CHAMPAIGN — Five years ago, Visit Champaign County President Jayne DeLuce received a disheartening call.
The state boys’ basketball tournament would not be returning to Champaign after 20 years in Peoria, IHSA assistant executive director Matt Troha told her just before the decision would be made public.
“It was very disappointing, to say the least,” DeLuce said. “There were questions where maybe you wished, in hindsight, that maybe we had done some things differently.”
In retrospect, the Champaign bid had plenty working against it. The state tournament left Champaign for Peoria in 1996, giving Carver Arena home-field advantage, and State Farm Center was under construction while it was being pitched as the new site for the tournament.
Champaign’s financial bid also reportedly fell short of Peoria’s.
And for DeLuce, a looming question hung over the bidding process.
“I don’t know, even though they put the bid out, were they really ready to look at moving?” DeLuce said. “I don’t have the scientific data that says, ‘Yes they wanted to move’ or, ‘No, they didn’t, and they were just thinking about it.’”
This time, though, circumstances have changed.
For one, State Farm Center is finished and functional.
“When we did a site visit” five years ago, DeLuce said, “we were in the middle of a dust bowl. We were looking at renderings: ‘This is what it could be.’ While we knew there was some legacy type of space and there would be an Orange Krush type of space, those weren’t even all determined by that point.
“So you’re going, ‘We’re going to have this space and there’s a boiler room here right now.’”
New format, more fans?
The main difference that may cause the IHSA to give more consideration to switching locations, though, is the change to the tournament’s format. In 2021, all four classes will play their semifinal and championship games on the same weekend rather than the current format, where Class 1A and 2A are played the weekend before Class 3A and 4A.
“It’s an interesting dynamic because we’re providing a little twist to the format of the event,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said. “So while, yeah, we’re familiar with how it’s played out in Peoria, heading into next year, things are going to be different, so it sparks our interest, even here, to see if Peoria has provided some insight as to how they see things changing, potentially.
“One of the things that we’d like to see with this modification of a single weekend tournament is that it might rejuvenate (the tournament), and we’ll have more fans.”
The three tournaments that the winning bidder will host will be held March 11-13, 2021; March 10-12, 2022; and March 9-11, 2023.
DeLuce and UI associate athletic director Jason Lener personally handed Champaign’s bid for the tournament to Anderson on Thursday, a day before Friday’s deadline. And this time, DeLuce is feeling better about Champaign’s chances.
“I felt good about the bid last time,” DeLuce said. “I feel great about the bid today.
“I feel much more about the fact that they want to consider all of the opportunities for where they want to host it.”
Site visits coming up
The finances of the bid are still unknown, and DeLuce was tight-lipped, because she didn’t want to play Champaign’s hand for Peoria to see.
Last time, Champaign’s bid totaled $750,000, comprising $240,000 from local governments and $510,000 from businesses. At the time, Scott Adreon, an IHSA board member and former principal of Maroa-Forsyth, said “There was a significant difference between the bids, both financially and in what they were able to offer.”
Adreon, who is still on the board and is now principal at Dunlap, said at the time that the board had to run the IHSA “like a business.”
While the board will have the final say, they’re not necessarily the biggest influencers in the decision.
Anderson, who wasn’t involved in the process last time, said after visits to the two locations, IHSA staff will likely make a decision that they’ll present to the board.
“We’ll provide a basis for why we’re recommending one venue over another, or others,” Anderson said. “Then, the board will decide on it.”
‘Everybody is all-in’
In 2015, DeLuce said the fundraising effort from the State Farm Center bid was “grassroots.”
While she didn’t get into finances, DeLuce said many more people are involved with the bid this time than in 2015, when she said only “a handful” were.
“Being the one-weekend format, everybody is all-in,” she said. “That’s easier on State Farm Center from a scheduling standpoint, to always reserve one weekend instead of two weekends. It’s easier if we want to bring in outside groups be that might showcase what they do. In general, people are like, ‘Yeah, this is great.’”
The bids are now in, but that doesn’t mean the work is over.
Anderson and members of his staff will plan visits to both Champaign and Peoria. Lener, who co-chaired the bid with DeLuce, wouldn’t give details of what they’d show IHSA officials, but he seems intent on wowing them.
“I think some of the things that, when you walk into the building, are just obvious,” Lener said. “But there’s other components of the building that we will certainly showcase, and there are certain aspects of what the building can do and the technology that the building has that will really be a benefit for us.”
‘Learned our lessons’
Price gouging from area hotels was a popular reason given for the move to Peoria in 1996 after a 77-year run on the UI campus, and after conversations with local hotels, DeLuce is confident that won’t be an issue this time around, when there will be several hundred more rooms available.
In the end, though, she doesn’t think that was the reason for the departure in the first place.
“I think what happened at that point was two things,” she said. “One, the Peoria folks did a good job of putting together a financial package that involved private support that hadn’t really been done in high school or many other sport tournaments, and a lot of things have changed with that in bringing any kind of those tournaments to a community.
“And the other thing is that I think our community got complacent. I think that we took for granted that we had the tournament every year and we never thought that it would leave. And so you’ve got a new entity that comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this for you, and we’re going to do this for you,’ and we lost sight of that.
“We rested on our laurels, and we got a little complacent,” she said. “We’ve learned our lessons, and that won’t happen again.”