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O’Brien: It’s time for a sold-out state title game

It isn’t just Peoria and Champaign bidding to host the Class 3A and 4A boys basketball state tournament. The Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates has submitted a bid to the Illinois High School Association. The IHSA recently accepted bids to host the tournament from 2016-2020.

Sears Center General Manager Ben Gibbs acknowledges that his venue may be the dark horse candidate in the race, but this will be music to the ears of some high school basketball fans: “Whatever lack of atmosphere they are experiencing now due to lack of attendance, it would be the opposite here,” said Gibbs. “It’s a great product and we would be excited to turn it into something fabulous.”

The Sears Centre hosted the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament last year and Gibbs said that experience was used as the template for the bid. Sears Centre is owned by Global Spectrum, a Comcast company. According to Gibbs, Comcast’s long marketing reach was another big selling point in the Sears Centre bid.

“There are two million people within 20 minutes of the Sears Centre,” said Gibbs. “That’s bigger than Orlando. We would make sure everyone within 60 miles knows this is happening.”

That may seem like a no brainer, but it’s not. Marketing has been a major weakness of the state tournament. As the dwindling crowds have proven, the IHSA can’t just hold the event and cross its fingers that people show up. Attendance at the Class 3A and 4A state tournament is down 29 percent since 2006.

Young coach Tyrone Slaughter pointed out last year that the state tournament games were the only non-conference games his team played in that didn’t have some kind of press event surrounding them. Jahlil Okafor was a big deal across the country, attracting crowds everywhere he played. He didn’t account for any significant bump in attendance in Peoria though, neither did Jabari Parker.

On the surface, downtown Peoria seems to be a convenient location for fans, but only a couple of restaurants are still open after the last basketball game ends between 10 and 11 p.m. The drive-thru at the Steak N Shake in East Peoria (across the river from Carver Arena) is typically a mad scene an hour after the last game ends on Friday and Saturday.

There are a number of hotels and restaurants surrounding the Sears Centre, places that would stay open past 10 p.m. to accommodate the basketball fans.

“This area is purpose built to accommodate us,” said Gibbs. “We have several places close to us and a nice upscale suburb just a few minutes away.”

Champaign’s bid is backed by the University of Illinois and as the survey shows, it’s a sentimental pick for a lot of longtime fans and coaches. It’s likely a move back to Champaign would give attendance a bump, at least briefly.

It’s legitimate to wonder how long that would last though. It’s possible fans just don’t want to have to spend a night in a hotel to watch a high school basketball game anymore. That’s what makes the Sears Centre so attractive.

“I think it would be great,” said Simeon coach Robert Smith. A lot of people don’t like change, but something new would spice things up. I’ve had a great time in Peoria as well. But the Sears Centre is not that far from Chicago, the last six years we have had Chicago teams (at the state tournament) and not been able to support the team like we should because it is so far. (Sears Centre) would make our fan base so much happier. No hotels, just drive to the game and then go home.”

The Class 4A final four could possibly consist of Rockford Auburn, Hinsdale Central, Simeon and Stevenson. All those schools are a realistic drive from the Sears Centre. Gibbs is confident those fan bases would fill the venue.

“We packed the place for Stevenson’s graduation,” said Gibbs. “People want to come see these teams play at state, they follow the sport all year long. I don’t have any doubt that we could sell it out.”

High school basketball fans have packed gyms all across the area to watch regular season games this season. It isn’t just about Simeon and Stevenson and it isn’t just for ranked teams. Rivalries like Hinsdale Central vs. Lyons garner crowds of more than 5,000 fans. The McDonald’s All-American game has taken up permanent residence at the United Center, due to the huge high school basketball fan base in Chicago.

It’s time to see if those fans can do what central Illinois fans haven’t done in years: sell out the state championship game.