Before Marc Allert guided his team to its fifth state championship in program history last week, he had to make sure they got there first.
During the 10-plus hour, 434-mile trip from Post Falls High School to the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa, Allert got off the bus and put chains on when nobody, including the bus driver, knew how.
The chains fell off 20 miles later, but Allert said the important part to remember is his team got there. Allert and the Post Falls girls basketball team beat Eagle a few days later to win the 5A state title.
Call any coach from Bonners Ferry to Bonneville County, and you’re likely to hear a similar story, as teams from across Idaho have made the February and March pilgrimages to the Treasure Valley for the basketball state tournaments for more than 20 years. They will once again be making the long trek as the boys state basketball tournaments get underway Thursday.
“It’s like anything else, someone is always going to complain,” Allert said. “But I think most people realize like we do that we really don’t have a great venue up here to do it in. The alternative is in high school gyms, and that takes away from some of the experience.
“To have an arena like the Idaho Center that can accommodate all the championship games is pretty nice.”
NOT ALWAYS THE CASE
Along with track and field, the girls and boys basketball tournaments don’t rotate to different parts of the state. But this wasn’t always the case.
Previously, the tournament was on a rotation schedule. From 1989-96, north Idaho, the Magic Valley, east Idaho and the Treasure Valley all got a crack at hosting the annual state tournaments.
Sites like Holt Arena in Pocatello, the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, the BSU Pavilion (Taco Bell Arena) in Boise and the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls were all utilized for the events. Every one of these tournaments saw thousands of fans come from miles away with the 1995 state tournaments at Holt Arena being the highest attended in 10 seasons.
Many coaches remember those halcyon days of flooding into high schools around the state.
“I remember those days. It was very successful and very well run,” Idaho Falls High School Athletic Director Kerry Martin said. “It was fun when it rotated around because I think each part of the state has its own unique thing. Now, people over here don’t get to see that very much anymore because it’s always in the same place year after year. Your regular, average fans don’t want to make that long trip every year for something they’ve already seen many times before.”
But in 1997, that all came to a halt. The Ford Idaho Center opened its doors to the public for the first time with a capacity north of 12,000 seats. As a result, the Treasure Valley became the exclusive home of the boys and girls state tournaments. With a bigger venue, attendance for the girls tournament shot up by more than 6,000, while the boys increased by 500.
THE PROBLEM WITH OTHER FACILITIES
On paper, Holt Arena and the Kibbie Dome look like they would be fine alternatives to the Idaho Center.
But a few factors prevent the 12,000-seat Holt Arena and the 13,000-seat Kibbie Dome from being ideal venues for state basketball tournaments, the biggest being they are both homes to college basketball teams. Holt Arena hosts the Idaho State University men’s basketball games, and the Kibbie Dome is home to the University of Idaho’s basketball programs. Holt also hosts the Simplot Games indoor track meet each year, as well as a plethora of other events, like the Big Sky Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships on a rotating basis.
The college basketball season runs from November to March. With the girls basketball state tournament in mid-February and the boys in the first week of March, there is the high potential for overlap.
Since the college programs can’t guarantee they won’t have home games at the same time as the state basketball tournaments, the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA), which runs most of Idaho’s high school state tournaments, can’t rely on those venues on a year-in, year-out basis.
The Ford Idaho Center doesn’t have that problem.
However, with the University of Idaho in the process of constructing a new venue for its college basketball programs — the roughly 4,000-seat Idaho Central Credit Union Arena — that could open up the Kibbie Dome to be back in the mix to host state basketball tournaments.
But one major problem still exists.
While the Kibbie Dome can fit roughly 13,000 people for college football games, it’s more of football venue. In order to host basketball games, the arena has to significantly reconfigure its setup, dropping the seating capacity all the way down to 5,000. The same happens at Holt Arena, which holds 12,000 for football games but gets consolidated to an 8,000-seat venue for basketball games.
Last year’s boys state basketball tournament had an attendance of more than 16,000 from six different venues. The 5A state championship drew nearly 10,000 people alone.
There is also the matter of the other parts of the state not having as many capable high schools to host non-5A tournament first- and second-round games.
While Eastern and Northern Idaho have gyms comparable to those in the Treasure Valley, such as Highland High School in Pocatello and Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, they don’t have as many venues to choose from compared to the Boise metropolitan area.
The Treasure Valley has 12 5A high schools and another eight in the 4A classification. Eastern and northern Idaho have eight 5A and 14 4A high schools combined.
The Treasure Valley schools also benefit from proximity. With the exception of Mountain Home, the greatest commute between any two schools is less than 35 miles.
Of the 5A high schools in east Idaho, Madison High School (Rexburg) and Highland High School are 74 miles away. Up north, it’s even worse, with Lewiston High School and Coeur d’Alene High School separated by almost 116 miles.
Finally, there’s the matter of dealing with booking hotels.
Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise have more than 80 hotels alone. And those are only the ones registered for chamber of commerce memberships.
According to the Idaho State Journal, there are 15 hotels in Pocatello and the surrounding areas. If you want to travel another hour to Idaho Falls, there are 18 hotels, according to the Post Register. Coeur d’Alene has 20 hotels.
“It’s the biggest overall three-day and premiere event we hold in one spot, so really what it all comes down to is logistics,” IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones said. “I get it when people say, ‘It’s always in the Boise area.’ But there’s a reason for it. From a pure facilities standpoint, it’s best over here.
“Could we hold the games in other parts of the state? Sure. But then we are going to be losing a lot of money because we’d have to limit the number of people we let in, which hurts everyone in the long run.”
BUT STILL DOABLE?
While eastern and northern Idaho have missed out on hosting state basketball for more than two decades, they have each hosted a bevy of other state tournaments over the years.
Holt Arena hosted the Idaho State Wrestling Championships last weekend, and does so two out of every three years. According to Holt Arena’s director of events, George Casper, the venue charges the IHSAA $5,000 to rent out the facility for the two-day event.
Officials from the Ford Idaho Center and the IHSAA declined to disclose how much the IHSAA pays for the use of the Ford Idaho Center.
Eastern Idaho is also scheduled to host a number of state baseball and softball games in the spring.
Northern Idaho, meanwhile, hosted state volleyball in the fall, and the spring will see the golf state tournaments come to the area.
In some cases, the high schools that are selected as state basketball tournament sites after submitting a request to the IHSAA to be a host, charge the IHSAA for the use of their gyms. However, according to Jones, in most cases the IHSAA covers the school’s costs of hosting the tournament, while also allowing them to keep 100 percent of the concession sales.
With the IHSAA already having a draft of possible sites through the 2021-22 season and in the middle of a five-year contract with the Ford Idaho Center for its 5A tournament and state championship basketball games, the soonest a possible rotation could occur is likely at least five years away or more.
“If another big arena gets built in the east or up north, that could change things,” Jones said. “But it’s one of those things where we don’t see anything on the horizon that could potentially change anything for us. The Idaho Center is fantastic, and we are thrilled to be working with them.”
UNFAIR ADVANTAGE TO TREASURE VALLEY SCHOOLS?
Boys basketball, in addition to football, has the largest gate revenue of any of the other state tournaments, Jones said. Girls basketball is fifth on the list behind track and field and cheer/dance.
Last year, girls basketball had a gross income of $121,666.50, while boys basketball was double that at $242,626.50. Those numbers are based on general ticket sales and state tournament passes. The money goes to the IHSAA, which pumps it back into more state tournaments.
Volleyball and soccer tournaments, which the eastern and northern parts of the state routinely host, don’t come anywhere near those numbers.
During the 2016-17 season when 5A soccer was up north and 4A/3A soccer was in the east, those tournaments grossed $43,490.65. This fall for state volleyball up north, the gross income was $38,294.50.
“It’s not a big money maker for us,” said Blackfoot Athletic Director and boys basketball coach Cody Shelley. “I mean really for us it comes down to showing off our facilities, because that helps build your program.”
Those numbers are concerning for eastern and northern Idaho schools when considering the IHSAA allows the host school to keep profits from concession sales. With state volleyball getting a fraction of the attendance basketball draws, the schools hosting the state volleyball tournaments bring in far less revenue from concession sales.
According to Columbia High School Athletic Director Randy Potter, the Nampa school made more than $4,000 after hosting the 1A Division I state tournament last season. He said while he doesn’t yet know the final tally of last week’s state tournament, it is expected to be significantly more.
Skyview High School Athletic Airector Eric Bonds said his concession sales doubled this year from when Skyview, also in Nampa, last hosted the 3A state girls basketball tournament in 2015.
“They were pretty good. They were better than they have been in a long time,” Bonds said. “To give you an idea, just by Friday we made as much as the last time we hosted. That’s huge for us because it helps out our booster club quite a bit, and that trickles down into all of our athletic programs. When you don’t have a big athletic budget to begin with, that really helps and makes a real difference for us.”
Not only are the eastern and southern Idaho schools missing out on those revenue gains for their respective schools, they have to fork over a good amount of money to send their own players to the state basketball tournaments every year. Martin, the Idaho Falls athletic director, said between the cost of a bus ride and hotel rooms, it easily costs $6,000 to send just one team to state in the Treasure Valley.
And that cost doubles if both the girls and boys basketball teams qualify for state. Post Falls and Preston sent their boys and girls basketball teams to this years state tournaments, and each has more than 300 miles to travel to get to Boise.
“When it’s always over in Boise, we always have that expense, where those Boise schools don’t,” Martin said. “They have the opportunity to save that money and put it back into their athletic programs, whereas we’re shelling out thousands of dollars every year. That’s money that could buy new uniforms or be used to improved our athletic facilities. The state does provide us reimbursements, but it’s not nearly enough to offset it. It offsets maybe 20 percent, if that.”
But Potter at Columbia High School, which has hosted the 1A Division I state girls tournament for 12 years now, is quick to point out it doesn’t mean that the Treasure Valley schools are immune from paying those types of costs. With state wrestling being in eastern Idaho two out of every three years and with volleyball never being hosted in the Treasure Valley, several local teams have had to shell out just as much for those tournaments.
“I feel their pain, but I don’t want to feel too bad,” Potter said. “It cost us about $6,000 sending all of our wrestlers and coaches to the state wrestling tournament. That’s a big chunk out of the little athletic budget we get. I get where they are coming from, but I’m not sure what other area of the state could host this many games and have it be centrally located, where you don’t have to worry about getting a motel. You don’t have to worry about restaurants being so packed you can’t get in. If I had a vote, I think every state tournament should be here. It’s the best place to have it.”
There is also the issue of perhaps not having enough time to prepare.
Due to the weather, the Post Falls girls basketball team arrived in Boise a couple hours behind schedule. This caused them to miss a scheduled practice the night before the tournament started. The team had to run through its game preparations in a common room of its hotel.
“It’s hard to focus at that point,” Post Falls senior post Melody Kempton said. “It’s the little stuff. You’re not sleeping in your own bed. You’re sharing a hotel bed with one of your other teammates, which is fun, but it’s one of those things that makes you feel not fully prepared. It’s those little things that throw you off and that could make a difference.”
STILL A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE
Despite perhaps being at a slight disadvantage with the long travel and not having as many screaming fans behind them, eastern and northern Idaho teams routinely do well at state.
At last week’s girls state basketball tournaments, no Treasure Valley teams won for the first time since 2009.
For the girls, no 1A Division I or II teams from the Treasure Valley have ever won state titles. There hasn’t been a local 2A winner since 2003 or a 3A winner since 1990, and nine of the last 12 5A winners have come from up north.
On the boys side, there hasn’t been a local 2A winner in six years or a 4A winner since 2009.
“There’s that part of it, too,” Allert, the Post Falls girls basketball coach, said. “Playing in the Idaho Center is a great experience. Staying in hotel rooms, going out to restaurants and of course playing the game you love is a bonding experience unlike any other. It’s that last end-of-the-year trip.”
It’s an experience that the Treasure Valley teams miss out on. The farthest any local player gets to travel with their teammates is maybe 15 miles.
Nampa Christian boys basketball coach Randy Brothers can still remember the experience he had traveling for state basketball during his playing days at Kuna High School. He wants his kids to have that full state experience so badly that despite Nampa Christian being only 20 miles away from the 2A state boys basketball tournament host site, Capital High School, he’s thinking about booking hotel rooms for his team in Boise for Wednesday night.
“You do miss out on that team camaraderie when you have to go on the road and stay in hotels,” Brothers said. “You kind of second guess yourself when you don’t have that. So I want them to get that feel for it and really hang out and connect as a group during this three-day event. I would be totally in favor of them rotating the state basketball tournaments again so my kids could experience what I got to. I think it can really make a difference for a team.”
Even though the trip was “long,” as Kempton simply put it, the adventure was made worthwhile after her team knocked off previously unbeaten and nationally ranked Eagle 62-53 in the 5A state girls championship game.
But she would still like to cut down on those 18-hour round-trip bus rides and have her coach only concerned about coaching and not playing handyman.
“I think it’s at least worth trying. At least try one year, and if it doesn’t work out, then you could always go back to Boise,” Kempton said. “But at least try it to see if it could work out, because that would make a big difference to the teams that are up here like us.”