CHAMPAIGN — They have another two-and-a-half months to fine-tune the details, but plans are well underway to try to lure the boys’ state high school basketball tournament back to town in 2021.
Last week, a group of community stakeholders met at Memorial Stadium’s Colonnades Club to build support for a bid that’s due to the Illinois High School Association by Jan. 10.
“It was a kickoff to find financial support for the bid,” said Jayne DeLuce, president and CEO of Visit Champaign County, which is organizing the effort with the University of Illinois athletics department.
The IHSA is due to decide in March which communities will host the 2021, ’22 and ’23 tournaments, which will have a new, condensed format — one weekend for girls’ finals and one weekend for boys'.
Peoria hopes to continue hosting the boys' tournament it has had since 1996. Before that, Champaign-Urbana had it from 1919 to 1995.
"As host city for the past 25 years with a proven track record of success, Peoria does intend to bid on the IHSA basketball tournament," said JD Dalfonso, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
C-U isn’t planning to bid for the girls’ state tournament, which was held at what is now State Farm Center from 1978-91 and is now hosted in Normal.
“Currently, the major focus is on boys’ basketball,” DeLuce said.
Planning for the bid has “been going on for a while,” she said. “I would say we’re midway into it, finalizing the details.”
Inside look: State Farm Center
Ahead of Thursday's media tour of renovated State Farm Center, The News-Gazette toured the home of Illinois basketball on Oct. 5 for a photo spread that will run in our upcoming IlliniHQ College Basketball Yearbook. From the Orange Krush Club to the Mannie Jackson Hall of Fame to the giant videoboard at center court, plenty has changed since the public last got a look inside.
She declined to share details, so as to remain competitive with Peoria’s bid, but said the local proposal would take advantage of the renovated State Farm Center.
When C-U last bid for the tournament in 2015, State Farm Center was still under construction.
“Most ideas now specific to fan experience are conceptual at this point,” DeLuce said. “What we can talk about is utilizing the enhanced amenities at the renovated State Farm Center that we didn’t have five years ago.”
Those include new restrooms, concessions, meeting spaces and hospitality areas.
“It’s so much better than it used to be,” DeLuce said.
At last week’s luncheon, speakers included DeLuce, UI athletic director Josh Whitman, men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood and Illinois Mr. Basketball-turned-Illini star Deon Thomas.
Thomas spoke about seeing Champaign for the first time when Chicago Simeon made it to state and how that experience helped lead him to picking Lou Henson’s program.
“You can never underestimate what impact that has on a player,” DeLuce said.
During an appearance on Monday night’s News-Gazette Media “SportsTalk” at the Esquire, Underwood said that luring the tournament back to C-U would have a “tremendous economic impact.”
“We’re the feature university in this state,” said Underwood, who referenced Thomas’ story. “He knew as soon as he drove down the tunnel, and walked through there, this is where he wanted to be.”
Underwood said the tournament would “not just impact the men’s basketball program; it impacts future students, and they grow up wanting to be part of that orange and blue.”
Marlin: Count Urbana in
Local mayors also attended last week’s luncheon, with Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin sharing her own Deon Thomas moment upon seeing the Illini basketball arena for the first time.
“I didn’t come as a basketball player; I came as a freshman to the state science fair,” said Marlin, who grew up in LaSalle County and attended the UI.
Her project on memory and perception received a first-place prize, Marlin said.
“Coming from a small town, I had never seen anything like that in my life. That’s how I got introduced to campus,” she said. “Having students come down to see the campus and the community is just a wonderful opportunity to recruit potential students.”
Unlike in 2015, when Urbana initially balked at contributing to the financial effort to lure the finals back, Marlin said the city will happily pitch in on the bid this time around.
“I led the effort to get us on board for $5,000,” said Marlin, who at the time was a member of Urbana’s city council. “That’s probably what we’ll start out with this year.”
An Urbana staffer is also serving on the fan experience committee, one of three that will help organize the local bid. Other committees are devoted to facility operations and finances/advocacy, DeLuce said.
The fan experience committee met at last week’s luncheon, which DeLuce said was called to invite “both private and public partners to pledge their support.”
$750,000 bid last time
In 2015, C-U put together a $750,000 bid, with $510,000 pledged from donors and private entities and $240,000 coming from local communities.
In addition to the $5,000 a year from Urbana, Champaign pledged $30,000 annually.
Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said she supports this bid effort, as well, but doesn’t know how much the city might contribute.
“We haven’t had an ask yet,” she said. “In the past, we have contributed financially, been on committees supporting it and also getting the word out to the public about it.
“I would assume we would do those same kinds of things,” Feinen said, adding that it would be up to the city council to approve.
Like Urbana, Champaign also has staffers serving on the bid committees, city spokesman Jeff Hamilton said.
Feinen, who attended Centennial High School, remembered fondly when the Chargers made it to the state tournament in 1984.
“It’s a big deal for high school players to play where the Fighting Illini play,” she said.
Hotels will play part
While the bid deadline is fast approaching, DeLuce said, businesses and individuals who want to get involved are still welcome to.
“We invite anyone to get involved, and it can be at whatever level,” she said.
In the last bid, local hotels agreed to provide the IHSA with at least 410 rooms at discounted rates and rate limits for spectators, welcome bags and snacks for guests and no minimum stay requirement.
When Champaign lost the tournament in the mid-1990s, retired hotelier Peter Tomaras said there was the “perception that hotels were taking advantage” of high schools.
“I never believed that was the key reason, but certainly today with Jayne DeLuce and Visit Champaign County, we have an organization that knows how to service that type of thing,” Tomaras said.