In recent years, Louisville has played host to hundreds of teens competing for Kentucky High School Athletic Association championships in volleyball, swimming, and track and field.
But not since the 2008 football finals, has the state’s largest city been host for the big games in one of the three signature sports of football, basketball and baseball and that’s unlikely to change much in coming years — despite the wishes of fans, coaches and others.
KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said there is a chance the football finals could return as soon as 2015. But he made no promises, citing several reasons the association has looked elsewhere in recent years, including scheduling conflicts, a desire to play in more intimate venues and financial issues.
“One of the things we’ve faced in Louisville is that we’ve gotten zero corporate support,” Tackett said. “That’s where the sports commission could perhaps help and steer us to the right people if there really is interest.”
Karl Schmitt, executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission, said his organization and the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau are willing to work with the KHSAA and would like its signature events to return to the city
“Usually it’s about the whole package,” Schmitt said. “You might pay more for one thing and less for another. The right question would be, ‘Could (Louisville) make a viable bid?'”
Kevin Miller, the University of Louisville associate athletic director who has worked with the KHSAA to bring previous championship events to the city, said the school wants the football finals back.
“We’d love to get them back,” he said. “I’ve told (Tackett) that numerous times. … We don’t try to make a dime off of it. It’s just a great opportunity for us to showcase the school and everything we have here to people out in the state.”
The KHSAA currently has contracts to hold the boys’ basketball and baseball finals in Lexington through 2018, with the Boys’ Sweet 16 played at Rupp Arena and the baseball state tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
Louisville never has been host of the Girls’ Sweet 16, which has been held at E. A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green since 2001. That contract runs out in 2015, andTackett said Northern Kentucky University has expressed interest in holding that event in the future.
The KHSAA held its football finals in every class in Louisville from 1979-2008, using the old Cardinal Stadium from 1979-2002 and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium from 2003-08.
But by 2008, U of L no longer could guarantee its stadium would be available during the state finals on the first weekend of December because of obligations with the Big East Conference. Those obligations will no longer exist next year when U of L joins the Atlantic Coast Conference, which holds its football championship at a neutral site on the first weekend of December.
Tackett noted that Western Kentucky could run into a similar issue of not being able to guarantee its stadium when it joins Conference USA next yearwhich might bring the KHSAA finals back to Louisville. With the KHSAA contract with WKU set to run out after 2014, Tackett said he’ll send a request for proposal (RFP) to U of L, WKU and Eastern Kentucky to gauge their interest.,
“Things change he said, adding that having U of L’s stadiumavailable “on a regular, predictable basis is huge. And the possibility of (the University of Kentucky’s) Commonwealth Stadium putting in artificial turf in a couple of years is huge. We may have options we didn’t have before.”,”
Tackett, who has been the KHSAA’s commissioner since July of 2010, noted that the association’s Board of Control has final say on where championships are held. The board has representatives from all regions of the state.
Tackett said Louisville would have to overcome at least two obstacles to get the football finals back:
* What he described as a lack of support from area hotels and restaurants to accommodate fans and athletes at discounted rates for any of its championships. Tackett has praised Bowling Green’s hotels and restaurants for working with the KHSAA on reduced rates.
* WKU’s Houchens Industries/L.T. Smith Stadium with a seating capacity of 22,113, provides a more intimate atmospherethan Papa John’s, with 55,000 seats.,
“I mean, we might not want to play the state volleyball championship at Rupp Arena because of what the crowd would like in there and the experience it gives the kids,” Tackett said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about Western’s football facility. It’s comfortably sized.”
‘Second to none’
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was host of the football finals in 2007 and ’08, the first two years of the state’s six-class playoff system. Total attendance for 2007 was 46,620, which included 15,696 for the Class 6-A championship game between St. Xavier and Trinity. Total attendance in 2008 was 34,733.
Bowling Green has proven capable of exceeding those numbers, drawing 47,759 for the 2010 finals and 46,738 in 2012.
Tackett said weather and which teams make the finals affect attendance and profits as much or more than where the games are played. The largest attendance for any state football final at WKU was in 2010, when 13,167 showed up to watch nearby Allen County-Scottsville face Boyle County in the Class 4-A championship game. Total attendance for the 2013 finals (24,188) was way down, at least partially because of the ice and snow that blanketed the state during the first weekend in December.
“If you get the right draw, your gross goes way up,” Tackett said. “Stadium expenses are another thing. The signage is less at Western, but we have to pay more in travel for teams to get to Bowling Green.”
Jeff Younglove, director of campus and community events at WKU, said the school wants to keep the football and girls’ basketball championships in Bowling Green and believes it has an advantage over Louisville in at least one area.
“We believe we’re going to go above and beyond to be second to none,” Younglove said. “We may not be the largest or have as many of something, but we think we make up for it in Southern hospitality.”
As for the Boys’ Sweet 16, one issue would be the added cost of playing at the KFC Yum! Center, as Tackett said Rupp Arena has used “grandfathered rates” with the KHSAA.
Carl Hall, director of arena management at Rupp Arena, said fans have become comfortable with the idea of traveling to Lexington for the Boys’ Sweet 16 on a yearly basis. He also noted one advantage Louisville would have if it wanted to push for the tournament.
“Say the Yum Center would cost $300,000,” Hall said. “If the city of Louisville wants to make it happen and wants to see that economic impact … they could put $150,000 toward that and lower the cost (for the KHSAA). Lexington doesn’t have that industry and business base that Louisville does.”
DeSales coach Harold Davis led his football team to the Class 2-A state championship at WKU on Dec. 7 and said the overall experience was good. But he said he’d like to see the state finals return to Louisville, and noted, “I don’t buy into the smaller stadium making the atmosphere better.”
“I think the kids would look forward more to playing in Papa John’s or Commonwealth Stadium more than Western,” he said.
“Papa John’s is easy to get to, and you know you’re going to have a parking spot and won’t have to look around. I think those type of things would make it a lot better to have it here.”
But not every coach in the city is an advocate of the finals returning to Louisville. Central’s Ty Scroggins coached in two state finals at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and three at WKU and said he’d pick “Bowling Green over U of L every time.”
“It’s the perfect stadium because it’s not too big,” Scroggins said. “U of L is just a lot bigger than we need for the state championships. That community in Bowling Green has really taken hold of the state tournament and made it their own. They open their doors for everybody down there.”