Attendance at the Tacoma Dome dropped to below 2016 numbers when it was a three-day tournament.
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is looking into ways to boost attendance for its state tournaments, particularly basketball.
Declining attendance in the Tacoma Dome for the “Hardwood Classic,” which started in 1985 as the first concurrent state tournament in the nation for boys and girls, has been a trend for more than a decade. It’s alarming to the WIAA because the Hardwood Classic — with its consecutive days, size of venue and consolation bracket — draws the most revenue for the organization.
“We have to figure out what’s going on,” said WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese, who announced he’s retiring after the 2018-19 school year. “We haven’t seen the decline in attendance (in our other sports) like we’ve seen in basketball. And that decline started back with the old 16-team format. It was a 13-year decline, which was before the board even decided they needed to do something.”
The WIAA chopped its state basketball tournament from 16 teams to eight for the 2011 Hardwood Classic. According to Colbrese, that was after witnessing a 33 percent drop in attendance since the inaugural tournament.
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In 2017, the Hardwood Classic was bumped up to 12 teams across all classifications. That year saw a jump to 35,743 spectators in the Tacoma Dome (up from 27,979 in 2016 when it was a three-day event), which can likely be attributed to the interest surrounding the Nathan Hale boys basketball team.
Nathan Hale, with Michael Porter Jr. the No. 1 recruit in the country and a first-year coach in former NBA star Brandon Roy, won the Class 3A boys state title and was ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation.
This year, the state tournament in the Tacoma Dome drew 27,019, a decline from 2016. Adding to the decline in ticket sales were schools such as Lewis and Clark, Garfield and Lincoln advancing its girls and boys teams, meaning a fan can watch both teams with one ticket. Both of Garfield’s programs made the Class 3A state championship game with the boys winning the tournament.
Colbrese did a survey of executive directors from associations across the nation in April to see if they noticed any attendance patterns in their states the past five years.
Using Survey Monkey to compile anonymous responses to whether peers found an increase, decline or a leveling for postseason tournaments in basketball, football and wrestling, only the latter saw no noticeable changes among the 41 to complete the survey, including the WIAA.
There were seven respondents who reported an increase in their postseason basketball tournaments while 10 noted an increase in postseason football attendance. The remainder were split between noticing a decline or leveling.
“From around the country, the story is not that much different,” said Colbrese, who provided a copy of the results to The Seattle Times. “What I found interesting was (in the comments where) the states that have tried to make a difference in what’s going on in attendance believe that the reason they were able to make a difference is because they either changed the venue or they changed the format or they did both.”
The WIAA is in the process of renegotiating its contract with the Tacoma Dome as the site for the state basketball tournament. The contract for the state football championships in the Tacoma Dome expires following the 2018 games.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) also is in the process of compiling attendance figures for its second survey from member schools. During the 2009-10 school year, the NFHS calculated more than 336 million spectators attended high-school regular-season and playoff games in football and girls and boys basketball.
“In terms of an overall downward interest level in attendance at these events nationwide, I certainly haven’t heard or have any data to support that theory,” said Bruce Howard, NFHS director of publications and communications. “Within a given state within a given year, it can be up and down. The two primary things are weather and where the event is in relation to who’s in the tournament. But beyond those things which you can’t control, there’s still a high level interest in attending those state high school events.”