Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has dual degrees in music from Ohio State University.

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A scant few words to wrap up the 2019 high school football season…symbolic with the underwhelming few souls that seemed to show up for the 2019 state football finals.  Columbus, you may have a problem.

So how do you grade a tournament? Any event, for that matter?

Is it a matter of content – good competition?  Should you dwell on tradition?  Something old, something new?  A good mix?  The 2019 state tournament certainly had that.  On paper it looked splendid.

Tradition?  Perfect…Marion Local with all those titles.  And shouldn’t there be a Massillon presence, or at least mention?  Elder…if you’re into purple?  And there was plenty because Division I was all purple…Elder and Pickerington Central.

So there was plenty of something old.

And there was a perfect blend of things new, too.  Anna came for the first time, representing the MAC;  and did what the MAC does.  It won the Division VI title, besting New Middletown Springfield, who also made its tournament debut.

Lucas High School was there for the first time, and prior to this year’s tournament I had no idea there was a Lucas.  But their coach, the kids, and their fans made a wonderful impression, bringing a bit of ‘Hoosiers’ feeling to the tournament.

Mansfield Senior was there for the first time in Division III – perfect for the sake (I guess) of competitive balance and spreading the wealth of tournament experience.  They almost went home with more, losing to Trotwood by a scant touchdown.

Kirtland capped its 2018 Division VI title with a repeat title in 2019 in Division V, further justifying that competitive balance is alive, if not well.  You get bigger, you get better, you get moved up.  And they still won.  Now with five all-time titles, the Hornets look like the new Marion Local of small-school football.  They don’t rebuild, they just reload.

So there was a wonderful sense of something old and something new, but what the OHSAA would really have liked was something borrowed…from the TV audience that obviously chose to stay home and watch the thing from the comfort of their living room.  That fact left its own impression on the 2019 tournament – something blue.  The stands were noticeably empty.

There comes the point with any event when you have to ask the question.  Is it an event…if no one comes?  Is it, indeed, a state tournament if the state chooses to stay home, or go to the mall…a concert…or just watch it on a cell phone?  And what about the claim that Ohio is a ‘football’ state – that Friday night lights and the championship finals are part of our legacy?

Highlights that went unseen…Catches like this one by Kirtland’s Gage Sullivan were underappreciated.  Attendance averaged about 6,000 for the tournament games in Canton.

This has been coming, as far back as the first OHSAA television contract that seemed like a good idea at the time, and a means to better market the crown jewels of the OHSAA calendar…its football and basketball tournaments.  But people are what people are.  They seek the least common denominator, meaning…if it’s easier and less expensive to stay home and check in on the action periodically they’ll do it.  It’s a long drive from Trotwood to Canton, and by an actual count of the Trotwood stands at kickoff last Friday the Rams were represented by a scant 118 people.

Ah, but traditionally schools like Dunbar and Trotwood have never showed up in mass for the tournaments, one can claim.  However, Marion Local, and Ironton, and Elder have always shown up, but even their contingent was noticeably smaller than in tournaments past.  Lucas is a small town, so it’s understandable that they’re not going to bring that many people.  But the combined crowd for Lucas and Marion Local – something old versus something new with a little history thrown in – was 4,419 people, officially.

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In fact the average attendance for all but one of the tournament games was in that range of 6,000 people, which is fine for the average game;  but this was the state ‘Finals’! Only the Division II game on Thursday night, that featured nearby Massillon against Cincinnati LaSalle, came close to filling at least one side of Tom Benson Stadium (11,286, official attendance).  And yet, there are those who write supporting Columbus and Ohio Stadium as host site for the future, saying it’s the dream of every school boy to play in the ‘Horseshoe’ – their dream, but not the adults.  I was there in 2014, ’15, and ’16, and the crowds were no better, and lost in the cavernous ‘Shoe’.

This is a continuing trend, and a problem for the OHSAA about which they’re entirely aware.  State tournaments aren’t drawing the people anymore.  It’s not the event that it once was when Upper Sandusky and Dunbar drew 18,000 to the Schottenstein Center, just a decade ago for the Div. II basketball final.  They know it, and they know why.  People have more options now than they had then.  It’s not as cheap as it once was.  And the cultural tastes for entertainment have evolved.

Competition in the 2019 tournament, as always, was fierce!

And then, television…!

“If people aren’t coming to the games in person we have to find another source of revenue to replace ticket sales,” former OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross justified to me in an interview three years ago, prior to his leaving office.

They turned to television and the broadcast rights currently held by Spectrum, which makes the tournament convenient for more people to watch on their terms…but it also makes for an empty stadium and a lesser environment, one of the OHSAA’s traditional points of focus.  And there’s not a lot they can do about it, even with concerns as to the bottom line;  because none of this comes for free.  There are operational costs.

It’s a hard event to market because there’s no way of knowing who’s playing before the previous Saturday.  You can’t plan.  And people in Cleveland are not going to come unless there are Cleveland teams, and there was no St. Ed, Ignatius, and Mentor in this year’s event.

The Cincinnati market is another matter because of sheer distance, so even if LaSalle people wanted to come it’s a matter of how badly – to make a four-hour drive, one way.  And LaSalle and Elder (both GCL schools) were the only Cincinnati-area teams involved with this year’s tournament.

“There wasn’t the excitement in the community for it this year like there was back in the 90s,”  says Press Pros columnist Greg Hoard, who lives next door to Elder High School.

Central Ohio was represented by Newark Licking Valley, 30 minutes east of Columbus, but Columbus shows up for the bigger schools like Arlington, Dublin, and Hilliard, and those schools have not seen the state tournament since 2009, when Hilliard Davidson won in Division I.

You have to have a state tournament if you’re the state governing body.  It’s the carrot on the end of the string, the traditional motivation for every team in every sport before the season even begins.  “We want to get to the state tournament.”  But to borrow from NASA, they have a problem in Columbus.  Representative of modern culture, they have a championship that people want to access without actually being there.

And how do you benefit from that?  What’s it worth?  And what’s its impact on a trophy?  Is it a tournament…if no one’s there to see it?

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