The high school football season officially ended Saturday night with the final game of the Burger King State Champions Bowl Series, a come-from-behind 34-28 overtime win by No. 4 Booker T. Washington (Miami) against No. 8 Bingham (South Jordan, Utah) on ESPNU. The game was one of three that were part of the inaugural series.
The question now is how can organizers make the series grow.
The most obvious area is to add state associations. Teams from Florida, Washington and Utah appeared to be sufficiently happy that other state associations might approve having their state champions play next year, particularly in the football-crazy South.
A number of states, including California, Ohio, Michigan and Alabama, have rules preventing teams from playing beyond the state playoffs. Georgia has a bylaw preventing bowl games. Schools in Texas already play 16 games to win a state title so the state association has been reluctant to sanction additional games.
“I think with more states, it can be an excellent event,” said Booker T. Washington coach Tim Harris Jr. “I don’t know what Paragon (the event’s organizer) can do more because I feel like they’re doing an excellent job in the first year to get us all involved. I don’t know what it is going to take to get Georgia, Texas, California, into something like this. You get those three states there, that elite crowd and put in Alabama and New Jersey, and this can be really great. I am looking forward to the future of this thing.”
While Florida teams won all three games at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., none of the games was a blowout and the final two, including the Booker T. Washington-Bingham game and a 37-27 defeat by No. 6 Miami Central of No. 15 Bothell, Wash., were especially competitive.
“That was the No. 1 thing,” said the game’s organizer, Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing. “The games were competitive and in terms of authenticity, the players and the teams gave everything. No. 2, the sportsmanship the teams showed after their games was wonderful. When I saw Booker T. Washington wait after the game and clap for Bingham players doing the Haka, that was probably the best moment of the whole thing.”
The biggest negative was the small crowd. Until midway through the second game, the crowd was dwarfed in the 24,419-seat venue. Even though three Florida teams were playing, including two from nearby Dade County, there was no way to generate the feel of a typical crowd at a high school stadium until the final game when there were a small but vocal contingent from Bingham and Booker T. Washington.
Overall, the attendance might have been 2,000. It probably didn’t help that the University of Miami’s football team was playing in a bowl game on Saturday, but the games were good enough to deserve more fans.
“A lot of people, including fans, were taking a wait-and-see position with the series,” Ghazi said. “Fortunately, on television, the last game really captured the nation’s attention. We couldn’t script that kind of moment. It just happens.”
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Ghazi said Paragon, broadcast partner ESPN and title sponsor Burger King will look at the whole series to see what can change, taking nothing off the table, including possibly having more than one site and of course, adding state associations.
He added that feedback from the teams that participated could encourage more state associations to buy in next year. A number of state associations were adamantly opposed when approached for the inaugural event, but their perception could change now that games have been played, assuming state bylaws would allow those teams to participate.
Eastside Catholic coach Jeremy Thielbahr said the experience was unique, and in a good way.
“It’s just an experience that our kids are never going to have again, an opportunity for them to experience something that most people don’t,” Thielbahr said. “Most of our team, they are not playing college football. They’ll never go to a bowl game. They’ll never travel on an airplane to go to a game.
“For our kids to come over here to Boca Raton, Fla., an opportunity to play at FAU, to play a great team in Trinity Christian, that’s why you’re part of high school athletics, for the journey, the experience and the memories.”