By Joe Henricksen
The City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look at both the sizzle and fizzle from this past weekend in Peoria. While a future blog later this week will talk about the sizzle in Peoria (the Hoops Report promises not to be all negative), today the focus is on the fizzle.
There may have been someone out there with as much despise for four classes as the City/Suburban Hoops Report, but there was certainly no one with more after it was announced the IHSA would change March Madness as we know it forever a few years ago.
After years of attending the Elite Eight in Champaign and spending one weekend every year in Peoria since 1994, the Hoops Report planned to go into the State Finals with an open mind that first year of four classes. And last year. And this year. Is three years enough?
The Hoops Report didn't think it could possibly happen, but the despise has grown. This truly proud and respected state tournament has seriously lost its luster. All you had to do was look at the crowds and how the energy has been sucked right out of Peoria. I couldn't help but wonder what the IHSA was thinking as it sat there in an arena that was often less than half full. Mysteriously, the attendance figures seem to be under lock and key and are nearly impossible to get anymore. What major sporting event doesn't announce attendance figures? The IHSA always used to.
There have been people who remind me that state tournament attendance was on a decline prior to the arrival of four classes. That may be true to an extent, but even if those people could go to the extreme and claim the state tournament was on life support, I believe four classes pulled the plug.
Each year I hear more fans that regularly attend the State Finals in Peoria say "we're done coming." I get sad, knowing one of my favorite times of the year and must-see events is dying a slow death. Maybe it's not so slow after seeing what transpired this past weekend. Anyone who has subscribed to the Hoops Report knows the passion I have for prep basketball in Illinois, yet even I have found the last few years in Peoria very blah. I don't even cherish the experience as I once did. And I'm not even an old-timer.
No, I don't think the four state champions that were crowned in the four different classes felt anything less than being a champion, so if that was truly the motive -- as well as for countless regional and sectional plaques to be handed out the last three years -- mission accomplished. That's what the IHSA is about, providing more opportunities for kids and making sure more student-athletes enjoy and experience success. Good for them. The IHSA sure does accomplish that with the four-class system. But at what cost?
The IHSA is not concerned with providing the best product or doing what the masses prefer. That's not its job. Those concerns (caliber of play and popularity) are not part of the IHSA's general mission. However, when it begins to impact the event (small attendance figures, less profit, less excitement, etc.) does it become a concern?
The event itself, the aura, the excitement for others attending the state tournament, well, it's not the same. Thursday night in Peoria used to be happening, with people in hotel bars and local establishments, filling it up with basketball conversation. It was dead this past weekend. The crowds were awful, even embarrassing considering what this tournament once was. People pause, think and, eventually, can't even recall past state champions anymore with four being crowned each year.
The ideas of the IHSA and the differences people like myself and others have with it really comes down to philosophical differences. I am of the belief that everyone doesn't have to be a winner, that it's just fine if you don't win a regional or sectional, get downstate or win a medal. Life will go on, just as it did for thousands of student-athletes before who didn't experience basketball success in March. But society has certainly changed. This is the age of everyone gets a ribbon, every kid has to be on the honor roll and no one loses.
Sadly, though, there are just so many negatives developing as a result of the four-class system that are difficult to ignore...
• ... Starting with Class 1A. The level of play in Class 1A is bad. Just bad, low caliber basketball. The Class 2A tournament is very reminiscent of past Class A tournaments, with Robinson and Peoria Manual playing at a high small school level.
• No one remembers who is in what class and who won what state title in what class. As a result, general interest and conversation is lost.
• Empty arena. The title game in 4A was dreadful. The crowds on Friday afternoon were awful. The IHSA can thank nearby Washington two years ago for saving the attendance that year. Oswego helped out a year ago. And after a poor showing Friday, hometown Peoria Richwoods came back strong in attendance on Saturday.
• While there are some who back the four-class system, there aren't many. Coaches, fans and media members, in general, just aren't on board.
• Third-place games. No one likes them other than the competing schools and diehard fans. The game is typically played at a lower level and, understandably, with less intensity. And no one shows up to watch. Now we have two of these games played on Saturday. Is it any wonder fans stay away?
• A state championship played on a Saturday afternoon? Ugghhhh.
• Say what you want about opportunity for schools, but four classes (at least in 3A and 4A) actually makes it easier for the regular powers to dominate. The top teams are spread out, stretched thin and have golden opportunities to return to Peoria year after year after year. You don't think a school like Chicago Marshall relishes in the fact it avoids many of the Chicago area powers in 3A?
• And why the jump to four classes? What would have been wrong with just going to three classes?
The IHSA and four classes is not all to blame. Times have changed and the focus has shifted. Despite being the crown jewel of Illinois prep sports, the passion and interest for the sport is not what it once was. We see that all winter in empty gyms and even with smaller attendance figures at various holiday tournaments in December. There are still some communities that really rally around their school making a deep run in March, but there are plenty of others schools that, for various reasons and outside influences, just doesn't get the following we've seen in the past.
Plus, I am convinced youth sports rule the world. Schools could close and test scores could plummet in a school district, but as long as the youth sports game on Sunday at 8 a.m. is being played, everything is OK. We could be invaded by a foreign country or face a famine, but as long 8-year-olds Jimmy and Johnny win their 13th place game in some youth Kickoff Classic, everything is OK. The point is there seems to be some type of youth league or tournament every night and every weekend of the year for kids, which takes away from many fans staying interested in prep sports or just too busy to attend.
The reasons are many, but the IHSA state basketball tournament is officially a dud.