One aspect of the 100th Sweet Sixteen last month left me feeling melancholy.
For the first time in my memory, curtains were used to close off the end zones in Rupp Arena’s upper level for boys’ state tourney play. It seemed a concession from the Kentucky High School Athletics Association that the smaller boys’ state tournament crowds of recent years have become the “new normal.”
KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said the decision to use the curtains to “downsize” the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena was his.
“I should have done it last year,” Tackett said. “We’ll never stop trying to find ways to maximize (attendance). But I also think it’s possible that the days of legendary crowds like some we had in the past may be over.”
The good news from the 100th Sweet Sixteen was that the total attendance was up by 4,267 from the 99th state tourney.
Bad news was that, even with all the extra media coverage in advance of the 2017 Boys’ State Tournament due to the event’s 100th anniversary, this year’s overall attendance was the second-lowest ever for a state tourney held in Rupp Arena.
Over the last three state tournaments, the total crowds have been 94,464 (2015), 88,170 (2016) and 92,437 (this year). It is the first time the boys’ state tourney has gone three straight years without cracking 100,000 in total attendance since 1976-78 in Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
This year’s state tournament averaged 11,555 fans a session. One suspects the overwhelming majority of states would sell souls to average that many spectators for their high school basketball state tournaments.
Our state, however, has historically done better.
In 1987, when Richie Farmer led Clay County to the Sweet Sixteen championship, the state tourney averaged a record 17,533 per session.
The obvious question is, what has changed from 2013 till now?
Tackett acknowledges a big part of the success of the 2013 state tourney at the gate was that two teams with large followings, Madison Central and Montgomery County (which reached the semifinals), made deep runs.
However, due to a calendar quirk, that 2013 Sweet Sixteen fell on the final week of the college basketball regular season. Customarily in recent years, the boys’ state tourney has fallen on the first week of the men’s NCAA Tournament
“The fact that the (2013) tournament was not up against the NCAA, we have to at least consider that was a factor (in 2013’s success),” Tackett said.
So, as Tackett told The Courier-Journal’s Jason Frakes last month, the KHSAA is considering moving the boys’ state tourney to the final week of the college hoops regular season permanently.
That way, it would not have to compete with Kentucky Wildcats and Lousville Cardinals NCAA Tournament games. This year, UK and U of L each played twice in the NCAA Tournament during the dates (March 15 -19) of the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen.
“In the past, a lot of Kentucky basketball fans prioritized the state tournament over the college tournament,” Tackett said. “That does not seem to be the case for nearly as many of our fans as it once was. We need to find out, if we remove that conflict, if we can get some of those fans back to our event.”
If the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen is moved up on the calendar, Tackett said it will not happen before the 2019 tourney. To accommodate an earlier state tourney, it is likely the regular season will be compressed rather than creating more basketball/football conflict by giving the hoops season an earlier starting date, Tackett says.
There does not appear to be any consideration of trying a venue other than Rupp for the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen.
Tackett says there have been no meaningful talks with the KFC Yum Center in Louisville. The KHSAA Board of Control has instead authorized Tackett to negotiate a new 10-year deal with Rupp Arena.
With the upper deck end zones curtained off in Rupp, “we’ve still got a 17,500-seat arena,” Tackett said. “For the crowds we’re drawing now, that’s an appropriate size.”