COLUMBUS – The Ohio High School Athletic Association finds itself in a dilemma with attendance for the boys basketball state tournament dwindling to almost half what it was a dozen years ago.
A lack of stars like LeBron James and Jon Diebler or transcendent teams like North College Hill and Columbus Northland can explain some of the reasons why fewer fans are turning out to watch one or all of the 12 games at the state tourney in Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center.
Parochial schools struggle to bring as many fans as a lot of their public counterparts, while inner city schools and some suburban schools bring disappointing crowds. But, the mix of public and private schools is largely the same whether it’s in the boom years of attendance or in today’s bust era.
Attendance dropped 13 percent from last year and 22 percent from five years ago. The record attendance of 197,515 set in 2003 dwarfs this year’s 112,070. So why has average attendance fallen by more than 7,000 in 12 years?
“The competition for the dollar is going to be there,” OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross said at the annual Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association meeting two weeks ago.
Ticket prices on the rise
Good seats, if bought at the door, are $15 per game. Upper level seats are still $12. All-tourney books of tickets, if bought in advance, range from $120 to $144.
“If you’re trying to bring your wife and two kids just for Saturday, that’s $60 a game and you’re paying $3.50 for a bottle of water. I think that’s some of it,” longtime Ontario coach Joe Balogh said, a past president of the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association.
Colonel Crawford coach David Sheldon is now 39 and he’s been going to the state tourney since he was in the fourth grade.
“The cost of a ticket has really risen,” said Sheldon who is president of District 6 in the coaches association. “I remember going to St. John (Arena) when the cost of a ticket was $5 or $6 a ticket. It’s very expensive for somebody to go to 12 games. I think people pick and choose that, and people may be financially strapped and unable to go down there.”
And with the four championship games televised live on SportsTime Ohio, it’s a cheaper alternative to stay at home.
No gathering place to be found
It’s less than a half-mile away from St. John Arena, which hosted the tourney for almost 40 years before moving to the Schott in 1999. But the new arena may as well be 100 miles, especially after the Holiday Inn on Lane Avenue was converted into dorms for OSU. The hotel lobby along with the Varsity Club and other establishments along Lane Avenue and High Street were gathering places for coaches, administrators and basketball fans alike.
That’s no longer the case.
“I think that was a drawing point for people for that weekend,” Balogh said. “If you weren’t staying there, you usually knew somebody who was staying there, or you could go there and just hang out between games. There’s no place for you to hang out and that’s hurt. Between games you can’t really drive because by the time you get there you need to come right back.”
With parking so removed from the Schott that shuttle buses are needed and with getting in and out so congested around the arena between games, some have resorted to tailgating to pass time. But the weather in March is fickle and can make that kind of plan miserable.
The week after Colonel Crawford’s junior high teams were finished in the middle of February, many of the players began practicing for their spring AAU teams, Sheldon said. That’s a state-wide phenomenon now.
“When kids get beat, whether it’s losing their last junior high game or high school game, a week later they’re playing in an AAU tournament in Columbus or all across the state,” Sheldon said. “All those people who are so-called basketball fans are now with their kids at an AAU tournament and getting ready for spring basketball. That’s hurt our attendance, too, because those are basketball fans.”
Added Balogh: “There’s so much other stuff going on. From a basketball standpoint, there’s other basketball events going on that weekend with these youth basketball tournaments. Ten years ago there really wasn’t much going on that weekend in March.”
Time off is tough to find
Ross said when he was a superintendent 25 years ago, it was common for booster clubs to write a check to cover the expenses of entire coaching staffs to go to the tourney and make a long weekend of it.
“You went to the Varsity Club on Wednesday night and it would be packed,” Balogh said. “Now there’s a crowd in there at times, but it’s not like is used to be.”
The teaching profession has changed. It’s harder for coaches to take off from school, especially at that time of the year with state testing at the forefront, Ross said. According to Balogh, most only get two personal days off a year and don’t want to use them up at the tourney if they can’t get the time off for professional development.
And Sheldon acknowledges that coaches have changed. More and more are lay coaches who do not teach, so getting time off from their real jobs to go to the state tourney is difficult, especially if they are using time off just to coach their teams.
Tickets are a costly dilemma
Using $12 as the ticket price, the OHSAA brought in $205,000 fewer dollars from this year’s tourney compared to the previous year. Using the same math, if this year’s tournament would have drawn what came through the gates in 2003, the OHSAA would have made $1 million more dollars.
The OHSAA doesn’t receive tax dollars and it doesn’t charge its schools to belong. It pays the schools’ expenses for select regional and state tournament games and covers the cost of catastrophic insurance for all athletes under its umbrella.
To pay for it all, the association leans heavily on ticket sales for its regional and state tournaments. Only 10 percent of its revenue comes from sponsorships and another 10 percent from officials dues, so 80 percent is based on attendance.
“These are all the variables, but how many of those do we actually have any control over?” Ross asked. “Where do we put a reasonable stand of where we should be and where do we go from there? We’re having that conversation.”
The boys basketball state tournament has never been a better show. With the music and the bands, with the National Anthem singers, with NBA-style pregame introductions for the title games, with the halftime contests for students, with the honoring of past Ohio high school greats, and with the postgame celebrations, the OHSAA is trying to bring extra entertainment to the event and give more bang for the buck.
However, it’s not translating to attendance which is proving to be a costly dilemma for the association.
Rob McCurdy has attended the boys basketball state tournament since 1983. He can be reached at email@example.com or 419-521-7241. On Twitter follow @McMotorsport.