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Six reasons to move the state high school basketball tournament back to Champaign

A change is needed. Desperately. The tournament may not be entirely dead in Peoria, but it’s on life support.

Belleville West celebrates its Class 4A state championship at the Peoria Civic Center.
Belleville West celebrates its Class 4A state championship at the Peoria Civic Center.
Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times

When the IHSA announced in the mid-1990s the boys basketball state finals would move from Champaign to Peoria, I continued my annual pilgrimage to the Class AA State Finals while initially kicking and screaming.

I was a junkie from an early age, attending my first state tournament in Champaign with my parents in 1982. How dare they move it out of Champaign and strip all the tradition and history out of the state tournament after playing there for 70-plus years. Whether it was Assembly Hall, Huff Hall or Kenney Gym, Champaign was its home from 1919 through 1995. And many people, like myself, believed that’s where it belonged.

But within two or three years of “Playing in Peoria,” I admitted I was wrong. Peoria proved to be a breath of fresh air for the state basketball tournament.

Behind the scenes, the Peoria community was organized and innovative in putting together a financial package that included a ton of private support. The overall experience in Peoria was well thought out and fresh.

The people of Peoria welcomed basketball fans with open arms, and it was so easily noticeable. They were excited for the teams, the fans and did a remarkable job of playing host. There was a local hospitality and an immediate gratitude that was felt and appreciated, something Champaign had either lost or taken for granted.

The Peoria Journal-Star newspaper coverage of the state tournament dwarfed that of the Champaign News-Gazette throughout the state tournament weekend.

The wildly popular March Madness Experience for kids was a huge hit, while the proximity of hotels, bars and restaurants to Carver Arena was welcomed and a much-talked-about change for the better. The convenience, with everyone centrally located, helped generate a buzz over the two-plus days of activities.

The streets of Peoria started filling up on Thursday night with the traditional fans and high school basketball coaches rolling into town. Yes, the basketball state tournament was humming in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a success. Peoria, in very short order, made people forget about the outcry of moving the state tournament out of Champaign.

But over the course of 25 years since Peoria hosted its first State Finals in 1996, so much has changed. Unfortunately, all for the worse.

In what was bit of a perfect storm, the financial crisis and Great Recession in our country, which hit mid-size cities like Peoria particularly hard, came at about the same time as the arrival of four-class basketball in 2007. There was economic stagnation even following the Great Recession while the griping of four classes among fans was strong.

Slowly, for various reasons, Peoria started to look and feel different. Downtown Peoria lost its presence. The dining options dissipated as several eating establishments and watering holes closed down. Visitors began looking around to find places to eat, greet and congregate.

What was once a bustling area on weekends in the middle of March started looking deserted. And it was being regularly discussed by visitors each year.

Maybe most importantly, it’s been manufacturing behemoth Caterpillar that’s risen up in the past to support Peoria’s bid to retain the IHSA state basketball tournament. In fact, the company announced in February of 2015 its intention to break ground on a new world headquarters –– in Peoria; that’s the same year Caterpillar stepped up with a financial commitment to help keep the Original March Madness playing in Peoria with a new contract that ran through 2020.

But word came in 2017 that Caterpillar, a Fortune 100 company that had propped up Peoria in so many ways over nearly a century, was moving its corporate headquarters to the Chicago area.

While 12,000 or so employees would remain in Peoria, Caterpillar announced that plans for an expansive corporate office project in Downtown Peoria were ditched –– and corporate executives would pack up and head to the Chicago area. That was 300 or so executives and staff members with disposable income who could support local downtown businesses.

It remains to be seen how charitable the corporation will be this time around in Peoria’s bid.

And while four-class basketball may have leveled the playing field for some smaller enrollment schools and created excitement for more communities that may not have otherwise experienced a March run, the product changed. Anyone who doesn’t believe the state’s major high school sport –– and the interest in it –– took a hit and has declined following the advent of four-class basketball is fooling themselves.

Shrinking crowd sizes in Peoria

The crowds in Peoria started to dwindle. Anyone attending the state tournament could see it.

I still remember the PA announcer in Assembly Hall all those years ago proudly announcing while the scoreboard showed the attendance figures for the weekend, followed up with the “Illinois High School Association thanks you” message to fans during the state championship game. The last year the tournament was held in Champaign in 1995, the four sessions on Friday and Saturday all surpassed 11,000-plus fans for a grand total of 47,726.

Even in the final 10 years in Champaign when the Class AA State Finals were drawing less than the normal 50,000-plus every year it drew throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, there was still an average of 42,433 over the course of the weekend from 1986 through 1995.

In recent years, there have been some embarrassing attendance numbers, which obviously diminishes the atmosphere, experience and the dollar figures. There have been some Class 3A title games sessions on Saturday afternoon that had the look of 3,000 fans at the most.

All of which makes it hard to believe that one of the earlier complaints about the tournament being in Peoria in the late 1990s was that Carver Arena was too small, that it only seated just over 11,000 fans. The occasional sellouts and regular large crowds in those first few years discouraged some people from making the trip to Peoria.

The attendance figures were no longer even made public as the IHSA has not released attendance numbers publicly since 2002. But the IHSA Associate Executive Director Kurt Gibson gave a broad number and was quoted in 2019, saying, “You are talking 5,000 to 6,000 fans per session” when asked about attendance figures. Well, that’s anywhere between 20,000 to 24,000 fans for the weekend, a paltry number compared to the previous four decades.

As a result, the revenue generated has slowed as basketball tournament profit figures have steadily declined over the years.

All of it is not on Peoria. There are several factors within and outside of basketball, some self-inflicted, some not. But it simply can’t be a coincidence that the state tournament’s attendance started to take a significant drop when four-class basketball arrived.

But I can say that of the 25 years the State Finals have been held in Peoria –– and I’ve attended all those years but two of them –– that it was a really good run for Peoria for 10 or 12 and maybe 15 of the years. Unfortunately, it’s just not the case anymore.

A change is needed. Desperately. The tournament may not be entirely dead in Peoria, but it’s on life support.

Coaches’ survey says …

Interestingly, there have been several surveys conducted among high school coaches over the past five years centering on the Champaign vs. Peoria debate. A Chicago Sun-Times survey in 2015 had a 61 to 42 vote in favor of Champaign.

The City/Suburban Hoops Report has taken two separate surveys –– one in 2017 and another one in 2020 –– asking high school coaches their preference between Peoria or Champaign.

The survey intended to be as equal as possible among coaches from around the entire state and representative of all four classes. The exact same coaches were not surveyed, nor were there the same number of responses in 2017 as there were in 2020.

But the results were as follows:

In April of 2017, 112 coaches responded with 60 preferring Champaign, 48 preferring the tournament stay in Peoria and four who were indifferent to Peoria or Champaign.

Another survey was sent out this past winter with the results significantly different. Of the 90 responses, 61 chose Champaign while Peoria garnered 29 votes.

Time for a decision

The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors will vote Monday on sites for its boys and girls basketball tournaments for the 2021-23 seasons. And the choices are down to two: Peoria or Champaign. The Peoria Civic Center and the State Farm Center in Champaign have submitted bids to host the boys state finals.

Aside from Peoria being a true and better “high school basketball city” than Champaign, there just isn’t anything else to hang its hat on anymore. Champaign is in position to take back what was once their marquee event.

Champaign is ready to provide that change.

Just ask Jayne DeLuce, who is the Visit Champaign County President and CEO. She has been front and center in trying to lure the state tournament back to Champaign, both five years ago and again this time around. She sees a big difference between the bid her group previously put together and the one that’s unfolded this time around.

“It’s like night and day,” DeLuce said of the 2020 proposal and the one five years ago. “And for a variety of reasons.”

She labeled the first go-around as a “quiet bid” that didn’t really rally the masses throughout Champaign-Urbana.

“There are more people involved this time,” said DeLuce of the local officials who are all on the same page. “There was not a lot of community involvement five years ago. The effort was good, but we were still trying to figure out all that needed to be done and what went into putting together the very best effort. Everyone is all in, 100 percent.”

DeLuce says this time there are so many more positive factors in their favor, different parts of the bid they were sincerely able to sell.

While DeLuce provided several examples, which includes showcasing the Scholastic Bowl that same weekend in a more prominent way and highlighting the state’s Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, she says the completion of the State Farm Center is the biggest advantage.

“The last time we did this it was a dust bowl and still under construction,” said DeLuce of the arena renovation. “So we had no idea just how great the fan experience would be in a completed arena. I mean you just can’t until you live it and experience a live event in there.

“And to see the areas for the players and what they are able to experience? It’s amazing. I also grew up with a father in the media, so I know the importance of providing for media coverage, and the facility offers everything a media member could want or need.”

DeLuce and everyone who put their best foot forward are anxiously awaiting the decision. But she knows the work put in by local community members, business owners, the University of Illinois and her committee were in lockstep with one another.

Here are six reasons why Champaign should be the choice as the next host city for the IHSA state basketball tournament.

1. The renovated State Farm Center

This one is a big deal. There is a huge difference right now between Carver Arena in Peoria and the State Farm Center in Champaign.

The old Assembly Hall kept its historical and unique architectural features while spending $170 million in a massive renovation project that completely transformed the arena’s interior. The State Farm Center re-opened five years ago to rave reviews. The re-named State Farm Center is virtually brand new with all the updated bells and whistles and features of a modern, state-of-the-art arena.

And for all the participating teams –– players, coaches and their fans –– the experience will be enhanced playing in the State Farm Center. There is more of a mystique driving up to and seeing the iconic structure, running out of the tunnel and playing on a floor most basketball players in this state are familiar with having seen it regularly on television.

DeLuce is quick to praise Peoria’s March Madness Experience and the fun and enjoyment that experience created for fans over the years. There isn’t a plan to replicate that experience in Champaign. However, DeLuce says there is the capability for fans of all ages to enjoy various “technology experiences at the State Farm Center.”

“We have a chance to provide a different type of an experience for fans and engage them in different ways with technology,” DeLuce says of the many capabilities the State Farm Center can offer. “There will be high-tech experiences, tech hubs throughout for fans and younger siblings to be a part of and enjoy.”

2. The need for change

The beautiful facility Champaign has to offer is likely the biggest draw and attraction in the bid. The second most important is arguably something Champaign has no control over but still benefits from: change.

Sadly, the event in Peoria has become a flat-out stale one, and it’s why many believe Champaign will be the ultimate winner. There is a cry from so many people for the IHSA to make a change, to try something new and revive its signature event that helps fund so much of what the IHSA does each year for its member schools and interscholastic programs.

The IHSA has already made one monumental change to try and bolster ticket sales and interest.

A new state series format and schedule is set to debut next season. The Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A boys state basketball finals will be held together over a three-day weekend, beginning next year on Thursday, Mar. 11 and concluding Saturday, Mar. 13. The highlight of this significant change is Championship Saturday with all four state championship games in all four classes played on the same day.

DeLuce says the change in format is another big benefit in their push to secure the state tournament.

“This worked out extremely well for us,” DeLuce said of the format change. “This freed up a weekend for us, and we feel like we can now be all-in with scheduling for one big weekend.”

In addition, the state tournament dates have been moved up one week so that it no longer butt heads with the popular NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.

Whether all of that makes a difference and brings more fans and dollars remains to be seen.

But a change of venue and scenery is needed. That’s where Champaign comes in and, hopefully, helps rejuvenate the interest of fans and curiosity with a new building experience.

And the IHSA, a private, not-for-profit group, needs a jolt. Badly.

The boys basketball tournament is the association’s largest cash generator, yet the profits from its most important state tournament have plummeted over the years.

The total amount the IHSA made on the state basketball series in 2019 was $994,416. All of the other IHSA boys and girls sports, including football, brought in a combined $957,358 in net profits that same fiscal year.

But the tournament has suffered drops in revenue and profits continuously over the years. In 2013 the state tournament cleared $1,113,332 while in 2010 it made $1,250,154. The downward trend is easy to see.

But comparing 2019 to as far back as 2006, the numbers are even more alarming. The IHSA made nearly $560,000 less on the boys basketball tournament in 2019 than it did 13 years earlier in 2006.

3. Champaign’s downtown redevelopment

Downtown Champaign is completely different than it was years ago, especially since the last time the state tournament was held there 25 years ago.

There are now dozens of restaurants, cafés and bars all within blocks of each other and newly built hotels for fans to enjoy. In 1997 there were 11 restaurants and bars in downtown Champaign; by 2015 there were 43.

There are now hotel options in downtown Champaign, including a new 145-room Hyatt Place that opened in 2014 and a 132-room Marriott Aloft which broke ground last fall and is scheduled to open in late 2020. There is a third brand-named hotel planned in yet another expansive, mixed-used downtown development called “The Yards.”

While not located in downtown Champaign, the five-story, 125-room I Hotel and Conference Center opened 12 years ago across the street from the State Farm Center is another plus.

There are several hotels within walking distance of the State Farm Center as well, including the I Hotel, Holiday Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites that would be able to house the 16 participating teams.

There is Campustown, along Green Street in Champaign, that’s just a mile from the State Farm Center and offers more restaurants, coffee shops and cafés, while downtown Champaign is just 1.8 miles from the State Farm Center.

Anyone who has been to Champaign and Peoria recently can clearly see the difference between the two cities and the direction development is headed. The amount of hotels, restaurants and gathering spots in Champaign now dwarf what’s available in downtown Peoria.

“The downtown itself has become a destination,” said DeLuce. “It’s an easy destination and a great draw.”

4. Centrally located

A part of the aforementioned survey asked coaches if they would like to see the state tournament moved to Chicago. It was an overwhelming “no” to that question, with close to 90 percent in both City/Suburban Hoops Report surveys saying the idea and experience of “getting away” and “going downstate” means a whole lot more than having it in the Chicago area.

But even if the majority of the state’s population is in the Chicago area and attendance would undoubtedly rise simply because of location and proximity, making the state tournament accessible for everyone in the state remains imperative.

Like Peoria, Champaign is in the central part of the state. That makes it relatively easy for everyone across the state to get to Champaign within two or three hours. Interstate 57 and Interstate 74 intersect in Champaign and bring all parts of the state together.

5. There is history and a connection

After 25 years playing in Peoria, there is a now a generation of kids and fans who only know state tournament history through what’s transpired in Carver Arena.

The great Peoria Manual-Thornton battles in the late 1990s that took place there are still talked about. Basketball legends –– from coach Gene Pingatore to the great Jon Scheyer –– won state titles there. Preps-to-the-pros NBA Lottery picks Eddy Curry, Darius Miles and Shaun Livingston wowed fans there. This is where they laid eyes on Simeon superstars Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker, watched big man Jahliil Okafor of Young dominate and Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson display breathtaking performances.

Joliet’s Gary Bell dunks against Carbondale at the state finals in Champaign in 1994.
Joliet’s Gary Bell dunks against Carbondale at the state finals in Champaign in 1994.
Sun-Times file photo

Some truly great and memorable moments were captured in Peoria that will last forever. But there has never been a mystique or an aura about playing in Peoria or Carver Arena. But that was always the case over the many decades the state tournament was played in Champaign.

Yes, the state basketball tournament has been gone for a quarter century. But there is so much history and nostalgia to easily build on from the 70-plus years in Champaign. And, remember, those were the days when the state tournament was in the midst of its very best days. It may be far in the rearview mirror, but it’s endless and something to draw and build on.

There is also a connection to the University of Illinois across the state, including a basketball program that, while still trying to rebuild what it once was, means something to a lot of basketball people across the state. It’s the major state university with a basketball program that plays in the Big Ten, arguably the country’s best conference.

6. This Champaign bid feels different

This isn’t the first time Champaign has tried to bring the state tournament back home. But Champaign’s bid five years ago was denied, with Peoria securing another five-year contract.

Champaign’s financial bid reportedly fell short of Peoria’s, with some saying it was “significantly shorter” than Peoria’s financial proposal. Champaign’s effort in 2015 reportedly included a $750,000 bid, which included $510,000 from various donors while local communities pledged another $240,000, including $30,000 a year from Champaign and $5,000 a year from Urbana.

But the previous bid was more of a “grassroots” fundraising effort. There are more involved entities, according to DeLuce. But she declined to get into specifics of the financial package that was presented to the IHSA or if it was larger than the last bid.

“We feel we have a very competitive financial incentive,” said DeLuce. “People are behind this.”

That includes the University of Illinois, including the athletic department and the university itself. The University of Illinois sees an opportunity to sell and market itself to thousands of prospective students and their families and will have the university’s admissions department involved over the course of the weekend.

But as DeLuce mentioned, this time around has been completely different than the last time.

“We’ve gone beyond dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s,” said DeLuce. “We have a world class arena completed. We have a very competitive financial incentive. We put forth our best possible bid. We couldn’t do anymore than we’ve done.”