It’s not breaking news that attendance has been falling at the boys state basketball tournament for a long time.
But it was still shocking to see the size of the crowds at this year’s tournament last weekend. There were several games where the Schottenstein Center reminded you of a once-popular shopping mall that had lost some of its anchor stores.
None of the four championship games attracted as many as 10,000 people. The attendance for the Division I title game between Cincinnati Moeller and Akron St. Vincent was 8,675. The Division II match-up between Trotwood-Madison and Columbus South was watched by 9,881 people.
The Division III championship game between Harvest Prep and Cleveland Lutheran East drew only 7,714 fans and 9,108 people watched the Crestview-Berlin Hiland Division IV championship game.
Only one of those games filled even half the seats in the 18,809 seat Schottenstein Center.
Ten years ago, the smallest crowd for a boys basketball state tournament championship game was 11,160 when Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary played Dayton Thurgood Marshall for the 2009 Division II state title. The Division I and III games both drew a little more than 12,000 fans and 13,582 people watched the Division IV championship game between Kalida and Oak Hill.
Obviously, the Ohio High School Athletic Associated is concerned as it watches attendance continue to drop.
So, what has happened? Why have the fans disappeared?
Here are five theories, none of which are really under the control of the OHSAA:
1. Maybe the product just isn’t as interesting as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
As I watched Trotwood-Madison and Columbus South play a high speed, up and down the floor championship game last Saturday, won 77-73 by Trotwood, I remembered that this is how the big-school games and many of the smaller division games at state tournaments looked every year in the 1970s.
When pitchers became too dominant, major league baseball lowered the pitching mound to try to get more offense into the game.
When football saw defenses taking over the game, it put in rules to even the playing field. Truthfully, it did more than even the playing field, it tilted it toward the offenses.
Basketball needs to take a good, hard look in the mirror and do the same sort of thing. Attendance at high school basketball regular season games is down at many schools, too. Defense is being allowed to overpower the most interesting parts of the sport and fans are not excited about that.
2. Past generations went to state tournaments because that was one of the few places most people could see great players from outside their home area. In an age of YouTube and the internet, you don’t have to travel to see them.
If you wanted to see Jerry Lucas in the 1950s, the best ways to do that were to have Middletown on your home team’s schedule or go to the state tournament. It was still the same when Clark Kellogg played at Cleveland St. Joseph in the late 1970s and even into the late 1980s when Jim Jackson played at Toledo Macomber.
Now you can find videos of pretty much any player you want to watch, including can’t miss junior high prospects, with a couple clicks of a computer mouse.
3. Too many teams that get to the state tournament now were assembled instead of growing up together.
And I’m not just talking about private schools. I’ve seen public schools win state championships with two, three and four transfers in their starting lineups.
When teams made up of hometown kids get to the state tournament, it galvanizes communities and brings out fans.
When a team is composed of basically strangers a lot of fans – young and old – don’t feel a connection and stay home.
4. In almost every aspect of entertainment, including high school sports, today’s choices are very different than they were in the 1970s or 1980s.
We carry around more entertainment options in our pockets with our phones than you could find in entire small towns 50 or 60 years ago. There are just more things to do and more choices and fewer people are choosing the boys state basketball tournament.
5. High school basketball isn’t the only show in town anymore with the rise of AAU.
Some players have played for national championships before they’re old enough to compete for an OHSAA state championship.
A highly recruited player once told me about playing games in 18 different states with AAU teams. Kids who used to look for the park or open gym close to home that provided the best competition in the summer might be playing in off-season tournaments somewhere like Las Vegas or Miami now.
Declining interest obviously is not a problem everywhere. Crestview’s welcome home ceremony for its state champion team drew more fans than several teams brought to the state tournament. But for some players and some fans, state tournaments are no longer the pinnacle of high school basketball like they once were.