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Not as crazy for March Madness

Without a doubt, the crown jewel of the IHSA has been the boys state basketball tournament. Much-documented declining attendance at Carver Arena in Peoria gives evidence of a tarnished affair.

It’s not Peoria, either. Had the event stayed at Assembly Hall in Champaign, the result would be the same. The fact remains that Illinois’ high school basketball state finals are not as popular as they once were.

Is this a cause for alarm or a sign of the times?

As evidenced by a fact-finding mission of moving the boys tournament to one weekend instead of two, the IHSA is definitely concerned. That’s a good start, and emblematic of the times – specifically the popularity of NCAA March Madness.

The IHSA has finally admitted that holding the 3A/4A contests at the same time is detrimental to attendance, media coverage, and overall interest.

This may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the IHSA championships elicited more interest in ‘pool play’ than the NCAA. How it usually worked is the IHSA Sweet 16 or Elite 8 teams were put in a hat and folks would draw names out with cash given out on where teams finished. For the more ardent followers, brackets would be filled out just like today’s NCAA pools.

How times have changed, whereby Illinois basketball fans no longer have a betting interest in the prep brackets, but have gone gaga for the NCAA office pools. Thus, it makes sense for the IHSA to admit defeat and schedule their tournament to end before the colleges start theirs.

Another advantage of one weekend is cost savings from high rental fees of the arena at Peoria. Schools consolidate as a cost-cutting measure, so why not the IHSA for hosting tourneys?

A bit of stubbornness that the IHSA needs to get rid of is the insistence on holding a third-place game.

Realizing fans from Bureau Valley, where they have won three third-place games, get upset when they hear this, the IHSA needs to stop playing Mr. Nice Guy and eliminate the consolation championship.

The NCAA wisely did it 40 years ago and never regretted it. If the IHSA decides to combine the two weekends into one, not having the third-place game would expedite scheduling.

Four championship games – one in each class – on Saturday would be an improvement on the current setup, and might draw the casual fan back to the finals.

The biggest factor the IHSA needs to consider in “growing” its championship is policing rules on transfers. When Chicago public schools can draw from 2.7 million people, they make a mockery of the IHSA tournament.

Other large metropolitan areas have abused this practice, as well.

What made the IHSA state finals special was the sense of community it possessed. When is becomes one all-star team against another, it loses that.

Might as well be AAU club ball – and who cares about that other than parents and college recruiters?

As has been mentioned many times already, attendance also plunges when Chicago schools are involved because they do not have the same fan base as suburban and downstate communities.

Pekin, Cobden, Freeport, Effingham, Galesburg, Decatur, Carbondale, Rock Island, Benton ... those a just a few of names of the past that dotted state tourney finals and guaranteed the IHSA a true following of community.

This is a minute detail, but there used to be a greater appreciation of the state’s geography in years past, and that component played a role in fan interest.

Fans also get confused with all the co-ops and consolidations. It used to be one town, one team. When multiple towns feed into each other, the result is a made-up name that most people have no idea where it is or what it means.

Sadly, there is a lack of interest from the hardcore base itself – high school basketball players. Back in the day, it was a big deal for basketball players not competing downstate to make the pilgrimage to Champaign to watch the tournament.

Nowadays, that practice has largely disappeared, as high schoolers have other interests. What used to be a great stirring of imagination in reaching the state finals for kids all over Illinois has been diminished.

That’s not to say that the desire to make state is gone. If anything, there is more enthusiasm at the regional and sectional levels than downstate. 

From personal experience, I had more fun watching Forreston and Dakota play for a regional title this year than covering Forreston when it appeared at the state finals in 2015. It wasn’t because Forreston and Dakota went four overtimes, either.

Rather, the environment at the gym in Forreston created better drama than all the bells and whistles at Carver Arena. The same applies to football playoff games at a high school venue compared to the championships at cavernous Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Maybe we can pinpoint exactly when fan interest in the state finals began to decline.

How about 1996?

That is when the IHSA installed its “March Madness Experience,” advertised as an extravaganza of fun, interactive games, exhibits and good times. Shouldn’t a championship tournament be enough without needing add-ons?

It’s very similar to all the gimmicks baseball uses is keeping bored fans entertained. Today’s society has a wealth of stuff, but apparently a poverty of attention.

A controversial subject bandied about for decades has been the decision by the IHSA to go from a one-class event to two classes, and now four. Has fan interest wavered because of this?

Ask people in Ohio or Mt. Carroll what they think. If the IHSA hadn’t done this, those two communities would not have been able to provide a “Hebronesque” experience. I have no ties to either place, but as a basketball fan with local interest, it was captivating to be along for their rides to the championship games, if only vicariously.

Yes, it may have been a better tournament with one class, but the goodwill done toward so many small towns all over Illinois far outweighs the singularity factor.

Football has eight classes, and rightly so, and does just fine with its playoff system. Of course, it started with multiple classes to begin with, and did not have a 64-year history of one class like basketball.

Before the football playoffs came around in 1974, basketball was the kingpin of the IHSA. Over the years, football has usurped basketball as Illinois’ prep sport of choice, consistent with football becoming America’s game.

The best thing the IHSA has done in the last 50 years – open up girls sports – has also impacted the basketball tournament. No longer is a basketball fan’s sole interest on the boys.

In a statement on sexism in our society, the best basketball role a girl could hope for before Title IX was to be on the cheerleading team. For better or worse, the focus was strictly was on the boys game in that era.

“These times, they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan in 1963, the same year Assembly Hall opened and the first state basketball tournament was played there. With packed houses filling the 15,000-seat venue, the future couldn’t not have been brighter for the IHSA and its prized jewel.

But it is a much different world today for high school basketball, and society as a whole.

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