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John Blanchette: Playing at state never a birthright

To all of the bellyachers in a dither about the shrinking of Washington’s high school basketball tournaments from 16 teams to eight: stop it.

Really. Just stop.

Or explain to me why one in four high schools deserves to play at state, as has been the case with the 16-team events. How does one-in-four in any way suggest exclusivity earned through performance? Why, if we are ultimately going to decide a champion anyway, are so many teams somehow owed this preliminary reward? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge true excellence and insist on contriving more?

While you’re at it, explain to me why a school really needs to recognize 23 valedictorians, or why an all-league baseball team needs to include 19 players. But let’s do that another time.

In the meantime, to the stewards of the prep sports at the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association: please dispense with the semantic samba and call the revamped hoop carnivals what they are: eight-team state tournaments. No stigma or shame will attach to those fine teams that are eliminated one step before the gatherings in Spokane, Tacoma and Yakima. What you’re doing is either the necessary thing to do or it isn’t, and no amount of public relations shading will change that.

We are about six weeks out from the WIAA settling on a qualification format for its grand experiment in less-is-more tournament basketball, and no one seems any happier now than when the motion passed in April.

Traditionalists remain outraged. Bleeding hearts bemoan the halving of “opportunity,” to say nothing of the elimination of two baubles that could go in someone’s trophy case. Coaches sniff that they were shut out of the process.

WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese took questions on on Monday in hopes of dispelling some of the misconceptions, the biggest among them being declining revenues at the State 4A and 3A tournaments – specifically in the consolation rounds – was the sole impetus behind shrinking all the tournaments.

“If that was the only thing broken,” he said, “why didn’t we just fix the 3A and 4A? Because, in fact, we saw (revenue losses) creeping into the small classification tournaments as well and the board said, ‘We can’t keep waiting.’ ”

So they acted: voting to play the opening round of all tournaments at regional sites (which they insist on calling “state”) and doubling up the eight surviving teams at three sites – 4As and 3As in Tacoma, 2As and 1As in Yakima and both Bs in Spokane.

Now, just how much impact will there be on the bottom line?

“I think it’s too early to tell,” Colbrese said. “We know we’ll be cutting half our overhead with venues, though we’ll also incur some overhead because of the local sites. But we think they will be more cost-effective and more people will go because they will be closer.

“But the venue overhead is the killer. We can’t get these facilities to cut costs. I’m looking at a situation with the Tacoma Dome wanting us to increase what we have to pay to play football there – I mean a 50-60 percent increase. So that’s going to be another tough decision the board will have to make.”

Colbrese acknowledged that the tournament revenue decline essentially dovetailed with the misbegotten – my word, not his – WIAA vote four years ago to add a sixth classification (splitting the Bs) after a previous expansion as recently as 1998. The rationale was to arrive at a more equitable distribution of teams and enrollments within a classification (each has roughly 64 schools), and much was trumpeted about smaller schools getting long-denied state opportunities. So B school state berths zoomed to 32 under the split; now the number of teams at the final state site will go back to 16.

Gee, maybe someone should have surmised that watering down the product might impact spectator appeal.

Dropping classifications hasn’t gained any purchase within the WIAA’s general assembly, nor has the notion that all classes needn’t have similar numbers – the only thing that might ever lead to bigger tournaments returning.

So if it remains 64 in each classification, then eight to state is enough.

In any case, Colbrese admitted luring spectators to high school events involves more than formats.

“We need to do more than just throw out some games,” he said. “We need to maybe let kids be a little more open in support of their teams at tournaments. We need to have some ancillary activities during state. We need to create a different feel and this is just one of the things the board directed to come out. Let’s have a little more fun at state.”

Apparently, there is more to fun than simply “the more the merrier.” Of course, that’s often the case when it’s legislated to the extreme.

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