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Our View: Bring 'March Madness' to Convocation Center

On Thanksgiving weekend, the IHSA state football championships at Huskie Stadium broke an attendance record.

Almost 30,000 ticket-holders walked through the gates during the two-day event on the campus of Northern Illinois University. While they were here, visitors injected money into the local economy and appreciated the ease of access to the facilities and the “spirit zone” created outside the stadium for team supporters.

Imagine the possibilities if the IHSA state basketball championships were held in DeKalb.

Football might be a fan favorite, but the two-day state basketball tournament – billed as the original “March Madness” – is the crown jewel of Illinois high school athletics. The final four teams in four classes compete over two days, with semifinals on Friday and third-place and championship games on Saturday.

The games have been held at the Civic Center in Peoria for the past 19 years. During that time, some true basketball stars have competed – most recently players such as Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, and Marcus Jordan. There have been truly thrilling games played at a high level.

Yet attendance has fallen every year since 2006. The IHSA is making less money as a result, and Tuesday, its leaders were summoned to Springfield for a hearing on how they’re running things and how much their officials earn.

In that climate, a bid from our community could look more attractive than ever.

The local volunteers who came together to form the IHSA Destination DeKalb committee brought new ideas and new energy to the football championships, and with a similar effort, similar results can be achieved with basketball. Or even better ones.

Location is key to getting people to come to these events, and NIU has it – it’s easily accessible from Interstates 39, 88, and 90. At the football championships in the fall, 11 of the 16 teams were within 90 minutes’ drive.

NIU’s Convocation Center, a 10,000-seat arena, already hosts supersectional matches for basketball teams each year. It’s a venue that athletics officials know.

University officials have been looking for new ways to use the Convo, and the two-day showcase for the state’s top basketball talent would fit the bill.

Unlike the football championships, where teams come for one game and go home, the 16 participating teams all play over two days, making it more likely that players and fans will remain in town – increasing the potential economic benefits as well as their exposure to the NIU campus and our communities.

The state basketball tournament is scheduled to remain in Peoria through 2015. But that’s ideal as well – there’s still time to give serious thought to whether and how the games could be brought here.

The attendance record at the football championships is proof that DeKalb can draw.

IHSA officials might be more willing to consider an every-other-year type of arrangement similar to the way that football is rotating sites because of Big Ten scheduling demands. Or maybe we could go for the whole thing, and try to make it ours.

It would be a boon to have another state championship event in DeKalb, from an economic standpoint, and exposure standpoint, and from a local entertainment standpoint.

Our community has demonstrated it can stage these events with enthusiasm and draw record crowds.

March Madness is a special event. It’s worth taking a shot at snaring it.

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