By Joe Henricksen

Addressing state tournament attendance

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By Joe Henricksen
The attendance at the state tournament is in decline. That is a fact. There are debates as to what is the major reason. The poor economy and the four-class system hit simultaneously, so those are the factors many throw around in recent years.
The tournament moved to Peoria in 1996, with the big school tournament drawing solid numbers. As noted in a previous blog, those first few years in Peoria included the great and memorable Peoria Manual-Thornton battles in 1996 and 1997, with a surplus of big-time individual talent flooding the Elite Eight field in Peoria in 1998.
The overall attendance numbers for Class AA remained steady from 1996-2007, averaging 42,755 over the first 12 years playing in Peoria. Then the four-class system started in 2008.

In the first three years of four class basketball (2008-2010), the big school tournament (Class 4A and 3A) averaged an all-time low of 32,854 in that three-year period. That's a decline of just under 10,000 fans a year. If you take the middle ticket price for this year's state tournament, which was $8.50, and multiply by the empty seats in comparison to the attendance for the two-class system, we're talking roughly an $85,000 loss per year.
Those are certainly some significant numbers--and losses. The drop in attendance, however, has been ongoing for decades, before the economy tanked and before four classes sucked the life out of the average high school basketball fan. We have seen total attendance figures for the state tournament weekend plummet over time, from 60,000-plus in its heyday to the 50,000 and 40,000-plus range to 30,000-plus to the paltry 27,184 total fans that watched the Class 4A/3A state tournament in 2010.
Is there anything that can help change the tide?
Time to change the calendar
You know what played a big part in the demise of state tournament attendance in Champaign? The NCAA Tournament.
When the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and added a weekend to its Big Dance in 1985, it interfered with the IHSA's state tournament being played in Champaign. The first two rounds of NCAA Tournament play was now the same weekend as the Class AA state tournament. 
And about the same time, the University of Illinois basketball program became regulars in the NCAA Tournament. What do you think a lot of the locals in Champaign, surrounding communities and even those around the state cared about in the 1980s? The interest and importance on Fighting Illini basketball was felt during state tournament time, with the IHSA state basketball tournament taking a back seat and many fans lost as a result.
Want proof? In the years leading up to the NCAA Tournament expansion in 1985, the Class A Elite Eight and Class AA Elite Eight drew comparative numbers when it came to attendance. But looking at closely, from 1972, which was the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of the 14 years
Here are some of those numbers:
• In 1980 Class AA drew 52,516 fans, while Class A drew 45,632.
• In 1981 it was similar, with Class AA drawing 51,133 and Class A drawing 44,743.
• In 1983 and 1984, Class A had a slight advantage over Class AA in attendance.
• And in 1985, Class AA regained a slight bump over Class A -- 46,282 to 43,767.
The following year, however, with the state tournament bumping heads with the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, Class A attendance remained steady in 1986 with 51,462. But the Class AA tournament, which was a week later and directly up against the NCAA Tournament, saw attendance drop significantly to 38,000. 
The trend continued. In each of the next two years, the Class A Elite Eight attracted more fans than the Class AA Elite Eight. And in 1989, the year of the great "Flying Illini" team that eventually reached the Final Four, the Class A tournament drew 48,523 fans to Assembly Hall, while the Class AA tournament, played during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, drew a paltry 36,805. 
So from 1972, the beginning of the two-class system, to 1985, the Class AA state tournament drew more fans than the Class A tournament in 10 of those 14 years. And in the years Class AA didn't draw as many fans, the attendance figures were at least very close.

But as indicated, college hoops had its impact. Soon enough the NCAA Tournament became a sports spectacle, capturing the hearts of America, especially during the first four days of play while the big school state tournament in Illinois was being played. As that interest built up in the 1990s and filling out a bracket sheet became a must, the NCAA Tournament became a prominent part of the nation's sporting landscape.

Which leads us to this suggestion: what about a change in the IHSA basketball calendar? Why not move the season up one week to avoid the biggest sporting event this side of the Super Bowl?

To read the Hoops Report's previous blogs on the state of the IHSA basketball tournament, go to ...

Opportunity and competitive balance myth

State tournament demise continues

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Joe, I like the idea of starting a week earlier for the season but do you think that teams would be struggling even more at the beginning due to that a lot of players in IHSA basketball play football as well? Or are you saying that to start the playoffs a week early?

Once again great article Joe. You're easily the best in the business in covering high school hoops. I'm always torn on whether or not to go watch games at state or stay home in my man cave and watch it on tv while still being able to watch NCAA games. This year didn't have much of choicesince we were in the championship game. I'll take a state title over the comfort of my man cave any day of the week. Think it would be a great idea to shorten the basketball season a week, it sometimes feels never ending as is now.

Go back to One State Champion not the watered down version of today. When I played there was only one champion and the small schools just looked to beat a big school or put them on the ropes.

Looked at the NCAA Butler, it will be bigger news if they can win versus U Con. They played a good game last year against Duke who would have thunk they would be in that game.

Great facts and figures here that never seem to make it out to the public. Absolutely love reading your stuff Joe and keep it up! These pieces on the IHSA state tournament are all spot on. January and February do seem to lag in prep hoops. Shorten it up one week.

Move it up one week and have all four classes in Peoria at the same time. I posted this idea in the bottom of one of your other articles, but I'll say it again. For starters, in response to your idea, obviously shortening the season by a week will work because it happens in 1A and 2A. So that's an easy solve and a good idea. To further boost attendance, have all Divisions: 1A,2A,3A,4A, in Peoria at the same time and play it out over 3 days instead of two. Don't have a third place game...because it's unecessary. Thursday would be four semifinal games (say 1A and 4A), Friday is four other siemifinal games (2A and 3A), and Saturday is four consecutive State Championship games. This brings 16 communities/school bases to Peoria at one time and people can flood downtown for the weekend and have access to much more basketball. This is how they have been doing it in Ohio for years, and the state tournament attendance figures in Ohio (a state that embraces basketball allot more reluctantly than Illinois) are much greater than that of Illinois.

Count me as one of the no-shows since the tournament went to four classes. I was a regular, along with four other friends of mine, for 25 years starting in the early 1980s. Now just one of the five us go to the state tournament. The event has gotten less and less significant and fewer good games.

Hi Joe,

I am enjoying your series of articles on the demise of the state tournament although I sure hate to see what has happened. I started coaching in 1970 and saw my first tourney in the late 50's at Huff Gym so have a pretty good historical perspective on its history for the last 50+ years. I can remember the 1963 Carver/Centralia game in the Assembly Hall when the State Tournament Finals was a much bigger deal than Loyola winning the NCAA tournament.

I could go on and on about the demise of what was once a state treasure, but here are what I think are the 3 biggest reasons.

1. The 4 class system is without question the biggest single reason. The 4 mini tournaments are not true "state tournaments." With 8 schools there was geographic representation from all areas of the state. It was fun to sit in the stands and compare the representatives of each of the geographic regions and guess how you might have stacked up in a given area.

2 Media exposure has become non-existent!! Some years its almost impossible to find the games on tv and radio coverage has dropped dramatically. Heaven forbid if you want to listen to a game on the radio while travelling!!

3. Nothing against Peoria--the March Madness experience is nice, but it hasnt translated into more young kids coming. Peoria has done a nice job, but it isn't the Assembly Hall!! I try to give tickets away to young people but in many instances--they dont want them!

I dont subscribe to the theory that the NCAA tournament has hurt attendance lately. Perhaps it did from 85-90 when Illinois was good and the NCAA tourney was expanded but the 1A/2A takes place prior to the start of the NCAA and Illinois hasnt been much of a factor since 08 and yet attendance has plummeted since 4 classes came in. Nor do I think the economy is a major factor in the huge decline from 08-2010!

Am I the only one who found it curious that the IHSA didnt announce attendance at the time of the games this year? I thought the 1A and 2A crowds were likely around 5,000 and that was with a huge contingent from a local school (Deer Creek-Mackinaw). I suspect there would be a sizeable difference between tickets sold and people actually in seats!!

Didnt the IHSA look at neighboring states and the 4 class fiasco? Indiana had the greatest tourney of all. Ask anyone in Indiana if they would go back in a heartbeat?

Sorry to be so lengthy, but its such a sad demise of what was once a very special event and very special time of year to many of us who love the game of basketball.

Gerry Thornton
Head Basketball Coach
Olympia High School

Four classes or two classes, let's face facts, unless you have a buck, or are a diehard fan, you weren't going to go unless your favorite team is in the tournament!
Jereme Richmond just put his name in the NBA draft!

Joe, Love your stuff. I was wondering if we will see any wrap up of the season where you list your highlights from the whole year. Thanks.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on April 3, 2011 8:44 PM.

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