(This is the first in a series of Hoops Report blogs on causes and solutions to the demise of the IHSA state basketball tournament. Next up ... "Four Classes = More Opportunities: Fact or Fiction")
By Joe Henricksen
This is not a whiny rant against four-class basketball in Illinois. This is just another reminder that maybe, just maybe, it (four-class basketball) is the final nail in the coffin of state tournament basketball here in Illinois.
Aside from the 1993 Elite Eight (the one where King walloped Rockford Guilford by 37 in the title game) and the 2001 Elite Eight (the one where Schaumburg shocked Eddy Curry and Thornwood), I've been to every big school state tournament in Champaign and Peoria since 1981. That's 29 out of 31 years, a March ritual that this avid prep basketball fan has looked forward to every year for three decades.
Now even that is on shaky ground going forward.
The move to Peoria in 1996 was met with resistance in the mid-1990s. The IHSA, for the most part, was blasted for moving the state's crown jewel from Champaign to Peoria. The facts, however, were beginning to become more clear if anyone would have looked close enough.
First, attendance in Champaign had dropped drastically over a 25-year period. The title game in 1972 between Thornridge and Quincy drew 15,887 fans, while the first Class AA Elite Eight that year saw over 60,000 fans roll into Assembly Hall over two days. Just 10 years later the total attendance dropped to 51,000. By 1994 the attendance figures had fallen to 41,364, with a brief spike to 47,000 the final year it was played in Champaign.
But more importantly, the story goes, the folks in Champaign began taking the tournament for granted. Hotels were price gouging guests and the hospitality was lacking. Despite all that, there were many -- heck, most everyone -- who left Champaign for Peoria kicking and screaming, wanting to maintain the traditions of Assembly Hall and making sure that heading "downstate" was still to Champaign.
Peoria a hit
After just a couple of years playing in Peoria, however, the IHSA proved it knew what it was doing. They were right, everyone else was wrong. Peoria showed it could play the role of a terrific host and, along the way, proved that a change of scenery was the right move. Peoria wanted this thing and showed it.
Peoria pumped new life into the Elite Eight. The event became just that -- an "event" -- only in a new location. A new and appealing drawing card in Peoria was the March Madness Experience for fans and kids in the exhibit hall adjacent to the arena.
Maybe the overall crowds didn't show it with whopping numbers -- we're never going to see 16,000 for a title game or two-day numbers in the 60,000 range ever again -- but there was certainly a different, more positive and festive atmosphere in Peoria than in the final years in Champaign.
The interest and buzz around Peoria was refreshing those first few years. The Peoria media treated the tournament as it was meant to be treated -- special. Peoria rolled out the red carpet and welcomed everyone, including fans, teams, media and high school coaches, with open arms. The logistics and the proximity of everything in Peoria was a huge plus, especially in comparison to Champaign, where hotels, restaurants, watering holes and Assembly Hall were distant and spread out.
There was some help those first few years. The finishing touches of the now storied Peoria Manual-Thornton rivalry in 1996 and 1997 helped those first two years. And the 1998 Elite Eight was must-see. There was a surplus of Division I talent, including the likes of Fenwick's Corey Maggette, Young's Quentin Richardson, Galesburg's Joey Range, Elgin's Sean Harrington and Maine West's Kevin Frey and Lucas Johnson to name a few, and a dynamite state champion in Whitney Young.
For such a controversial move at the time, things were rolling in Peoria, highlighted by some absolutely loaded, dynamic and memorable individual teams those first three years in Peoria Manual, Thornton and Whitney Young.
The place to be
The socializing and basketball conversation always began Thursday night and continued through Saturday evening. The coaches, media, basketball officials and avid fans had established rituals, routines and schedules of their own for their one trip a year to Peoria. The three days in Peoria was a basketball reunion.
The local establishments and hotel lobbies on Main Street, Jefferson and Adams were filled with high school coaches, fans and media members from around the state. The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's hospitality room would fill up with bodies and lively basketball debate and dialogue. It was fun. People looked forward to it.
Changes are felt
Roughly 10 years into the Peoria experience, however, a subtle change in mood began. This isn't to say Peoria became less of a gracious host, though a small bit of complacency did start to settle in. It felt more like a natural progression, just as we saw in Champaign over the years. Like with anything else, the novelty wore off a little. Still, it was a blip on the radar, hardly drastic.
But then the atomic bomb was dropped. Four-class basketball arrived, with the very first four-class tournament played in March of 2008.
The Peoria Journal-Star, a newspaper that covers the local sports scene about as well as any paper its size can in this day of newspaper decline, recently ran an article that touched on the decline in state tournament attendance. The numbers in the article were alarming.
Tickets sold for the Class 3A/4A tournament in 2009 checked in at 33,715, followed by the paltry 2010 numbers of 22,989 for the four sessions of the big school tournament. Just under 23,000? Yikes. And that was with a local team, Peoria Richwoods, playing in the tournament and in the Class 3A state championship game.
The numbers this year, which I have not seen, will certainly be higher than 2010 as a result of the strong Centralia and Rock Island contingents, along with a solid two-day draw from Warren. And while both Glenbard East and Normal had terrific crowds on Friday night, the majority of their fans did not return for the third-place game Saturday night. But even if the overall numbers creep back up towards 30,000, lack of attendance and interest is still a concern.
Is it all due to four-class basketball? No. There are numerous factors that go into attendance. A big part of the attendance drop over the past 30 years is simply due to a change in culture, with so many other options out there for people today than in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, the economy could be part of the blame. And the individual fan bases from the different schools from year to year plays a huge part in attendance figures.
But regardless of the overall numbers, the state tournament is losing (lost?) its core group of fans. We're talking the regulars, who have come to the state tournament year after year for decades. We're talking the high school coaches themselves. There are fewer now attending the state tournament than ever before. Thursday night was once a bustling basketball orgy in the local establishments and in places like the IBCA room just six, seven and eight years ago. Now? The place isn't dead, but it's getting close.
There is still an outcry
The number of personal comments, calls and emails to the Hoops Report regarding the state tournament -- and more specifically, four classes -- is not as high as it once was the first couple of years when the state's basketball version of the atomic bomb hit. But the fact these comments, calls and emails are still coming in from new coaches and different fans is scary for the future of this once cherished event.
"There's not the hype, there's not the excitement, that there was years ago, before the four classes," Steve Shaw, president of the Peoria-based Mercedes Restaurants, told the Peoria Journal-Star.
That's the sentiment of so many. It's just different. In a bad way. And it's sad. What was the one major, significant change again? The gracious Peoria people didn't suddenly get nasty. No, but the significance of the state tournament has been lost to the average fan.
The quality of teams in Peoria has taken a hit the last few years with four classes. The watered down showcase features teams that would have never made it to state under the old two-class system. What is annoying in it all, however, is that it didn't change the n number of teams that make it to state. There were 16 teams that enjoyed the Elite Eight in the two-class system and there are still 16 enjoying it today. But now those 16 teams are, overall, of lesser quality than before.
While those individual communities salivate and enjoy the experience just as any other community would and should, the average fan sees a different -- and lesser -- brand of basketball. And now a quarter of the games played in Peoria are third-place games? Hardly a draw for fans to make the trip to Peoria and another drawback of the four-class system.
A survey in a recent Hoops Report issue in February showed once again the distaste of four-class basketball in Illinois, especially of those coaches in 2A, 3A and 4A. If you take out the Class 1A coaches that were surveyed, the results were 83 coaches in favor of two classes and 22 in favor of four classes.
The point? There may be someone out there as big of a fan of high school basketball as I am, but there certainly isn't one that's bigger. And if I'm considering skipping next year's state tournament, there is a problem.