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Proposed change to tournament structure starts a debate on S.D. ‘March Madness’

Proposed change to tournament structure starts a debate on S.D. ‘March Madness’

Wayne Carney knew there would be controversy when the staff of the South Dakota High School Activities Association brought a proposal to its board to bring all volleyball, wrestling and basketball tournaments to the new, yet-to-be-named Sioux Falls events center, instead of spread among a half-dozen or so sites across the state.

“It’s going to take a lot of thinking outside the box and not doing business as usual, or how it’s been done in the past,” Carney, executive director of the SDHSAA, was quoted as saying in a Jan. 26 article in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “This will raise some eyebrows, but that’s OK. Change doesn’t come easily.”

Carney received more than raised eyebrows at a SDHSAA meeting on March 19, when the board heard nearly two hours of impassioned testimony from community leaders from around the state. No one who voiced an opinion at the meeting was in support of the proposal (representatives from Sioux Falls were in the audience, but they chose not to speak), and when the board members spoke after hearing from community members, it was clear they did not support the plan as proposed either.

The SDHSAA board directed its staff to pursue a modified plan: Volleyball would continue with three separate sites as well as a combined site on a rotational basis, and wrestling would continue at separate sites but with discussion of a combined tournament in the future. Basketball received a different direction: The SDHSAA staff was to survey member schools about their thoughts on having three weekends of basketball with the AA tournament being combined, likely in Sioux Falls. In the following days, that direction to do a survey was postponed pending further discussion, but the staff is still putting together a sketch of what a combined AA tournament would look like.

Even with this direction specifically for AA tournaments, Carney said in an interview with Dakotafire that combined tournaments for A and B divisions are still in discussion as well.

“With the new facility becoming available in three years, I think we have to … lay out as many options to our board as we think are feasible, and our board is going to have to decide, ‘We like this, we like that’—whatever the case may be,” Carney said, adding that nothing will be decided for certain until September, and no changes would happen until 2015.

The whole discussion brought some pushback from leaders in Sioux Falls, resulting in a story in the Sioux Falls Business Journal (a publication of the Argus Leader)  titled “Sioux Falls’ image problem: Outstate areas say city doesn’t need any more economic help” and an Argus Leader editorial that asked in the headline “Should tourneys be in Sioux Falls?” and answered with a clear “yes”: “We need to stop looking at this from the angle that if Sioux Falls wins, everyone else loses.”

Of course, that’s not any easy point to make to the communities such as Aberdeen, Watertown and Huron that stand to lose between $200,000 and $500,000 in economic impact per tournament. Even if some money does filter back to “outstate” member schools, as the Argus Leader editorial argues, the communities that lose tournaments will clearly suffer financial loss.

While it’s clear that money is fueling the fire on all sides of the debate, no one—not even the potentially losing economic development directors—seems eager to make this a financial tug-of-war. Both sides of the debate say they are seeking a higher purpose: Carney says combined tournaments would be in the best interest of the SDSHAA’s member schools, and economic development personnel say rotating tournaments are in the best interest of students and fans.


Money to serve the mission

Carney put forward the recommendation to consolidate tournaments into one location based on a number of factors, he said at the March 19 meeting.

“As I look at the demographics, the financials, easy access to families and schools and those who want to attend, the one place I come back to is Sioux Falls,” he was quoted as saying in the Sioux Falls Business Journal story.

The fact that many of the schools that have made it to tournaments in recent years are near Sioux Falls is part of the equation, as are the population that Sioux Falls can draw on for attendance.

But the financials are a determining factor. The SDHSAA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be profitable, and those profits help it further its responsibility to serve member schools, Carney said in an interview with Dakotafire.

Seventy percent of the SDHSAA’s revenue comes from ticket sales from state, regional and district tournaments, so the association works to make those as profitable as possible. Unfortunately, most of the factors that determine profitability are not things that the SDHSAA can control: The most financially successful tournaments result when a team with an undefeated (or nearly so) record makes it to the tournament, when the top-seeded teams advance, and when the weather makes for great travel for fans.

Since the SDHAA can’t control these factors, Carney said they look to other factors they can control, such as making the tournaments as efficient as possible—and which locations would be the most profitable.

The opening of the Sioux Falls events center in 2015 presents an opportunity for the SDHSAA, Carney explained. When the Rushmore Plaza opened in Rapid City or the Barnett Center opened in Aberdeen, the SDHSAA had similar discussions.

“How can we utilize that facility, if at all?” Carney asked. “We need to at least have that discussion, and that’s why it was on the agenda.”

Many other states have moved to one permanent location for state tournaments, including Wyoming, Minnesota and Iowa. North Dakota, notably, has not, but the minutes of a recent N.D. activities association meeting show that tournament location is a source of much difficulty and discussion there as well.

The proposed change is not a matter of the SDHSAA needing more money to pay its bills. The SDHSAA’s most recent legislative audit from June 2010 showed that it had $2.5 million in net assets, and Carney said its most recent year was a good one financially. And it’s not a question of whether tournaments at current locations are making money, since for the most part, they are (barring the three extenuating circumstances named above). The SDHSAA just sees that the Sioux Falls location has the potential to make more money than other sites: A larger venue is potentially more efficient because more than one game could be held at one time, and more fans can attend.

The money that the SDHSAA makes helps further its mission in two ways. First, the money it charges for ticketed events (such as basketball and wrestling) supports the events for which it does not charge for admittance (such as one-act play, debate and tennis). Second, SDHSAA profits offset the money that the SDHSAA would normally charge to schools. In the most recent year, for example, the SDHSAA was able to waive $240,000 in costs to the schools.

The SDHSAA board is elected by and responsible to its member schools, and needs to seek ways it can better serve those schools, Carney said.


A day in the sun

From the viewpoint of economic development groups, the better question is, What tournament structure better serves students and fans?

Peggy Woolridge, executive director at the Huron Chamber & Visitors Bureau, argues that having tournaments in different locations serves the overall purpose of the tournaments better than having them in one place every year.

If the first obligation is to the students, “I have a hard time understanding how moving the tournament to one host city is of benefit compared to moving them around,” Woolridge said. “(Rotating tournament sites) gives an opportunity for the students and fans to see other parts of the state and what other communities have to offer, and I think there is some educational value in that.”

Julie Johnson from Absolutely Aberdeen said that traveling to different parts of the state can help students as they plan for their future in the state.

“They get the opportunity to experience areas where their future may be,” she said, “whether it’s higher ed, or whether it’s unique workplaces around South Dakota some folks might not know about.”

Moreover, they argue that the smaller cities can roll out the red carpet for teams in a way that a larger community, with so much more going on, just can’t do.

When a tournament is going on in Huron, the whole town knows it, Woolridge said. Many parts of town are decorated, and people are in team colors or even in costume.

Local media also get into the spirit: The Aberdeen American News had 20 full pages of State B Tournament coverage, and the event was covered on local television, Johnson said. “We are very blessed to have very positive local media that really help our kids to have their day in the sun.”

Woolridge listed several other benefits for rotating tournament sites: Expenses for families, ranging from hotel rooms to concessions, tend to be less in smaller cities, and it is fairer to make all teams travel sometimes, because otherwise teams from a distance are at a disadvantage in terms of fans that can attend and travel weariness.

She said she understands that a shiny new events center has some appeal—playing there is an educational experience for students. But so is playing where much of the town has turned out to cheer you on.

“I don’t think they get that same feeling when they are in the large host community,” Woolridge said.


What happens next

The SDHSAA staff will likely make reports to the board on its progress in researching potential tournament site options at meetings in April and June. The board won’t make a decision on this until this fall, when it usually meets to discuss tournament sites.

But then the board will have to decide what kind of venue and tournament schedule is best for South Dakota’s own version of March Madness. If current discussions are any indication, they may find the process plenty maddening, even in September.


What do people around the region say?

Here is a collection of quotes from coaches, school officials, fans and others:

“I do not support it. I think the “B” should be in Aberdeen. Aberdeen has a great following for basketball —no matter who is playing. I know some traditions must be broken, but this is not one of them.”Bruce Spindler, Waubay girls basketball coach

“I feel moving all tournaments to SF would not be a good move. The tournaments are supposed to be for the players, and I feel it would take a lot of the excitement away from the players, teams, fans and the towns that are in the tourney. Those cities that currently have been getting a state tourney will lose a lot of revenue by moving them all to SF.”Tom Lee, Waubay boys basketball coach

“Holding all state tournaments in Sioux Falls is a very bad idea. The whole state should be able to showcase their communities and facilities. When state tournaments are held in Aberdeen, the community of Webster benefits due to the traffic stopping at gas stations, restaurants and the grocery store. We also have people stay at our motels.  None of that would be possible if everything was in SF every year.  With the economy the way it is, let’s help the whole state and all communities.” —Chad Hesla, Webster, former assistant coach and avid fan

“I oppose moving all state basketball tournaments to Sioux Falls, because these tournaments bring revenue to the towns they are held in.  I think it should stay spread out across the state.  It would be absolutely crazy if all basketball tournaments would be held in one city.”Larissa Hansmeier, Webster area girls basketball head coach

“I am replying strictly as a basketball fan—I’d love to be able to watch all the state title games in one place.”Bill Sawinsky, Webster

“I really don’t know enough about the exact details to really have an opinion one way or the other. I know our girls have been to three state tournaments in a row, at Aberdeen, at Watertown and at Spearfish and we were treated wonderfully because the people in these communities were really glad to see us. Next year the state tournament is in Watertown, and if we are fortunate enough to qualify, the location is nice for our team and fans, being only 30 miles away. Spearfish hospitality really made us feel special this year!” —Wade Stobbs, Clark-Willow Lake girls basketball coach

“I think it is a great idea. The SDHSAA isn’t about promoting communities, they’re about benefiting kids. I would like to see us (SD) go back to a two-class system, with the best teams represented at the state tourney. I really like this idea because if we give it a try, players and fans would have the best of it.” —Jerome Nesheim, Clark-Willow Lake boys basketball coach

“I don’t know why they are talking about making a change if they are putting the student-athlete first.  It would be different if they were losing money and had to do something, but I think it’s a classic case of ‘If it’s not broke, why fix it?’  If they are really thinking about the experience for the student-athlete I don’t see a reason to change. In Minnesota and Iowa they hold the tournament in one place, but if you lose the first game you go home.  For us it’s a big deal to go for all three days.” — Monte Nipp, Langford superintendent

“I like the atmosphere of the B’s in Aberdeen.  They really do an outstanding job of hosting and make it the main event in town for the weekend.  It’s a great atmosphere.  I’m not sure it would be like that if it were moved to Sioux Falls.”Paul Raasch, Langford basketball coach

“I enjoy being able to attend the B tournament in Aberdeen, but it would be nice to attend all three tournaments in one location. It may take away a little from each class being the center of attention for that one location.” Greg Kjellsen, Groton head boys basketball coach

“For volleyball, it would be good to have all the classes together. That is the way that South Dakota has done it for years until recently.  I think having all the classes under the same roof makes a great state tournament to compete in and watch! Keeping it all in Sioux Falls every year is probably not the best move if there are other facilities in the state that can accommodate it.”    —Aaron Helvig, Groton head volleyball coach

“I think it’s got some advantages and disadvantages.  As a fan of basketball, people would have an opportunity to attend different classes of basketball during those three days.  On the other hand I think it will take away the glamour of having tournaments in other cities—for example, I feel the class B schools and players lose some of the glamour being around the bigger schools. Aberdeen, Huron, Watertown, Mitchell all have done excellent jobs hosting tournaments and they continue to improve their cities for the state tournaments.”  —Shaun Wanner, Groton head girls basketball coach

“I like the way they are now.  Spread the wealth to all towns.”  —Joel Guthmiller, Groton assistant volleyball and basketball coach

“I cannot support centralized state tournaments.  For years, the SDHSAA Board of Directors has fought for regional representation in the selection of state tournament teams.  It makes little sense, then, to locate all of our tournaments in one corner of the state.  The economic damage this could cause to the cities that might lose an opportunity to host a state tournament might be devastating.
Part of the logic behind the supporters of a centralized tournament is data showing that when Sioux Falls hosts a tournament, the profit margins are the highest.  That data, however, doesn’t show results of a centralized basketball tournament.  I question whether the profit margin data would hold true and steady in a centralized tournament format. The biggest argument that I would have against this particular proposal would be the lost opportunities for students to gain the recognition appropriate for their accomplishments, which couldn’t happen to an equal extent with a centralized tournament.” —Joe Schwan, Groton High School principal

 “I am not in favor of all the state tournaments being held in Sioux Falls. While cost and convenience may be factors, the decision should focus around what is in the best interest of the students.  Small cities such as Aberdeen provide a great atmosphere and thrive when they host a state tournament. It is my opinion that more thought needs to be put into this decision.” —Laura K. Schuster, Groton Area School District superintendent

“I think it is a lot more beneficial to spread the tournaments out amongst the regions of the state. It provides the opportunity to us here in the NE part of the state to watch the tournament atmosphere firsthand if we so choose, and not have to make an entire weekend out of it. I think it is important that the kids have the ability watch State Championships live in-person because it shows them what they are playing for in the future, and why it is such an honor to compete at that level. I think by placing the state tournament solely in Sioux Falls, it would take that opportunity away from two-thirds of the state. I also question how they would get twelve games in a day with basketball. I know this may be personally biased, but I think Aberdeen and Northern have teamed up to do a very good job as a host over the years. As long as space (hotel and arena seating) are sufficient, the tournaments should be divied up amongst the regions of the state to provide the opportunity for everyone to take in a session or two, and not make a big financial investment out of it.” — Kaleb Bowman, Groton assistant boys basketball coach

“I’m pretty neutral on the subject. I think Pierre should get on board with the proposal and build an accommodating facility to house all the athletic events. I know there are other states around us that have all their state events centrally located. My home state was one of such, with all state activities being done in Des Moines. The only reason I like having a non-centralized site is that it is fun for the kids to travel to different places and experience other areas. They look forward to taking the trip to state.”  —Chris Kucker, Groton head wrestling coach

“I think the tournaments should be shared around various cities in South Dakota as they have been in the past. Even though it is the largest city in the State, Sioux Falls becomes very crowded and busy with just one event being held there at a time. I can’t imagine how it would function with all three basketball tournaments held there at the same time!Dorene Nelson, president of the Groton School Board

 “The fact is most of the population in South Dakota is in the Eastern half of the state. West River won’t like it.  Extended contracts with hotels and facilities are much cheaper than contracts signed a year or two in advance, even if the hotels and facilities are ‘guaranteed.’” —Rob Moorlach, Groton

Oppose.Share the revenue with other cities and give people a variety of places to go for the tournaments.”Pete Hoschied, Groton businessman and volunteer coach

Oppose. We need to spread the business/money the tournaments bring around the state.” Suzy McNamara, Groton Wells Fargo employee) –

“I oppose moving the tournaments to a central location. Sioux Falls would be a zoo if they tried to host three major tournaments at once. It is important for the economies of those cities that host the tournaments.  It is also a good opportunity for families to travel the state to visit a town they might not get to very often.” — Cara Dennert, Groton Area Elementary teacher

“I have mixed feelings about moving all the tournaments to Sioux Falls. Positives: All tournaments at one site would be great for casual fans who want to see more than one tournament. Negatives: 1. It may take a little of the prestige away from each class. When only one class is held at a site, they are pretty much the main attraction. 2. When Aberdeen hosts the B tournament, it is very convenient to be able to drive in for an evening to watch the games.” — Greg Kjellsen, Groton Area High School teacher and coach

I don’t care how nice Sioux Falls facilities are, the rest of the state deserves to show case what they have to offer as well. If all three classes were in SF for the state finals in basketball can you imagine the traffic and the room situation? Spread them around and let people of South Dakota enjoy the different flavors that exist in the state.” — Tom Mahan, Groton car dealership owner

“I do not support one location for ALL basketball tournaments. Other cities that can handle the lodging, etc., should be given an equal opportunity to host these events.”  — Connie Stauch, Groton Area Schools business secretary

Oppose. “One town should not get to make all the money.”Roy Olson, Groton mayor, and his wife, Deb

 Oppose.Chuck Raap, Groton retired car dealer

“I strongly oppose the idea of moving all of the state tournaments to Sioux Falls. What is wrong with them? Don’t they realize they will not draw some of the people from here whatever happens?  Sioux Falls is hurting themselves with this publicity.”  — LaVonne Helmer, retired teacher

“I think it should move around. All the others towns deserve the extra income. Why should Sioux Falls be the only town that benefits financially?”Wynella Abeln, Groton business person

“I can see a pro both ways. If you had someone you wanted to watch in different classes it would be nice to have them all in Sioux Falls, but until the new event center is built there wouldn’t be enough room.  On the other hand it’s nice that other communities can cash in on having games too — people spend a lot of money with food/lodging/shopping.” —Jeff & LuAnn Steen, Groton residents, parents of athletes


Some comments that were made anonymously:

  • “The idea stinks.”
  • “I think it is a poor idea: Everyone in the state helps pay for extracurricular activities through their taxes, and the revenue derived through tournaments should be spread around, too.”
  • “I can understand why other larger towns would like to keep the tournament site alternating. It is a huge boost to their local economy. On a personal level, due to our home town, Sioux Falls is easier to get to and so I would like that too.”
  • “Not fair for other towns who want to host it. Why should Sioux Falls get all the money?”


What do you think?

Would consolidating state tournaments in the new Sioux Falls events center be good or bad for students and fans? Comment below!


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