IHSA boss on new deal: 'We'll be moving rather quickly'

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With the IHSA boys' basketball state tournament underway in Champaign, N-G staff writer Joey Wright caught up with the IHSA executive director. Among the topics they covered: the future of the state tournament in Champaign, if any changes will come to the current tournament structure and when might fans see a shot clock at all high school basketball games in Illinois

With the IHSA boys' basketball state tournament now in its third year back in Champaign, what has that reception been like?

"It's been a great reception for the IHSA and for our member schools. I think our schools who have had the opportunity to participate, and even those that have come as spectators, have really enjoyed the experience and the return to State Farm Center. I believe there continues to be excitement surrounding the boys' tournament, which has been highlighted by the fact that it's back where the flagship university of our state is located."

There have been some minor tweaks in terms of games times with this year's state tournament, but do you see any potential changes in the future in regard to items like the postseason structure, state finals structure and the future of third-place games?

"Those are all things that we continue to talk about and we continue to get feedback from our schools. We recognize the challenges with the timing and the location in the tournament of the consolation games. In addition, the early start on Thursday and Friday morning creates some challenges for schools. So we're looking at all of those things. I don't have a crystal ball to really say which of those things will be modified, (or) if it will be eliminating consolation games. But at the present time, with the feedback we've received, we feel like we have the best format for the tournament at the time being. But we'll continue to see feedback and information from our schools as it relates to the experience and, specifically, with the Basketball Advisory Committee, getting their feedback and recommendations."

When you solicit that feedback, what kind of groups is that coming from?

"A lot of it is coaches, obviously, because they're directly connected to the experience. And they're the best to get feedback from the student-athletes. But then we also obviously work closely with administrators at schools, and the majority of our Basketball Advisory Committee is made up of coaches. So that's where that feedback is going to come from. We've had a number of our board members that have had teams that have advanced and played at both our girls' and our boys' championships, so they're able to sit on the board and give us that feedback of living the experience as an administrator and obviously working very closely with their coaches and their student-athletes as it relates to the overall experience."

The one-weekend setup is now in its third year. What has that change been like?

"I would say the last day where we're playing four championship games all in a row has created tremendous excitement and great feedback of the experience, both from the spectators' perspective as well as the competitors, coaches, administrators. Those that are involved in that last day experience, really have been extremely positive about the experience and the celebration of the last day of our season. I don't know if I call it negative feedback, but the feedback that has created challenges would be the days that are packed full with the six games both on Thursday and Friday, and just the stress on the teams that do have to play two games in a day. The feedback we get is that that's a challenge for everyone: spectators to have the break and return to State Farm Center and the players playing two highly emotional contests at the state finals on the same day. The feedback we've gotten, I think generally, at least from an administrative standpoint, has been positive, even though leading into and having three really full days of activities from start to finish, we're talking very long days for everyone involved. We continue to evaluate, but I think, in a general sense, we're likely to continue with the format again because of the positive outcome of having all four classes together and celebrating the last day with the four championship games and what a great experience that's been."

What is the future of having the state tournament in Champaign?

"We were at the end of a three-year contract, and we made it a three-year contract because of the format change. We wanted to have some flexibility after those three years to determine if we were going to continue with that format or move to a different format of which obviously, we'd want to have the flexibility to modify the contract to accommodate that. So we'll be moving rather quickly. We've already had some general initial discussions about the potential of renewals of the contracts, because they were short-term contracts with both CEFCU Arena and Illinois State University for the girls' tournament, and the University of Illinois and State Farm Center for the boys' tournament. We'll continue to have those conversations as our tournaments conclude this coming weekend and obviously look to see if both of those parties in the conversation continue as they have in a positive manner. We'll look to have those renewed within the next couple of months. The contracts were short-term to initiate conversations for a renewal with both of our current partners. We do plan to renew with a five-year extension, again, assuming all parties are in agreement."

I know you work closely with Experience Champaign-Urbana. Do you guys foresee any more interactive events for spectators, similarly to as they had when the state tournament was held in Peoria?

"If there were more discussions on that, we would do that in a partnership with them. In Peoria, that was really led by a local steering committee, even though we had representation from IHSA, on a bigger group that was local there. We would look at a similar approach, if there was that kind of interest in developing something there in Champaign. We would be open to that. The challenge that I think both of us have seen is just location and a space at which to do some expanded activities. This coming weekend in conjunction with our boys' tournament, we'll be running our wheelchair basketball state tournament on Saturday. And on Friday and Saturday, we'll be running our unified state championships, and both of those events will take place in the ARC on campus. So we're already making use of that space for those two events, and it would just be a matter of location and if we thought it was feasible to provide something in a location that would would value the time and effort to put something together for those that are driving a distance and attending, or obviously anyone locally."

A shortage of officials isn't just a problem in Illinois, but how is that topic affecting the IHSA and what steps are you taking to overcome that?

"We're definitely affected just like everybody else is nationally. But I would also say, fortunately, we have seen some growth in the number of licensed officials. So that's a positive, for sure, that we need to see continue to grow. We're always soliciting, communicating to school folks, we're offering free licensure to our schools to share with graduating senior athletes. We've dropped the licensing age from 17 to 15 for a junior-level official to get an early start just to get some experience, at some elementary school and middle school-level games, mostly, working alongside a veteran official in sport so that they can get an early start. We've also partnered with a group called Officially Human. So really trying to present the narrative of the professional nature of our officials, and that we do have amateur officials, they're not professionals. Spectators need to offer them some grace, especially our inexperienced officials, because they're going to make mistakes in doing this for the first time. And they're the ones doing the lower-level games, and trying to get fans to understand that we need to offer some grace to those that are getting a start. But overall, recognizing and trying to bring recognition to the professional nature of those that do the job of an official, because it's not easy. Otherwise, everyone would do it and we wouldn't have a shortage of officials."

The shot clock came into play two seasons ago for tournaments and shootouts. Is that something that the IHSA is looking at implementing on a full-time basis?

"Good question. For the last two years, we've allowed tournaments to get permission to make use of it, along with shootouts, in gathering feedback and in general, I'd say the feedback that we've gotten has been very positive, from coaches, from officials, from administrators overseeing the games. And I think even from a fan standpoint that the feedback has been positive, as I've kind of ran into and attended different tournaments, as well as a number of our administrators, as well as our board of directors. We're kind of leaning on our upcoming boys' and girls' basketball advisory committee to maybe offer up some guidance. We've had recent discussions here within the office, as a result of the positive feedback with those that have used the shot clock, that we we may be need to set a future timeline of a date at which we may adopt the shot clock and and let our schools start progressing towards that. But in general, considering the possibility of establishing a date where we communicate to our schools that in this state series, we're going to use the shot clock, we'll take advisement from our Basketball Advisory Committee. At the end of the day, that's our board of directors' decision to determine if and when our membership will go forward with adopting a shot clock."

I know the IHSA has a partnership in place with NFHS Network to stream plenty of events there, but especially postseason events exclusively. What does that partnership look like and do you envision that as a long-term thing moving into the future?

"Yeah, it is a long-term partnership. There was an agreement signed over a decade ago, and there's been extensions to that agreement. So at present time, we're locked in with the agreement for an additional 10 years. And our board will determine if we're going to continue with that, or if we'll kind of let the 10 years go by. There's been hiccups at times, especially over the last decade with the early growth, but I feel like the NFHS Network has done a lot to improve service, to improve the quality of programming. These Pixelot cameras that run on their own really are unique, and it's a high-level technology that a camera can follow play without someone manually running the camera. And so all of that is going to have some unique challenges to it. But they've really instituted a number of advancements. They've added a significant number of support personnel to their team. And when we say national, it is a national group. They have nearly every state within the association that makes use of the NFHS Network and has a partnership. So we're proud to be partners with them and look at it as a long-term commitment. They maintain the rights of our games, and we've worked with them to allow us the television rights to it. And that partnership with The U! out of Chicago has been very positive. I just got a report the other day that viewership for the girls' basketball tournament was way up over last year. So our attendance is up, our viewership is up. That's really exciting for our schools, for our membership, for the student-athletes, that they're getting the exposure. We're just proud that people can get in and watch and celebrate. And that's really what this is about, is celebrating the students and their progression and their abilities as student-athletes."

What has been the trickle down of all the talk of transfer portals, name, image and likeness and such from college athletics?

"Some things that are happening at the collegiate level are concerning for us. The NIL is something that early on we decided to embrace our membership, recognizing we needed to create some language that's not pay-for-play, but it's for opportunities no different than someone getting a job to make money in whatever they might choose to do. With social media these days, if there was an avenue for an athlete's activity or anybody at our schools to make an extra dollar? I prefer they do it by officiating a game somewhere, but if there's other ways they can do it with their name, image and likeness, we recognize that legally we weren't going to be able to exclude their opportunity. I think our membership embraced it. I don't think that it's significantly changed the landscape of high school and amateur athletics. I think there are very few that are creating NIL deals, and so in that sense, I don't think that that's significantly influenced us. The one that I have the most concern about that's happening at the collegiate level is the freedom of transfer with the transfer portal. You know, we're trying to maintain some level of recognition of the value of education with athletics and our membership's position, currently, at least, is that students are best served when they go to school as a freshman and they graduate from that school as a senior. And then there's other exceptions to that, of course, if there's a need, but to pick up and move and transfer simply for athletic reasons, I think is not something that our membership is supportive of. And so the influence of the freedom of transfer at the collegiate level is something that, I think, is going to continue to create challenges for us at the high school level. And we'll need to determine whether our membership continues to support the transfer limits that our bylaws currently have in place. And if they don't, and they think we need to go a different direction, then that's a membership-driven decision, which I can absolutely support. But right now, I think having some limits related to transfer and trying to keep students in these same schools for as long as we can, just for the continuity of their education is really what's most important. So that happening at the collegiate level definitely concerns me probably more than the influence of NIL, which I think is mainly for your elite athletes that are finding avenues, maybe, to make some money on their name, image and likeness. So I just offer that perspective of what's getting pushed down to us at the high school level."