High School Sports

Mark Story: How worried should we be about the boys’ Sweet Sixteen?

Watch Dunbar celebrate state title, cut down nets

Paul Laurence Dunbar defeated Doss on Sunday to win the school's first boys' basketball state championship
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Paul Laurence Dunbar defeated Doss on Sunday to win the school's first boys' basketball state championship

Julian Tackett is open to ideas.

After a second straight year of soft attendance at the boys’ basketball state tournament in Rupp Arena, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association commissioner is organizing a study group that will look at what issues may or may not be affecting Sweet Sixteen crowds.

“I’m looking to involve people with marketing experience, people with event-management (experience),” Tackett said last week, “just a broad cross-section of people. We’re hoping to have it together by June.”

The 2016 boys’ Sweet Sixteen had a total attendance of 88,170. That was down more than 6,000 people from the 2015 tournament. Both years represent the lowest marks since the tournament moved permanently to Rupp Arena in 1995.

Revenue from the boys’ state tourney provides the KHSAA’s most significant funding. Yet Tackett’s concern for the event runs deeper than the ledger sheet. “We have an obligation to preserve what I say is one of Kentucky’s two great (annual) sporting events,” he said, the other being the Kentucky Derby.

Part of the challenge, Tackett said, is it’s not clear whether the two-year dip in attendance is a larger trend or is mostly due to factors specific to the last two state tournaments.

1.) Combined, the 2015 and ’16 Sweet Sixteens have had three true class A-sized schools make the field. In our one-class basketball format, the success of small-school Cinderellas keeps hope alive for all. Yet even if they bring to Rupp everyone affiliated with their schools, institutions with enrollments of 150 or so are not great for the state tourney gate.

2.) Of the four schools that played in the past two state finals — Owensboro, Bowling Green, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Doss — only Lexington-based PLD had a substantial fan following in Rupp. Obviously, when the teams that play four state tournament games don’t bring big crowds, that hits attendance.

“Those are things that are beyond our control,” Tackett said. “So, in that sense, we don’t want to over-react.”

As recently as 2013, the state tournament drew 123,363 in Rupp. That year, Madison Central (won championship) and Montgomery County (semifinalist) each brought throngs of fans.

Tackett said what is concerning to the KHSAA is that ticket sales to neutral state tournament fans, the annual attendees who stay for the whole tourney, have softened in recent years.

Why that is changing “is something I want our (study) group to look at.,” Tackett said.

A revival plan

Ticket prices, modernizing how tickets are sold and ideas for cost-effective marketing will be among the items Tackett wants his Sweet Sixteen study group to examine.

One thing that apparently will not be on the table is moving the Sweet Sixteen from Rupp Arena to the KFC Yum Center in Louisville. In 1994, the last time the state tournament was held in Freedom Hall, it drew 84,278. The KHSAA’s current contract with Rupp Arena runs through 2018. Tackett said the organization’s Board of Control has authorized him to negotiate a new 10-year pact with Rupp.

One problem that may have caught up with Sweet Sixteen is that attendance at regular-season high school basketball games in Kentucky has fallen across the state.

“It’s not the state tournament that is losing fans,” said Ken Trivette, the former Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches. “We’re losing them before they get there.”

Trivette has a plan he believes could breathe new life into Kentucky high school basketball. His proposal would restructure the path teams travel to reach the Sweet Sixteen and is designed to make the regular season more consequential.

Now, you essentially have 64 districts of mostly four teams (20 districts have more than four teams; four have fewer) feeding into 16 regional tournaments of eight teams each.

Trivette wants to keep the Sweet Sixteen format and the 16 regions. But he wants those regions to have two eight-team districts. In his proposal, those eight-team districts would be mandated to play round-robin in the regular season, then the district tourneys would be seeded.

Instead of the current eight, six teams would advance to each regional tournament.

District winners would get byes into the regional semifinals. As now, district runner-ups would also advance. In Trivette’s plan, the two teams that lost in the district semifinals would then have a play-in game. The winner would make the region. In the regional tourney opening round, each district runner up would meet the play-in game winner from the opposite district.

“Travel is cut down, because each school would have more local games,” Trivette said. “You get more rivalries rekindled on the local level again, which is what I think created the fervor in high school basketball.”

I do not know whether Trivette’s is a proposal that can reignite interest in high school hoops. I do know we need to wage the good fight to preserve the Sweet Sixteen — for my money, the most authentically “Kentucky” annual sporting event we have.

“We don’t want to be the generation that loses that,” said Scott Chalk, who coached Dunbar to the 2016 state championship and is the current KABC Executive Director. “So now’s the time for a good, on-going discussion. We need all ideas out there.”