By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
And so the chasm that has separated public from non-public high school athletics grew even deeper on Jan. 25 when a majority of nearly 400 principals voted to allow select schools to take charge of their championship playoff games in four sports.
On the surface, allowing Catholic, private and some magnet schools to run all aspects of their playoffs in the sports of football, basketball, baseball and softball may be considered a step forward in mending the rift between public and non-public schools, which has caused the two sides to hold separate championship playoffs since 2013.
As a result, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which governs prep sports in this state, had to increase the number of playoff games to accommodate 10 non-select (public school) and eight select (non-public school) finalists. Since that year, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has been the site of nine championship football games, held over a three-day span at the rental fee of about $580,000.
Now select schools will run their own playoffs with some help from the LHSAA, but the higher seeds among the four select division finalists will be responsible for finding a stadium or arena to accommodate an adequate number of spectators. In addition, the higher seed is responsible for paying the officials assigned by the LHSAA, as well as emergency services, security and stadium rental fees, unless the two finalists agree to share expenses.
Michael Boyer, author of the proposal and principal of Teurlings Catholic in Lafayette, was able to convince his non-select cohorts to pass his proposals that affect the four sports.
And so, the question is, will this become the treasure trove of revenue the select schools think it will by splitting the gate after the LHSAA takes its 10 percent, compared to the paltry money the schools make by playing in the Superdome?
Physics teaches for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The LHSAA staff is pondering these questions: How does this move affect the association’s main sponsors, and how will they react?
The initial response from Jeff Hundley, the new chief operating officer for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, is, “While the news of the LHSAA split did catch us by surprise, we always knew it was a possibility.
“At this point, we have no official position on the matter, as we’re still gathering information on what shape the future of high school championships in Louisiana will take.”
Hundley, whose organization is the title sponsor for all 28 LHSAA championship sports to the tune of about $1 million per year, added that the Allstate Sugar Bowl has a commitment to finishing the 2018-19 academic calendar on a high note for the benefit of the student-athletes.
Marketing questions abound
The breakaway by the selects also opened the door to questions by the LHSAA marketing department.
The association presents academic plaques to the senior athletes who maintain a perfect 4.0 grade-point average during their four-year high school careers. The awards are presented at the site of the championship games in all classes and divisions.
How will the LHSAA continue to do so when the sites are scattered throughout the state on different weekends instead of at one location?
Sponsors, such as Romapics, the official photographers of the LHSAA, and Talkin’ T-Shirts, the concessionaire for shirts and caps for all championship events, are wondering how they can continue to accommodate the LHSAA at five different championship sites.
These sponsors pay the LHSAA five figures for the right of exclusivity.
How will Coca-Cola react if it’s in conflict with an arena that has a contract to pour Pepsi? And how will Wendy’s and the New Orleans Saints see this structural change?
The Prep Classic and other championship sports are televised events. It is doubtful that television can accommodate games played at four locations on the same night or weekend.
And that’s revenue lost for the LHSAA and network.
A history of playoffs
Before the Superdome became the home stadium for state championship football games in 1983, the title games were played at either college or on-campus stadiums, depending on the seating capacity.
At one time, the two competing schools bid for the right to host the championship game.
By virtue of a coin toss, the 1921 Class A title game between Warren Easton and Minden was played at Heineman Park (on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton avenues).
Minden had 24 supporters travel to New Orleans by train. The balance of the 9,000 capacity was filled by Easton rooters.
In 1928, Warren Easton met Homer at the neutral site of Bolton High in Alexandria. Only 4,000 spectators, half the stadium’s capacity, passed through the turnstiles, and because of travel expenses, both schools lost money.
The LHSAA was an all-public school organization until 1929. Two years later, Jesuit became the first Catholic school to play for a state title.
The game, played at Tulane Stadium and won by Byrd, 14-7, drew just 5,000 bodies. The Jesuit-Easton game for the City Championship a week earlier, attracted 13,000.
During Easton’s near-perfect season of 1936, the Eagles met and lost to Haynesville, 7-0, in Tulane’s newly expanded stadium.
The crowd of 12,000 paled in comparison to the 33,000 Easton drew when it met Jesuit two weeks earlier. But the significance was that Haynesville’s win denied the Eagles a perfect 11-game season of shutouts.
Out with the old venues
Now that the select schools can control their own destiny, old venues will give way to new beginning with the 2019-20 school year.
Select schools will no longer have to travel to two Sulphur facilities, Frasch Park, which has hosted the “Fast Pitch 56” State Softball Tournament for two decades, and McMurry Park, the site of the Allstate Sugar Bowl State Baseball Tournament championships.
Last year, Dominican won its first game of the state girls’ basketball tournament on Feb. 22. The team didn’t play again until March 1.
Ursuline, St. Katharine Drexel Prep and St. Mary’s teams had to sit idle in Alexandria for three days between the division semifinals and championship games at their own expense. The new format will afford them shorter waiting periods and less time away from school.
The Prep Classic set an attendance record of 61,900 in 1999. The five games matched West Monroe vs. Evangel (5A), Curtis vs. Capitol (4A), Amite vs. Edna Karr (3A), Iota vs. Port Barré (2) and Kentwood vs. Oak Grove (1A).
The LHSAA says the move will not cause the association to lose sponsorships. But the five Class championships played in the Dome may be hard-pressed to rival the attendance four divisions of select schools will draw if they pick the right venues. There is more parental, student and alumni support for these schools across the board.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.