The comments on an article on the Journal Sentinel website concerning the WIAA expanding the state basketball tournament field from four divisions to five and eliminating four large Division 1 schools in the process are mostly negative.
And one of the major themes brought up was the economic impact of the change. Many believed eliminating four large schools with presumably four large fan bases, and substituting them with the presumably smaller fan bases from much smaller schools would hurt ticket sales.
"I would be ticked off if I were a restaurant or hotel owner in the Madison area," wrote one commentator.
Maybe, maybe not, said WIAA Associate Director Debra Hauser.
"In all perspectives, it's not a valid argument," she said.
Division 1 lags behind others
She has the numbers to back up her point. In a study of average ticket pre-sales by the qualifying schools for the boys state tournament from over the last six years, the Division 1 schools lagged behind those of Division 2. The average sale in the eight-school Division 1 field was 967 while the mark for the four-team Division 2 set was 1,048.
And though one year's numbers can be skewed by one school's poor sales (maybe due to an early spring break), this past year's girls state tournament showed an even sharper skew. The average Division 1 pre-sale was only 456, while it was 898 on the Division 2 level. In fact, all of the other divisions did better in terms of sales at this year's girls state tournament with Division 3 coming in at 698 and Division 4 at 544.
"The best attendance has always been D2," Hauser said, "and since we feel we'll be adding smaller D1 schools into what is now the D2 field, I think the impact will be huge on attendance (in a positive manner)."
Hauser has a theory behind the lagging Division 1 attendance numbers.
It's a complex idea involving the size of the schools, the rise of select traveling teams, the decline in the number of players coming out for teams and how well the rest of the student body at a given school relates to the players who make the team.
"More gifted and talented players are coming up through different (select) programs other than the school," she said. "It used to be the first couple of weeks of the season coaches were dealing with tryouts and disgruntled parents worried about the fact that their kid didn't make the team.
"Now kids are weeded out through nonschool competition. … And we don't see that as a healthy thing. It's a far cry from the time where almost anybody came out and had a chance at making the team."
Indeed, according to informal conversations with coaches over the last few years, fewer student-athletes are coming out for teams on the varsity level while the participation for freshmen and junior varsity level competition remains reasonably constant.
"At the larger schools, sometimes a lot of it is sorted out by the middle school and freshmen levels," Hauser said. "In a situation like that, a lot of the members of the community may not know the kids very well and that does impact attendance.
"That's why you see some bigger attendance numbers (for state tournament games) from the medium-size and smaller schools. Places like Stoughton and New Berlin (middle-to-large schools) and others, their kids are friends with the players on the team. In the bigger schools, the best players may not be known well by a lot of the kids in the school, so why would they go (to the games)?"
One place where this theory was disproved this past winter was Menomonee Falls, where nationally recruited talent J.P. Tokoto and the Greater Metro Conference champion Indians packed them in every game home and on the road.
And Tokoto was not one to run off and hide in the locker room after the game, as he could frequently be seen clapping hands with fans sometimes long after the contest was done and his sweat had dried off.
Also in Germantown, where coach Steve Showalter has worked hard to build a successful program, the Warhawks brought large and vigorous student sections in their two trips to state in 2008 and 2009.
Madison teams don't sell out
But these may be the exceptions rather than the rule, as not even prominent local Madison involvement has helped out in recent years, said Hauser.
"Even when we've had Madison-area schools (in the finals), and we were hoping to sell out the third tier (of the Kohl Center), it hasn't happened," Hauser said, "and a couple of years ago, we had a (state girls) game between (Madison-area schools) Middleton and Verona and that, too, was disappointing (in terms of attendance)."
And you'd think the success of Madison Memorial's boys teams, with its six trips to the Division 1 finals in seven years, would be a huge driver in terms of state attendance, especially with high-flying talent like NCAA Division I college players Wesley Matthews, Jeronne Maymon and Vander Blue leading the way.
But their impact has been negligible. After a spike of more than 100,000 in overall state tournament attendance in 1998, the March numbers in Madison (with one low exception in 2005) has generally kept in a range of between 91,000 and 97,000 this past decade.
"Sometimes you have to look beyond the high school program and look at other teams (select) and see their impact," said Hauser. "There are a lot of issues in this whole thing (of expanding to five divisions) that are deserving of attention."
Second of three parts
This is the second in a series of columns looking at the decision to expand the state basketball tournament field from four to five divisions.
Next Week: In the final installment of this series, those other issues, including declining public school enrollment, and we have a range of reactions from area coaches.
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