The raging absurdity of House Bill 1088

All politics are local, which sheds light on their frequent absurdity.

With home-spun motivations at play, even the most well-meaning lawmakers can lose their connection with common sense.

Such was the case with House Bill 1088, an ill-fated measure proposed by state legislators from communities such as Aberdeen and Rapid City.

The bill asked that the state intervene and force the South Dakota High School Activities Association to stage state tournaments in towns where they have traditionally been held, such as (you guessed it) Aberdeen and Rapid City, as well as Watertown, Brookings, Mitchell, Huron and Spearfish.

In other words, don’t let the evil empire of Sioux Falls steal our happiness away.

Never mind that the state activities board is elected by member schools to make those decisions, or that the board is made up of administrators from Rapid City Aberdeen, Huron and Yankton, with no Sioux Falls representation.

To call that elected group pro-Sioux Falls would be similar to calling Rush Limbaugh pro-choice.

Also disregard the fact that recent attendance has sagged at state tournaments, which means less revenue for the activities association to stage events and perform other duties, since 70 percent of its budget comes from tournament profits.

Finally, pay no attention to that $117 million, 12,000-seat events center being constructed in the state’s largest city, which could radically enhance how we schedule and experience major athletic contests once it’s completed in 2014.

In the mind of primary bill sponsor Charlie Hoffman of Eureka, the very possibility of progress needed to be confronted in the time-honored South Dakota manner of doing things the way that they’ve always been done.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that virtually no one agreed with him.

The state tournament bill was defeated 15-0 in committee, a setback so laughable that it even included one of the original sponsors voting against it.

The vote showed that reasonable people recognize a need for flexibility in state tournament structure so the activities association can pursue principle objectives: to create a positive student-athlete experience and make money in the process. Financial statements show that tournaments in Sioux Falls – not just basketball, but volleyball and wrestling – generally create more revenue than those held in other communities.

The Class AA boys tournament was held in Sioux Falls in 2011 and posted a net revenue of $88,615, while the same tournament made just $41,450 last year in Rapid City.

 "I’ve been around for 25 years, and that last state tournament (in Rapid City) was the least-attended tournament I’ve seen in a long time,” O’Gorman boys basketball coach Derek Robey said recently. “Maybe it’s time for a change."

Class A tournament numbers are more comparable, but the dynamic for determining sites for state events changes each time a new facility is built.

To not consider the Denny Sanford Premier Center a game-changer is absurd, which is why SDHSAA executive director Wayne Carney proposed last February that all state basketball tournaments be held in Sioux Falls, combining the boys and girls events in each class on successive weekends.

There was predictable backlash from other communities, so a compromise was reached. Sioux Falls will host a combined Class AA boys and girls tournament in 2016, while Rapid City will draw the event for 2017. The SDHSAA will then compare the two sites in terms of revenue generation and other factors before choosing future locations.

Currently, the Class AA basketball tournaments rotate between Rapid City and Sioux Falls (or Brookings for girls because of a scheduling conflict at the Sioux Falls Arena). The other tourneys are held in communities such as Aberdeen, Huron, Watertown and Spearfish.

In 2016, the Class A girls tournament will be held in Watertown and the Class B girls in Huron on March 10-12. The following week (March 17-19), the Class A boys will be in Rapid City, the Class B boys in Aberdeen and combined ‘AA’ event in Sioux Falls.

The goal of having combined state tournaments on three successive weekends in Sioux Falls is currently unrealistic because the Summit League tournament occupies an early weekend in March. So Aberdeen is safe with the ‘B’ boys event for now.

One benefit of combined boy-girl tournaments is that fans won’t have to travel to two events (or choose between them) if their school qualifies for both. That sort of conflict could partly explain recent attendance issues at Class AA tournaments, particularly in Rapid City, a long haul for I-29 corridor schools.

Staging combined tournaments for all classes would allow fans to see all three boys (or girls) tournaments on TV or in person, because they won’t be happening on the same weekend.

Carney would also like to consolidate the state wrestling and volleyball tournaments, and the only cities capable of hosting such large-scale events are Sioux Falls and possibly Rapid City. Sioux Falls has hosted all three classes in volleyball with success in the past and is slated to do so again in 2015 at the events center.

A glance at the activities calendar shows other communities still heavily involved in hosting state tournaments in sports such as cross country, golf, gymnastics and track.

But make no mistake: The days of equitable rotation of communities designed merely to please chambers of commerce is coming to an end.

With marquee sports, South Dakota must follow the lead of other states and make the state tournament a true spectacle, rather than just a familiar ritual. Establishing a desirable location as part of a “road to the big city” format is part of that, and the events center will play a central role.

“Our first responsibility as a staff and board is to provide the best entertainment experience not only for our student-athletes, but for folks attending as well,” said Carney. “Every community where we have gone has been great and people are treated well, but I think it can be better, and we should at least explore what options are open to us.”

Thinking back to the days of the “Big B” in basketball, we need to restore the quality and significance of our high school state championships by using every resource necessary, and that means not doing things the way we’ve always done them.

There has been talk about changing Class AA playoff seeding and using a Final Four format for a combined tournament, and that idea is gaining steam. Everything is on the table once you reduce your reliance on past methods.

As someone who has attended state tournaments in South Dakota for the past two decades, I can tell you that there is unlocked potential to make these events more special. The drama is there, but it needs to be packaged and presented more deftly, with better venues, matchups and fan amenities putting more eyes on the action.

The seeds have been sown and clumsy dissenters dismissed. All we have to do now is remind ourselves that improving the overall experience is the mission, and everything else is the sort of local politics that we will slowly but surely outgrow.