Clark: New TV deal boost for IHSA

SHARE Clark: New TV deal boost for IHSA
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As basketball and football go, so goes the Illinois High School Association.

The IHSA runs dozens of state tournaments and competitions, but two of them carry most of the freight for the others.

The boys basketball and football state series generate a lion’s share of the IHSA’s revenue and most of its profits, according to figures obtained by the Sun-Times from government records and published earlier this year.

Last season, boys basketball brought in roughly $2 million and generated a profit of $1.1 million. Those sound like big numbers until you realize revenue is down 17 percent since the high-water mark in 2009 and profits are off 29 percent since 2006.

The decline highlights the urgency of getting the IHSA’s marquee event back on better financial footing, the sooner the better.

IHSA officials took a big step in the right direction last week when they announced a new television deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

The cable home of the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks also will air 59 IHSA events each school year, which is good. The entire football championship weekend and all four basketball finals (big- and small-school boys and girls) will be aired live, which is better.

It marks a welcome end to hunting around the dial to find the state’s premier prep events on TV in the state’s biggest market. IHSA events have had a higher television profile in the state’s smaller markets, where prep sports themselves are more prominent. But preps’ lack of visibility here probably has contributed to the declining interest in the boys basketball playoffs — out of sight, out of mind.

Anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of TV to drive fan interest only needs to look at the contrasting examples of the Cubs and Blackhawks.

The Cubs developed a huge and loyal fan base by putting their games on WGN-TV here and on cable systems everywhere. The Hawks, meanwhile, lost generations of fans by their stubborn opposition to putting home games on TV.

The IHSA needs to expand its fan base beyond kids in high school and their parents. Getting creative with its biggest events is a must.

The Comcast deal is a good start. Looking at new venues could spice things up as well.

That was proven by last year’s football state finals at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. It was a decision born of necessity: Big Ten expansion means the IHSA finals’ usual home, Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, won’t be available every other year. The IHSA and Huskie Stadium proved to be an inspired pairing.

NIU was a well-organized and friendly host, and about the only problem was a good one: some concession stands ran out of pizza during Saturday’s session.

The football finals will be in DeKalb in odd-numbered years and in Champaign in even-numbered ones. Using rotating sites for this high-profile final — something new for the IHSA — looks like a winner, creating the kind of buzz the organization needs.

The IHSA is now accepting hosting proposals for the boys basketball finals, which have been at Peoria’s Civic Center since moving from Champaign’s Assembly Hall in 1996. One idea gaining favor is splitting up the basketball tournaments — as has been done with baseball, whose finals are in Peoria and Joliet — and moving the big schools to the Chicago area.

Once a difficult to impossible ticket to acquire, the boys hoops finals lately have been played in front of too many empty seats.

The Comcast deal could help change that by drawing new fans to the games. Once drawn in by watching them on TV, maybe they’ll be tempted to check out the action in person ­— wherever they wind up.

It’s worth a shot. Because a healthy boys basketball state tournament, like a healthy football finals weekend, makes for a healthy IHSA.

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