High School Sports

High school notebook: Sweet Sixteen attendance down for second straight year

From left, Rebecca Lopez, 16, her sister Allyson Lopez, 15, and Abigail Griffith, 15, cheered for Buckhorn in the second quarter of the Murray vs. Buckhorn game at the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena last week.
From left, Rebecca Lopez, 16, her sister Allyson Lopez, 15, and Abigail Griffith, 15, cheered for Buckhorn in the second quarter of the Murray vs. Buckhorn game at the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena last week. palcala@herald-leader.com

More people are deciding to stay home rather than go out to the boys’ Sweet Sixteen. Maybe “The Greatest Show in Hoops” should strike a deal with Netflix?

Last week’s attendance for the state tournament was below six figures, the first time that’s been the case in back-to-back years since 1996 and 1997. A total of 88,170 people walked into Rupp Arena last week — more than 6,000 fewer than last year. It was the worst showing since the 1994 tournament, the last year in Louisville’s Freedom Hall, when only 84,278 people showed. Last week was the second time attendance dropped below 90,000 in 36 years.

Sweet Sixteen attendance hinges on several non-controllable factors: the size of the schools involved, the fan support at each school, weather, or whether any of the teams has a Mr. Basketball winner or player being heavily recruited by a big-time college program. Perhaps no external factor looms larger than the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Not only did the Cats’ loss to Indiana on Saturday dampen the state’s collective mood, but it almost certainly played a role in the state semifinals being the least attended of the last 10 years (as far back as available records show). That despite a hometown favorite, top-ranked Paul Laurence Dunbar, bidding for its first berth in the championship game since 1994.

“Like it or not, our people have a loyalty to Kentucky even if the players are only here for one year,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. “They’ve got a loyalty to them. So that hurts us.”

The finals between Dunbar and Doss? About 1,500 more people turned out for that than the Owensboro-Bowling Green championship bout a year ago. Doss appeared to be the culprit here; there was a distinct lack of burgundy and gold in the crowd all week as the fun-to-watch Dragons knocked off higher-ranked foes en route to their first title game since 1980.

History suggests a spike in attendance is imminent; these sub-100,000 dips have been outliers rather than trends. But do back-to-back 20-year lows mean changes in format — a return to the same-day semis/finals, perhaps? — should be on the table?

“It hasn’t been discussed because giving the semifinal teams some rest was such a critical thing for our coaches,” Tackett said. “ … Sunday’s not the issue. There’s plenty of opportunity for people to get to the games.”

What about bumping the schedule up a day to accommodate people who might want to relax with their families on Sunday?

“And miss another day of school? Highly unlikely,” Tackett said.

One positive takeaway from this year’s tournament? While attendance dipped at the onset, it stayed right above 10,000 through the last four sessions.

“We really didn’t have the peak and valley,” Tackett said. “You always worry about the valley and you hope for the peak but it’s actually kind of nice to have a straight series. So it was pretty consistent and it was good.”

▪ The most widely attended session in 2015 was the Day One morning session, when 13,005 fans turned out to watch Collins-Owensboro and Taylor County-Hopkinsville. About 2,000 fewer people showed up for the first session this year, though it’s worth pointing out that three teams playing in those games — Buckhorn, Murray and Newport Central Catholic — were all All “A” schools. Trinity was the other school.

▪ Surprisingly, last year’s second session featuring Covington Catholic-Campbell County and Williamsburg-Doss outdrew the equivalent session this year by about 300 fans: 12,124 to 11,866. This season’s included reigning state runner-up Bowling Green and a matchup of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Mercer County, considered by some the two best teams in the field.

▪ Session three is where the most damage was done: nearly 2,700 fewer people watched Lawrence County-Doss and South Laurel-Christian County than the same session a year earlier. The 2015 equivalent had a billing of Johnson Central-Ballard and Lexington Catholic-Boyle County, a tough first-round combination to overcome.

▪ Of the eight total sessions, only two outdrew their counterparts from a year ago: session four (last part of the first round) and session six (last part of the quarterfinals). Session four, which featured a doubleheader of Mason County-Taylor County and South Oldham-Owensboro Catholic, was the most-attended segment of the 2016 tournament at 12,349 fans. Session six featured Doss-Taylor County and South Laurel-South Oldham, suggesting a Taylor County-South Oldham semifinal (Doss-South Laurel was the actual pairing) would have produced favorable attendance figures.

▪ NFHS Network streaming numbers were requested but that information will not be available until the end of the year according to the KHSAA. This was the first year all 15 games were streamed as part of the network, which requires viewers to purchase one of three subscription plans, rather than broadcast freely on YouTube. There was no local TV or radio broadcast. (I joked about Netflix earlier, but how trailblazing would that be?)

Ups and downs at NKU

Total attendance for the girls’ Sweet 16 was 31,947, the fifth-highest all-time. Not a bad showing by Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena, which made its debut as the event’s host after 15 years at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena.

That figure was bolstered by a strong crowd for the morning quarterfinals session on March 11. The Campbell County-Franklin County and Holmes-Mercer County games drew 6,056 fans, the second-largest single-session crowd in girls’ Sweet 16 history.

A fact not in NKU’s favor? The four largest attendance figures occurred over four of the last six seasons in Bowling Green. It’s worth noting that teams from Western Kentucky made deep runs in those tournaments, which also helps to explain the high Friday morning number above (Holmes and Campbell County are a combined 17 miles from NKU).

From an arena perspective, things couldn’t have gone any better at NKU, Tackett said. The local community could have done more to support the event, though, something that organizers recognized and are already trying to plan for 2017. The event site will be back up for bid after that.

“What we have to do now is get the community to engage, get the restaurants involved, get the hotels to come off the prices they charged and realize that they can do better about filling themselves up with a lesser rate,” Tackett said. “ … That’s the job of the local community because it’s theirs to lose. We’re gonna have a tournament, we’ve got sites wanting it. So we have alternatives. It’s their job, not the KHSAA’s to get into a bunch of promotion. We’ll see how it goes.”

A notion tossed around at the boys’ Sweet Sixteen (and one I’d personally like to see attempted) was a joint site harboring both the boys’ and girls’ state tournaments, as the All “A” Classic does in Frankfort. That appears to be out of the question at the present time.

“As long as I’m around you won’t see a recommendation from my position to run it in a combined format like that,” Tackett said. “Now that doesn’t mean they can’t be combined. But that particular format, it’s just a little different for these two tournaments. It might not be as well-received. It works well for a regular-season tournament and they do it very well. But it’s not in consideration at all.”

Yum!?

The KFC Yum Center is among the nicest arenas in the country, but its availability and rental fees contribute to why the boys’ Sweet Sixteen won’t be looking to make a move back to Louisville any time soon. Not much thought has been given at the KHSAA to the idea that a change of venue would help attendance; Tackett said it might cause more harm than good in part because of logistical concerns involving traffic and unfamiliarity with the arena.

Besides, the KHSAA has an agreement to hold the boys’ Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena through 2018 and looks to work out an extension of that agreement in the coming months. Said Tackett:

“We’re hoping to hammer out those terms this spring and set this thing to where when I’m gone, which hopefully will be a few years, the next commissioner doesn’t have to worry about where the site of the biggest event is. It’s already set.”

Rupp renovations

Tackett was on the task force that studied options for an overhaul of Rupp Arena and the surrounding facilities, a $350 million project that got put on hold after the city and UK couldn’t come to terms. Last summer the Lexington Center Corp. approved $15 million in technology improvements at Rupp, including ribbon boards and LED corner screens that have already been installed. A center-hung scoreboard, roof infrastructure and wireless Internet improvements are to come.

At some point all the parties involved — UK, the KHSAA and Rupp Arena, to name a few — will “sit down and work out a good plan and good timeline” for more extensive changes, Tackett said. He pointed to bench seating in the upper arena as one reason people stay away from the Sweet Sixteen.

“We hear about that, and that’s certainly something that might affect future NCAA events, et cetera,” Tackett said. “... But I totally understand the university president’s priorities. He’s got some buildings over there that are pretty old, too, and he needs to make sure that his first priority takes care of his students and then we’ll take care of the basketball team. The tough part about it is, money will probably come easier for helping the basketball team than building a new English building. That’s just the way life is.”

Your thoughts

Why aren’t as many people coming to the boys’ Sweet Sixteen? What suggestions do you have to improve the fan experience surrounding “The Greatest Show in Hoops?” Please email or tweet your comments. I might publish them in this space next week.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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