UI's Thomas leading push to bring state hoops to C-U

Published 06/18 2014 04:33PM

Updated 06/18 2014 10:13PM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - If Champaign-Urbana wants to bring the IHSA state basketball tournament back to State Farm Center, it won't be easy.  And it will have to be a joint effort between the local tourism departments, business leaders and most importantly the University of Illinois.  The three entities will form a committee later this summer to consider bidding on both the boys and girls state finals.  They will bid on at least one.

"It's gonna be an all hands on deck type of thing," said Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas.  "It'll probably really be managed and led by us here at the [Division of Intercollegiate Athletics], but it's gonna take a lot of outside folks and their support to make this a reality."

The U of I hosted the boys state finals for 77 years before losing them after the 1995 season.  Thomas has said bringing the tournament back is "critical."  He and his staff will lead the way as they present a bid to host the finals from 2016-2020, but it will take an equal effort from local hotels and gas stations, who were accused of price-gouging basketball fans back in the mid-90s.

"I think what happened last time is a little bit of complacency," said Jayne DeLuce, President and CEO of Visit Champaign County.  "We had hosted it for so many years, and I think people thought it would never leave.  We will work very closely with the hotels."

But it won't be easy to bring the tournament back to where many believe it belongs.  The U of I will likely go up against bids from Chicagoland and Peoria among others.  It will take a significant financial commitment.  Peoria has leaned on big, private businesses to fund keeping the boys tournament there for 20 years.  In Champaign it will be more of a grassroots movement to raise the money.  Peoria also has the March Madness Experience, a free expo that provides entertainment for families and children.  The U of I won't try to emulate that same fan experience; they want the focus to be on the games.

"For us it's not about the extracurricular activity that goes on on a basketball game day," Thomas said.  "We're going to focus on the basketball game itself.  I think when we have people come to an event, we'd like them to be sitting in the stands watching the game - not outside playing pop-a-shot."

State Farm Center will be right in the middle of a $200 million renovation project when the first tournament would come in 2016.  Thomas says landing the finals won't interrupt the final phase of the renovation, and he says the new look could actually be a key selling point for the IHSA.

"Let's face it," Thomas said.  "Its the marquee venue in this state, certainly from a collegiate basketball standpoint.  It's gonna be probably the best basketball facility in the country when we're finished.  Now to tell me that a young person - male or female - wouldn't want to play in that type of venue, I absolutely think they would."

IHSA leaders say they'll plan to make their decision in March. DeLuce estimates the boys state basketball finals would bring more than $3 million to the Champaign-Urbana area, but the impact would go well beyond the dollars and cents.

"It's that creating that sense of community pride that we are the host of the IHSA state basketball," said DeLuce.

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