Is it time to tweak the boys' state basketball tournament?

Chris Cuellar

The Iowa High School Athletic Association is open to ideas.

Sure, the Boone office is dedicated to tradition, but it can’t ignore declining attendance and stagnant interest in its boys’ state basketball tournament.

That’s why associate director Brett Nanninga took an informal meeting last spring with three well-respected coaches that will be represented this week at Wells Fargo Arena. MOC-Floyd Valley’s Loren DeJong, South O’Brien’s Kiley Yates and Western Christian of Hull’s Jim Eekhoff — a trio combining for 28 state appearances by Tuesday afternoon — drove down with a pitch to tweak the tournament they love.

“If you tell fans from the corners of the state that they can see their team in Des Moines play at least two games on back-to-back days, their chance of coming down increases dramatically,” DeJong said. “They might just make a weekend of it.”

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The fix: tighten up the six-day, 12-session, $10 per ticket event with a three-day tournament taking place around Des Moines. The four classes could play “The Well,” at Drake’s Knapp Center, or at any of the nice, new high schools with space — Waukee and Southeast Polk were brought up — with the intention of revitalizing a state tournament selling around 25,000 fewer tickets than it did 15 years ago.

“My opinion is that it’s a long week,” Nanninga said. “It’s a marathon. And I think it really wears on teams and school communities, especially if they’re making multiple trips.”

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The event’s 2016 edition is still set: 32 teams tip off starting Monday morning with four champions named by Saturday night.

The northwest Iowa contingent isn’t married to its proposal. But it is confident that conversation to change the tournament is statewide.

“I don’t know how many people can stay in Des Moines for a six-day state tournament experience,” Yates said. “The retired and the unemployed are the only people who can stay that long.

“It’s a wonderful tournament. But there needs to be a discussion about what more we can do.”


IHSAA history cites state basketball as its “gold standard” tournament that used to pay for the organization’s non-revenue sports and operations.

Paid attendance for the tournament played at Veterans Memorial Auditorium was virtually even from its first year to its last: 1968 had an eight-session gate of 71,131, and the farewell in 2005 had a 12-session mark of 72,622. Fans peaked in “The Barn” in 1977 and 1994, topping 95,000.

“I started going to games at Vets when I was 7 or 8 years old, so it’s special to me,” Iowa City West coach Steve Bergman said. “But I’ve come around. I think Wells Fargo is really nice and the locker rooms are so much better and I think it’s nicer for the fans. But it’s a bigger place, so it looks emptier sometimes, even when it’s not.”

Bergman can take a long view of the tournament because he’s won titles in both gyms; two at Veterans (1998, 2000), and three across the street at Wells Fargo Arena (2012-14). The schedule has shifted in his time too, going from four to five to six days.

He’s seen the highs, like Harrison Barnes, Doug McDermott and unbeaten Ames drawing a record 12,547 fans to the Saturday night session in 2010. And the lows, like quarterfinal exits and tough timeslots for fan support.

“It used to be people went to Des Moines and they just stayed,” Bergman said.

“There’s some merit to the three-day tournament idea. And it might benefit the city of Des Moines. You’d sell more hotel rooms and people would eat at restaurants. I don’t know if that would cause attendance to go up, but it’s not going to get any worse I wouldn’t think.”

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Last year marked the first fan uptick since 2009, with 56,660 paid attendees, 1,649 more than in 2014. But compare that to 82,543 in 2000 or even 70,200 in 2011? Or wrestling’s sold-out six-session extravaganza? The black curtain commonly used to cover Wells Fargo Arena’s upper tier could drop even lower by mid-March.

“The reality is, and we don’t have to like it, that there are so many more things to do than there used to be 20 years ago,” Nanninga said. “It may not be that basketball is top on the list. You throw in live streaming and TV and that affects attendance in some way, shape or form.

“A lot of schools are going to spring break, too. You can’t impose the state tournament on them.”

With the vantage point of a state tournament player and coach, West Des Moines Valley’s B.J. Windhorst feels like expense over the extent of the tournament is part of the problem.

“It’s 10 bucks a pop and not everybody coming down is willing to stay for three or four games,” Windhorst said.

“When I came as a player with Clarinda (in 1991), we lost and stayed up there to watch games the rest of the week. Almost nobody does that anymore. Nobody can afford to do that anymore.”

Travel overtaking the experience helped lead Yates to exploring his options. The drive from Paullina to Des Moines — where quarterfinal opponent Grand View Christian is based — is over 400 miles round-trip for the 2 p.m. game.

“We lost to Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto at 2 p.m. last year and we were home that night and never returned,” Yates said. “While it was an incredible experience, it sure didn’t feel like a state tournament experience.”

The meeting suggested fans would make one extended visit to Des Moines: quarterfinals on Thursday, semifinals on Friday and championships on Saturday.

The faithful fans even further northwest than South O’Brien know that struggle. MOC-Floyd Valley has made seven state tournament trips since 2005.

“If you’ve got to travel anything more than a couple hours, a lot of fans go, ‘Oh, we’ll skip the first-round game and hope they win,’ ” DeJong said.

“I’ve coached in three state championships and lost three times in the first round. When you lose early, it’s like you didn’t have a state tournament at all. It’s just over, like a cold hard slap in the face.”

Although the Dutchmen may be part of the greatest gripe of the tournament process, too. A quarterfinal matchup with two-time defending champion Dubuque Wahlert raised eyebrows when brackets were released last week.

Seeding and IHSAA bracket creation has long been a contentious point, but coaches say Nanninga has asked them to share their thoughts and present options for the future.

“We talked about a few ideas at our (Mississippi Valley Conference) meeting and we’re trying to accumulate some information and proposals when the season is over,” Bergman said.


The most recent pitch for changing the tournament’s “pretty boring” format came straight from the top.

Now-retired IHSAA executive director Rick Wulkow tossed around a final four idea in May 2013, with statewide “super regional” games taking the place of Des Moines’ quarterfinals.

“I just don’t feel a tournament atmosphere when we start our tournament,” Wulkow told the Register then. “I think it’s gotten pretty flat. I’m just trying to let people know that we’ve got to get a buzz going out there and we’ve got to put some life into that sport.”

The public brainstorming created a conversation. But while it circulated the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association, advisory committee and representative councils, the idea of playing the round of eight outside Wells Fargo Arena ultimately fell flat.

“People don’t like the idea of playing somewhere other than Wells Fargo,” said Nanninga, who became the IHSAA’s basketball administrator after Wulkow’s retirement in January 2015.

“There are venues around the state that are pretty darn nice. We’ve played in some this season, but those were for district finals or substate finals. It hit the wall when people started to realize that means they wouldn’t be able to play in Des Moines. That’s a tough one.”

Whatever adjustment is tossed around after this tournament, contracts will keep it at Wells Fargo Arena. That’s fine for local programs and first-time visitors, who have enjoyed the space and big-time atmosphere of the 15,500-seat downtown spot.

“Vets put that high school crowd right on the floor, so the setup was different,” said Courtney Henderson, Des Moines Hoover coach and former state tournament player at Waterloo East.

“But I like the Well, honestly. It gives kids, especially those going on to play at the next level, an arena feel. And we’ve had decent crowds.

“For the most part it’s been a great experience. It helps if you win that first game.”

An adjustment in tournament scheduling or seeding would have to go through the advisory committee and board of control after the season. The trio of northwest Iowa coaches — representing the three smaller classes — were assisted by former Sioux City Heelan coach Tom Betz with their meeting pitch, not the IBCA.

“We’d be happy to go to the IBCA to make a proposal,” DeJong said. “But one way or another they have to do something. A three-day tournament isn’t etched in stone, they could make it four, I don’t care. But something has to change.”

Nanninga has proven receptive in his two years at the IHSAA, but the tournament won’t change for change’s sake. Numbers are down at all sites — total postseason attendance used to be over 300,000 and was 207,830 in 2015 — not just state.

“We’ve got to continue to look at better ways to do things,” he said. “But I think to get there, you’re going to need a lot of buy-in from people. It’s got to be more than one part of the state or one class. It’ll be a shift. That’s the biggest hurdle.”

The IHSAA is intent on protecting tradition. But it will protect its tournament, too.

“I told them, ‘It’s not that you’ve got bad ideas, you’ve got valid ideas,’ ” Nanninga said. “But it’s a matter of, how do we get that buy-in?”

The 2016 boys’ state basketball tournament begins at 10 a.m. in Des Moines with Class 1A quarterfinals.


Just how drastic is the attendance drop? Shown in five-year increments are the paid attendance marks for the boys’ basketball state tournament and the entire postseason, from first-round district games to substate to Des Moines.


2000: 82,543

2005: 72,622

2010: 77,715

2015: 56,660


2000: 315,895

2005: 281,594

2010: 244,771

2015: 207,830


Iowa is the only regional state playing tournament games on Mondays, according to data reported by state high school sanctioning bodies. Nebraska and Wisconsin pack games into a three-day window, while Minnesota splits its tournament among Twin Cities sites. Illinois plays its “state series” on two separate weekends. All have reported declining numbers in recent years.

Attendance figures were not readily available from boys’ basketball tournaments in South Dakota and Missouri. South Dakota uses rotating sites across the state for its three classes, while Missouri draws up 16-team brackets in its five classes for a multi-week tournament.

State                    Classes  Days      2014 Att.             City                                      Notes

Iowa                     4             6             55,011                  Des Moines                        Monday to Saturday

Minnesota           4             4             66,094                  Minneapolis                       Four sites

Illinois                  4             6             59,799                  Peoria                                 Two weekends

Wisconsin            5             3             80,502                  Madison                             All finals on Saturdays

Nebraska             6             3             85,119                  Lincoln                                Qualifies “wild card” teams