High School Sports

Economics favor three-day state basketball format

The News Tribune’s records requests from the Tacoma Dome reveal that the WIAA brought in almost $40,000 more per day in ticket revenue at the Class 3A and 4A boys and girls basketball tournaments this past season than it did in 2009, when it organized a 16-team, single-site tournament for each classification.
The News Tribune’s records requests from the Tacoma Dome reveal that the WIAA brought in almost $40,000 more per day in ticket revenue at the Class 3A and 4A boys and girls basketball tournaments this past season than it did in 2009, when it organized a 16-team, single-site tournament for each classification. Staff file

Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, pondered his answer to the yes-or-no question.

Do you support the return of a 16-team WIAA state basketball tournament?

“Yeah,” he said.

That after 89 percent of 234 high school superintendents from around the state answered similarly to the same question in a poll presented to the WIAA executive board in March.

Colbrese, in his next breath, said he’d also like a Ferrari while he’s at it.

“If that’s all I’m getting from the question, I’m going to say, ‘Yes,’” Colbrese said. “But you have to be able to pay for it.”

That’s the real question surrounding the state basketball tournaments: Just how much should the experience cost?

The News Tribune’s records requests from the Tacoma Dome reveal that the WIAA brought in almost $40,000 more per day in ticket revenue at the Class 3A and 4A boys and girls tournaments this past season than it did in 2009, when it organized a 16-team, single-site tournament for each classification.

That doesn’t include the decrease in expenses. Instead of renting the Tacoma Dome for eight days, it’s now three, with the first weekend being an elimination game held at locations across the state. Eight teams advance from the state regionals to the double-elimination tournament at double-court sites — the Tacoma Dome, Yakima SunDome and Spokane Arena.

Changing the first round has allowed the WIAA to offset a rental fee at the Tacoma Dome that has almost doubled since 2008, according to records. It cost about $7,000 per day to rent the Dome in 2008. It was $11,500 per day this past year.

“I don’t think coaches have moved past the emotional issue,” Colbrese said. “But I think the one thing we’ve seen is that people have been able to see that it was a financial issue.

“I can tell you that some of the people who have been the most difficult about it have been willing to tell me in private that, ‘We know it’s a financial issue, but it’s an emotional issue for me because I’m a coach.’”

The Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association (WIBCA) has expressed that what the WIAA saves in costs, it loses in “memories, lost dreams and lost learning opportunities for countless young people throughout our state.”

For the past five years, WIBCA has released a letter after the regional round of the state tournament lamenting the WIAA, a nonprofit organization, for placing profits before people, and denying 96 teams and 1,152 players the chance to travel to one of the states double-court tournament sites.

Nalin Sood, the WIBCA president, has reached eight state tournaments in his almost 15 years as the coach at Mountlake Terrace. His team was eliminated from the 2014 tournament when it lost to Wilson in a state regional game.

“We haven’t won a state title (since Sood took over in 2001), but I know there have been a lot of great experiences for our kids coming back through the (consolation) bracket before they hang up their uniform for the last time,” Sood said. “There’s tears pouring from those kids’ eyes.

“That doesn’t matter? You are putting a price on that — on the emotion those kids have in the locker room? Shame on anybody for doing that.”

Zillah superintendent Kevin McKay, who was one of the authors of the superintendent survey, is a co-chair alongside Colbrese of an about 30-member committee trying to resurrect the 16-team state tournament.

The committee is made up of superintendents, athletic directors, boys and girls basketball coaches, school board members and members of the WIAA executive board.

“First of all, we are aware of the monster in the room — and that’s the fiscal piece of this,” McKay said. “One thing that I think the superintendents brought to this is that the reality is that the WIAA didn’t just decide to change (the tournament) because it wanted to. There were some fiscal issues, and we put that on the table.

“I can’t say everybody wanted to accept it, but that is the reality.”

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The tournament isn’t only a financial issue for the WIAA.

Davis High School of Yakima spent almost $75,000 over three years to send its basketball teams to the state tournament, according to records requests. That’s after the format changed, and it includes costs of the cheer team, rooter buses and band.

Central Valley High School in Spokane Valley spent almost $15,000 on travel for the 2012 tournament.

Rogers of Spokane principal Lori Wyborney, a member of the WIAA executive board, said the state tournament puts her in an awkward position — still hoping her team wins (Rogers has reached the Tacoma Dome once since 1978), but also relieved because her school doesn’t have to figure out how to pay for state.

“It’s always over $20,000,” Wyborney said. “It’s expensive. And that’s one sport of the 16 we are providing. Luckily for us,” she said, stopping herself to consider that phrasing.

“Well, I shouldn’t say ‘luckily’ because I want us to win all of the time.”

She said fewer than 50 of her school’s fans made the trip to Tacoma when the Rogers boys basketball program was one of 16 teams to play in the Dome in 2009.

Compare that to this past year, when Rogers was one of 16 teams to play in the regional round of the Class 3A state boys basketball tournament.

The Pirates didn’t advance past the elimination game against Lakeside of Seattle held at Mt. Spokane High School, but with the site being less than 10 miles away from Rogers — and with help from a fundraising effort — Wyborney said about 2,200 people attended the game.

“To a lot of parents, the trip to Tacoma, they aren’t going to be able to get the time off of work without losing pay and I don’t have a lot of parents with jobs like that,” Wyborney said. “It’s a huge time commitment for parents, and to let kids get that much time off of school? Not a lot like that, either.”

Wilson fans cheer on the boys basketball team during the state tournament in the Tacoma Dome in 2014. ( Lui Kit Wong, staff file.) 
Wilson fans cheer on the boys basketball team during the state tournament in the Tacoma Dome in 2014. ( Lui Kit Wong, staff file.)

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Colbrese said attendance at the state basketball tournament had declined 33 percent in 13 years through 2009. But Tacoma Dome records requests show that was alleviated when the state tournament format was altered.

It went from about 5,800 tickets sold per day at the Tacoma Dome for the 2009 state 3A and 4A basketball tournaments, to about 8,800 tickets per day this past year.

Colbrese believes that is attributed to fewer consolation games.

“Let’s face it, people don’t follow the losing bracket,” Colbrese said. “They didn’t years ago, either, but it’s become worse and worse. And that is not just a 4A/3A issue. It’s across the classifications.

“What is the magic of being in a huge facility when the crowd has been declining? So then what is the 16-team tournament other than tradition?”

Sood doesn’t deny that fixing finances wasn’t important. But he said the 16-team tournament was much more than a simple tradition.

He said his first state experience — as an assistant on Mountlake Terrace’s 1988-89 squad that lost in the first round before rebounding to win its next three games — is what propelled him into becoming a head coach and a teacher.

“The WIAA needs to spend some money to make some money,” said Sood, who is also the vice president of the National High School Basketball Coaches Association.

“I’ve been a teacher for 20 years now. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience, maybe I wouldn’t have gone into coaching like I did and maybe that wouldn’t have led me into education. That’s spending money to make money.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, we were the only state in the U.S. to have 16-team state tournaments.’ Well, just because we were doing it, is that a bad thing? No, I think that is a great thing.”

Viont'e Daniels hugs coach Jerome Collins after Federal Way beat Davis 65-46 to win the WIAA 4A boys basketball championship in March. (Peter Haley, staff file.) 
Viont'e Daniels hugs coach Jerome Collins after Federal Way beat Davis 65-46 to win the WIAA 4A boys basketball championship in March. (Peter Haley, staff file.)

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The change from the five-classification system to six classifications (1B, 2B, 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A) in 2006 was probably the first step in the 16-team tournament’s demise.

That split the B classification and forced the WIAA to create another four-day, 16-team tournament.

Colbrese said that Spokane Arena, where the B tournament had been held and thrived for years, only had one weekend to offer. So the 2B tournament stayed in Spokane and the 1B tournament was held at the Yakima SunDome.

By 2009, the combined attendance of the 2B and 1B tournaments was less than the 27,744 at the 2006 B tournament, and they combined for a net profit that was $62,000 less than in 2006.

The tournaments, across all classification, combined for a net profit of almost $475,000 in 2006, according to WIAA records. The next year, the first year of the six-classification system, that fell to about $290,000.

Dropping the 16-team, single-site format appears to have fixed that. The WIAA made a net profit of $473,591 from this past year’s tournaments. State tournaments, with state basketball at the forefront, bring in more than half of the WIAA’s total revenue.

“I think we have got to the point where regionals are about as good as they can get,” Colbrese said. “And there are a lot of kids who are getting advantages in all sports and activities because of it.”

Colbrese said that the only other way to keep the 16-team tournament would have been to charge school districts $2,000 more in service fees, which would be more than double what most schools currently pay.

“If you want to have a real brief discussion on this, you come up with one question on a survey. That is, ‘Will you pay $2,000 more per year as a school district to have the 16-team tournament come back?’” Colbrese said.

“I’m not saying that is what the committee should do, and I’m not saying that is where it should go. I’m saying, if you really want to cut to the chase and not have a lot of work, we know it’s about $2,000.

“I think there would have been schools that would have rather opted out of the WIAA.”

But the results of the superintendent study showed, even if based on want and not cost, that the 16-team tournament is still widely revered.

Sood said it’s not quite like paying for a Ferrari.

“This isn’t a Ferrari. This is going, ‘Well, maybe you’re not going to get the Ford, but you’ll get the Volvo,’” he said. “Let’s not forget, this tournament worked for a long time. We can still find a way to make this work, we just have to roll up our sleeves. The WIAA has to, also.

“Maybe we need to take a long look at sponsorships, increasing ticket prices or increasing membership fees — whatever we need to look at to make this work from a fiscal standpoint.”

Crews from the Tacoma Dome install two basketball courts in 2013. (Joe Barrentine, staff file.) 
Crews from the Tacoma Dome install two basketball courts in 2013. (Joe Barrentine, staff file.)

McKay said the committee working to resurrect the tournament will meet Sept. 28 to prepare proposals and will present to the WIAA executive board in January.

One of those proposals could include the old 16-team tournament, but making the first round single-elimination instead of double. That’s how it is now, only those single-elimination games are held at regional locations.

Sood said he would even support spicing up the regional locations — instead of high school gymnasiums, look into using Gonzaga University, the University of Washington or Pacific Lutheran University.

McKay said that maybe the greatest benefit of forming this committee was that it removes the negativity between the WIAA and coaches and community members.

“It’s not this us-against-them mentality that really created a lot of difficulty and a lot of negativity toward this,” McKay said.

“One of the intended purposes when we put this thing together was to get everybody at the table, quit the blaming, get a solution, see if we can make it work.”

Sood isn’t as optimistic anymore that the 16-team, double-elimination will make a comeback.

“I think we’ve just gone too far down the line without getting back to it,” he said. “But getting back to a great state tournament? I think that is the direction we are headed now.

“Will it be exactly what we want? Maybe not. Will it be best, dollars-and-cents wise 110 percent for the WIAA? Maybe not. But the bottom line is that if we are doing what is best for the kids, student-athletes and the fans, then hopefully we can walk away feeling good about this.”

TJ Cotterill:253-597-8677

t.cotterill@thenewstribune.com

@TJCotterill

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