Changes in high school boys basketball were made on Monday when the Illinois High School Association board of directors voted to move the state tournaments to the State Farm Center in Champaign for the next three years.
The change in venue is set to provide a more central location for basketball fans and boost attendance ratings that had been on the decline at Carver Arena in Peoria. Peoria hosted the state finals tournaments since 1996, ending a 25-year run, while Champaign hosted the tournaments from 1919 to 1995.
The State Farm Center was once known as Assembly Hall to many coaches in the area before changing names in 2013. The large-dome shaped arena seats up to 15,544 fans and has been an operating facility since opening in 1963. At its peak, Assembly Hall would sell out crowds of 16,000 on a regular basis. In the 1995 season, the last year Champaign hosted the event, around 47,726 fans attended the Class A and Class AA tournaments.
Harrisburg’s Randy Smithpeters coached in the 1995 state championship in just his second year with the Bulldogs and is one of the few coaches in the area to have coached at both venues.
“I have always thought the University of Illinois is where the state tournament should be played,” said Smithpeters. “It’s been a great fortune coaching in both places back when it was still Assembly Hall and I think it’s more convenient for Southern Illinoisers to drive up the day of a game if they’d like.”
Many changes have come to Assembly Hall and high school basketball since that 1995 season. The class system has changed and some coaches point to that as a possible reason for the lack in attendance over the years.
Fans can now expect a state-of-the-art facility at the State Farm Center since a $170 million dollar renovation was completed back in 2016. The facility has played host to the IHSA individual wrestling state finals every winter since 1973.
Herrin head coach Sayler Shurtz is excited for the change.
“I thought Peoria played a great host to the tournament but you really saw attendance numbers start to drop when the IHSA changed it from two to four classes,” said Shurtz. “Hosting the state tournament at your main school in Illinois just feels right. I’m hoping it will bring back bigger crowds and provide more excitement for the players.”
The IHSA hasn’t released attendance figures for the state tournament since 2002. The attendance records at games had already begun dipping before that, and after four-class basketball began in 2008, the attendance numbers suffered even more.
Carver Arena also plays host for the Bradley men’s basketball team, and the decision to move venues isn’t a knock on Peoria’s facilities by any means for local coaches. The two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago will likely bring in higher attendance numbers and the drive for Southern Illinoisans has been shaved down to approximately three hours.
Carbondale’s Jim Miller applauds the IHSA for their decision and believes it was the right change.
“In my opinion, Champaign is where the state tournament should be and where it should have always been,” said Miller. “I think the five-hour trip to Peoria was too much for some people and this is a proactive move by the IHSA. I don’t want to disrespect Peoria because what they had going on was fan and family friendly.”
Goreville’s Todd Tripp sees the IHSA’s decision as more motivation for him and his players that had their state finals appearance in Peoria cut due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Tripp made it sound like the move to Champaign had been in the rumor mill for the IHSA for quite some time now. Once coaches began hearing the buzz, they began thinking about what playing on the same court as future NBA stars could mean for student athletes.
“I really liked Peoria and our players had grown accustomed to playing there with two state finals appearances in the last three years, but it also made us realize that people don’t show up to games as often,” said Tripp. “Obviously the bigger Big Ten schools play at State Farm Arena, and I think the players will be more excited about playing there.”
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