After months of speculation, the Illinois High School Association's board announced its decision to move the boys basketball tournament back to Champaign after a quarter-century in Peoria.
Peoria placed a bid to host both the boys and girls tournaments over two weekends, as well as a separate bid to just continue hosting the boys tournament at the Peoria Civic Center's Carver Arena over a reduced, single weekend under the IHSA's revised tournament structure.
But on Monday, the IHSA decided to pass up Peoria on both of those opportunities.
Peoria Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO J.D. Dalfonso described the announcement as "a gut punch" on Tuesday.
"To hear news not only that we don't get to bring the girls here, but to see the boys leave, was not the news any of us were expecting in Peoria based off our bid process and what we had to offer," he said. "It was the most competitive, incentivizing offer we've had in the past, so it took us by surprise."
On a media call Monday, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said Peoria's bid for both weekends was "extremely well-written," but the board wanted to maintain its relationship with Illinois State University, where the girls tournament has been hosted since 1992.
"At the end of the day, I think it was the fact our girls tournament had found continued success, the venue is rich in history for our girls, and really, they found their own niche being in Redbird Arena," Anderson said.
Peoria's primary bid aimed at hosting both the girls and boys basketball tournaments over two weekends - thus allowing the March Madness Experience to be maintained at the same level. But opting to keep the girls tournament at ISU narrowed down the process to the competing bids for the boys tournament from Peoria and Champaign.
Anderson said there would be "challenges" with Peoria meeting the IHSA's expectations for a single weekend, rather than the customary two weekends, while continuing to maintain the March Madness Experience festival at the same level.
The March Madness Experience was funded by corporate sponsors and staffed by local volunteers, some of whom had participated for more than two decades.
Champaign "simply won out" in this case with the newly renovated State Farm Center on the University of Illinois campus, Anderson said.
"It's just the idea that it wasn't going to be supported like it was before over two weekends, and when you compare the two, in this case, from the board's perspective, the Champaign-Urbana bid was just a little better," said Anderson.
Dalfonso said he disagrees with that assessment.
"The new format wasn't a surprise for us. We were prepared for that new format going into the bid process," Dalfonso said. "So we were preparing to provide the same experience that we could, just over one weekend. And of course, if we brought the girls, we would still be able to retain two weekends."
He said he wasn't sure if the Experience would have looked the same over just one weekend given the reduced corporate sponsorship opportunities, but said Peoria was still willing and able to adapt for one weekend if it lost the bid to host the girls tournament. Anderson said the IHSA didn't believe the Experience would result in the same outcomes with one weekend, rather than two.
Dalfonso said he doesn't believe the State Farm Center would be able to maintain the March Madness Experience built up in Peoria over the last quarter-century. Visit Champaign County President and CEO Jayne DeLuce doesn't disagree.
"We could never replicate what Peoria has done with the March Madness Experience, so we're creating the new Champaign experience," DeLuce said.
She said there would be a heavier focus on technology, such as social media engagement through a video board inside the State Farm Center. Kid zones, an interactive IHSA basketball history exhibit, and academics will also be incorporated into the Champaign plan, she said.
"It's going to be very interactive, very high-tech. A great way to engage the fans while they're in the bowl, which is ultimately, I think, a goal for all of us. For people to be watching the game and be a part of the game themselves and still be entertained at the same time," DeLuce said. "If you've been to an Illini game, you'll see what I mean."
Anderson said the IHSA believes Champaign and the State Farm Center have changed for the better since the boys basketball tournament left for Peoria in 1995. The tournament was hosted in Champaign for the 77 previous years.
The 2020 IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament at the Peoria Civic Center was canceled at the last minute as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated. That factored into the larger economic havoc wreaked by the stay-at-home orders nationwide - the fallout of which is now forcing Peoria and other local governments across the nation to make heavy, unpalatable cuts to their 2020 budgets.
The IHSA boys basketball tournament has an estimated economic impact of more than $4 million. Dalfonso said he's optimistic Peoria will find a way to make up for those dollars, and then some.
The Peoria Civic Center declined comment for this story, referring questions to the PACVB.
Anderson said he doesn't think there's anything Peoria could have done to keep the tournament.
"I think they were kind of caught in some of the modification of our tournament schedule. We didn't do it with this intention, but we did it to try to bring some higher quality to the experience of coming to the championships," he said.
Dalfonso said Peoria put on its best effort to keep the tournament.
"There's nothing we could have done. It was just a matter of whether or not the IHSA board was willing to move the girls to the same playing forum as the boys. And that doesn't seem to be the case," he said.
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