By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
Here’s a new March Madness fact the Mississippi High School Activities Association learned this week: Fewer teams equal more fans when it comes to the state basketball tournament.
As of Friday night’s session, this year’s postseason event – the first played under the new “final four” format – had drawn in the neighborhood of 35,000 paying fans for seven of its eight playing dates.
The total paid attendance through Friday’s afternoon session was 31,172.
Saturday’s 5A and 6A championship game sessions were expected to send the total beyond the 40,000-paid mark, a figure reached last season with more teams participating and four more days of action.
Thursday night’s 2A championship games, one that included New Site’s girls and their loyal legions, drew 3,320 fans.
The largest crowd through Friday afternoon was the 3,687 who attended last Saturday night’s 3A semifinals that featured the Ripley-Choctaw Central girls and the Kemper County-East Side boys.
In all, MHSAA officials expect a gate of 50,000, including state passes, players, coaches and tournament workers.
“We’ve had a lot better attendance with this final four,” said Dr. Ennis Proctor, the MHSAA executive director. “There appears to be a lot more interest.”
Trim the teams
The MHSAA, citing the poor economy as its primary reason, cut the tournament field from 36 teams to 24 teams this season, dropping the No. 3 seeds from advancing.
With No. 3 seeds in the field, “we’ve had some games in the past where we’ve had only 200 fans,” said Phyfa Eiland, the MHSAA’s Director of Development. “We haven’t had anything like that this year.”
Fewer teams attracting more fans? A majority of the state’s high school coaches are not going to like hearing that. Many of the coaches in Northeast Mississippi believe the MHSAA is depriving nearly 200 more student-athletes from enjoying the state tournament experience by cutting out the No. 3 seed.
Baldwyn boys coach Jason McKay has put together a proposal and presented it to the MHSAA to allow four teams each, not just three, from the North and South to participate.
He believes more teams and more players should enjoy the showcase, not less. But, is the MHSAA willing to listen?
Proctor says his board “is satisfied” with the new format. However, he said, “We’d always be willing to look at something better.”
It will be hard to beat “less teams, more fans.”
Gene Phelps (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers high school sports for the Journal. Call him at 678-1593.