Sports

New state high school basketball playoff format is costly for schools

For roughly 20 years, the postseason of high school basketball has gone unchanged. Since the late 1980s, the state tournament for Washington high school basketball has remained the same, with a 16-team, one site format where school bands, students and fans congregate to cheer their teams.

This past weekend, a format change ended up costing the Mercer Island School District more than $3,000 when the Islander boys team headed to Spokane for tournament play.

Last spring, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) announced a desire to change the format, citing financial reasons. Renting the Tacoma Dome for two straight weekends to accommodate the 3A and 4A tournaments, as well as other sites for 1A, 2A and B school basketball tournaments, was expensive. Between those costs and with other tournaments bringing in less revenue, the WIAA felt a change was needed and state basketball was the way to go.

As a result, last weekend’s games were held at regional sites across Washington, for the first round of state play.

“For the most part, it went well,” said Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the WIAA, after the first weekend of the tournament. He said while the organization won’t know for a while if attendance increased or if more fans went to the first games, the feedback depending on where teams were was mixed.

“It depends on the area and the school classification,” Colbrese said of feedback for the new tournament. “The smaller schools, especially in the southwest, were not very happy, but the larger schools were more OK with it. I think we’re going to see a split, based on geographical and classification size.”

Teams played somewhat locally at sites in Marysville, Auburn or Bellevue, based on how they finished at their district tournament.

After earning the last spot to the state tournament, the Mercer Island boys traveled to play at Spokane Falls Community College.

The Islanders left Wednesday to avoid the snow, which hit the greater Seattle area on Thursday. Leaving early because of the weather meant that the team would have missed the same number of days as under the old format, if school hadn’t been canceled.

While the majority of schools in the first round of the 3A tournament played somewhat closer to home, there were instances with boys and girls teams playing in different places.

As the boys headed to Spokane, the girls went to Marysville. The 40-mile trip north is roughly the same as it would have been for the girls to have played in Tacoma for the first round of state.

Colbrese said one of the big issues they will look at is how well the WIAA met the goal of decreasing time away from school and amount of travel for teams.
While it may have been cheaper for the WIAA in facility fees, it wasn’t for Mercer Island.

The boys team had to charter a bus, running around $3,000, because the district didn’t have a coach willing to drive in the snow, or bus driver available for the whole weekend. Then the school paid for 15 hotel rooms for the team.

Mercer Island High School Athletic Director Craig Olson said beyond the parents, few made it to Spokane.

“It’s unfortunate they couldn’t have fans or the pep band there,” said Olson.
Mercer Island boys head coach Gavin Cree said the team didn’t mind traveling to Spokane, but it would have been nice to play closer to home. He did not feel the travel affected the team’s play overall.

Even as the season began, coaches were divided on the changes.

For coaches who didn’t like the new format, part of it was that the change meant a loss of prestige for those 16 teams in the first round. Cory Shepard, the head coach of the girls team at Lake Washington High School, said he wasn’t a fan of the new format.

“It’s such a privilege to go to state,” he said at the beginning of the season. “It’s a shame they are diluting it. A lot of the girls want to play at the Tacoma Dome, and now you don’t get to see all the teams.”

Colbrese said one thing the WIAA will have to figure out is what to do with the playing sites where the boys and girls play in different places.

The first weekend of state passed relatively smoothly, and Colbrese said they expect this weekend’s games to be closer and more competitive.

“I think fans are going to see more hotly contested and closer games,” he said of the quarterfinal matches. And, he added, this way fans and students will miss less school and work time.

“The jury is still out. I think we’ll have to wait and see what the attendance is like this weekend,” said Olson.

The 3A quarterfinals will begin this Thursday at the Tacoma Dome, with the state title game on Saturday, March 5, for both the boys and girls.

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