid numbers. As noted in a previous blog, those first few years in Peoria included the great and memorable Peoria ManualThornton battles in 1996 and 1997, with a surplus of big-time individual talent flooding the Elite Eight field in Peoria in 1998.

The overall attendance numbers for Class AA remained steady from 1996-2007, averaging 42,755 over the first 12 years playing in Peoria. Then the four-class system started in 2008.

In the first three years of four class basketball (2008-2010), the big school tournament (Class 4A and 3A) averaged an all-time low of 32,854 in that three-year period. That’s a decline of just under 10,000 fans a year. If you take the middle ticket price for this year’s state tournament, which was $8.50, and multiply by the empty seats in comparison to the attendance for the two-class system, we’re talking roughly an $85,000 loss per year.

Those are certainly some significant numbers–and losses. The drop in attendance, however, has been ongoing for decades, before the economy tanked and before four classes sucked the life out of the average high school basketball fan. We have seen total attendance figures for the state tournament weekend plummet over time, from 60,000-plus in its heyday to the 50,000 and 40,000-plus range to 30,000-plus to the paltry 27,184 total fans that watched the Class 4A/3A state tournament in 2010.

Is there anything that can help change the tide?

Time to change the calendar

You know what played a big part in the demise of state tournament attendance in Champaign? The NCAA Tournament.

When the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and added a weekend to its Big Dance in 1985, it interfered with the IHSA’s state tournament being played in Champaign. The first two rounds of NCAA Tournament play was now the same weekend as the Class AA state tournament.

And about the same time, the University of Illinois basketball program became regulars in the NCAA Tournament. What do you think a lot of the locals in Champaign, surrounding communities and even those around the state cared about in the 1980s? The interest and importance on Fighting Illini basketball was felt during state tournament time, with the IHSA state basketball tournament taking a back seat and many fans lost as a result.

Want proof? In the years leading up to the NCAA Tournament expansion in 1985, the Class A Elite Eight and Class AA Elite Eight drew comparative numbers when it came to attendance. But looking at closely, from 1972, which was the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of the 14 years

Here are some of those numbers:

• In 1980 Class AA drew 52,516 fans, while Class A drew 45,632.

• In 1981 it was similar, with Class AA drawing 51,133 and Class A drawing 44,743.

• In 1983 and 1984, Class A had a slight advantage over Class AA in attendance.

• And in 1985, Class AA regained a slight bump over Class A — 46,282 to 43,767.

The following year, however, with the state tournament bumping heads with the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, Class A attendance remained steady in 1986 with 51,462. But the Class AA tournament, which was a week later and directly up against the NCAA Tournament, saw attendance drop significantly to 38,000.

The trend continued. In each of the next two years, the Class A Elite Eight attracted more fans than the Class AA Elite Eight. And in 1989, the year of the great “Flying Illini” team that eventually reached the Final Four, the Class A tournament drew 48,523 fans to Assembly Hall, while the Class AA tournament, played during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, drew a paltry 36,805.

So from 1972, the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA state tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of those 14 years. And in the years Class AA didn’t draw as many fans, the attendance figures were at least very close.

But as indicated, college hoops had its impact. Soon enough the NCAA Tournament became a sports spectacle, capturing the hearts of America, especially during the first four days of play while the big school state tournament in Illinois was being played. As that interest built up in the 1990s and filling out a bracket sheet became a must, the NCAA Tournament became a prominent part of the nation’s sporting landscape.

Which leads us to this suggestion: what about a change in the IHSA basketball calendar? Why not move the season up one week to avoid the biggest sporting event this side of the Super Bowl?

To read the Hoops Report’s previous blogs on the state of the IHSA basketball tournament, go to …

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