A big crowd. A loud arena. Quality teams playing for a trip to the state tournament.
That's what was in mind when South Dakota changed its format to qualify for the state tournament in basketball, with all three classes going to what is now known as the SoDak 16 round. And to this point, based on the financials, attendance figures, and the competitiveness of the games, the returns have been mostly good among those who are invested in the state's basketball scene.
In six days from Feb. 28 to March 5, 48 boys and girls games are being played around the state under the new format. Two of those games were played Thursday at the Corn Palace, with Corsica-Stickney and Freeman's girls teams each winning games that were close into the final minute.
SDHSAA Executive Director Dan Swartos said this week that if the goal was to get the best eight teams to the state tournament, it's being achieved. Volleyball is also playing under the same format, as well.
"I think it's been great," Swartos said. "I think it's been doing what was intended, and that was to do what we could to get the best eight teams at the state tournament, and we've seen some a lot more competitive games."
Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland said, "Whether it's the right format to go forward, I don't think that's being argued."
Mount Vernon Activities Director Eric Denning, who has coached boys basketball for more than 20 years, was among the longtime advocates for the current SoDak 16 plan, going back more than a decade. He believes people like "the idea of something fresh."
Mount Vernon/Plankinton was region championship game regulars under the previous system. Denning said he felt a similar intensity to the Round of 16 game his Titans' team was a part of in 2017.
"It's basically the same stakes," he said. "You might be playing someone that's a little more unfamiliar but everyone knows what's on the line in that game."
Corsica-Stickney girls basketball coach Lorisa Broughton said she felt the stakes of the game on Thursday, as her team rallied to defeat Class B defending champion Castlewood to get to the state tournament.
"I thought it was way more intense," Broughton said after the game. "Maybe because it was tighter and we weren't playing very good, but I thought it was way more intense."
A change in format
Information provided to the SDHSAA Board of Directors in April 2018 put the first full year of the SoDak 16 round into perspective.
More than 25,000 tickets were sold for the 48 games played at 41 sites during the 2018 Round of 16, which brought in $140,281 in total gate receipts. That equated to 582 fans per game. (By comparison, region substate games averaged 198 fans for girls games and 315 for boys games.) Many of those contests were played in a doubleheader format, allowing fans to see two games for the price of one.
In Winner, the Winner Armory has been a host site for six Class A SoDak 16 games in the past two years - a pair of boys doubleheaders and single girls games in each 2017 and 2018. Activities Director Dan Aaker said they've been a hit.
"I really feel like the ones we've hosted are exactly what they wanted," Aaker said of the SDHSAA. "They've been intense environments and I think have been a good experience."
Aaker said Winner's position with a large gym in the central part of the state is conducive to hosting the format's games.
"We're kind of located in a decent spot, and we have a big enough facility," Aaker said. "We've had some good crowds and it's just added to the atmosphere and to the games."
The SoDak 16 format works like this: the district round has disappeared in all classes, and Class A and B play down to two teams remaining in each region. At that point, the 16 remaining teams are re-seeded and eight neutral site, state-qualifying games are played to determine the state tournament field. In Class AA, where there are just 18 teams to begin with, the top-16 teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the SoDak 16 and the eight winners advance to the state tournament. Unlike the other two classes, Class AA does not re-seed prior to the state tournament.
Critics of the Class AA format say that the SoDak 16 can penalize a higher seeded team for a loss in a single bad game, wiping out a strong regular season. But before the change, Class AA teams could lose a game in district or region play and still make the state tournament, a route not available in other classes. There were also play-in games in some districts that eliminated teams before the double-elimination portion of the rest of the bracket.
A relatively small sample of games has shown signs of more competitive games in the SoDak 16 and state tournament so far. Five of the six classes had a closer margin of victory in the 12 state tournament games contested in their class in 2018. In all, boys games were decided by an average of 10.2 points, compared to 12.1 points per game in 2017, while girls games dropped from an 11.7 margin in 2017 to 11.4 in 2018.
As for upsets, in the four instances of using the Round of 16 format prior to this season (Class A in 2017, all classes in 2018), lower seeded teams won 10 of the 32 games played on the boys side, while six lower seeded teams won out of the 32 girls games played.
Maybe no other element has a bigger impact on the SoDak 16 than South Dakota's geography. It affects who plays in the games and where they're hosted, how far they travel, how well they're attended and the revenue generated. Because the SoDak 16 isn't determined until as few as four days before the games begin, everything can be up in the air.
"When you have the neutral court and with the nature of South Dakota, you can end up with games that have teams that are pretty far apart," Swartos said. "That's just our reality. You meet in the middle and sometimes it's a two-, three-hour drive."
Schools not involved in the game can apply to the SDHSAA to host games, which is what Mitchell regularly does to host games at the Corn Palace. Aadland said a draw at the ticket table depends on who's playing in the game, whether they have a big or small fanbase, and whether that fanbase will travel.
"We've had some that have been very positive, some that have been difficult," he said. "When you get the right matchups, or a town that travels well, those are great atmospheres. But geography has a lot to do with it."
With only 18 teams spread throughout the state, Class AA has felt the brunt of more bus miles on the road. The average one-way trip in 2018 was 178 miles for the boys round, and 270 miles for girls games. Last year, three of the 16 games consisted of teams within 100 miles of each other.
Mileage was less of an issue in the Class A and B ranks, especially among girls teams. A one-way trip in the 2018 Round of 16 to the neutral site was 86.6 miles for the Class B teams and 98 miles in Class A. Class B boys teams averaged a one-way trip of 84 miles, while Class A teams trekked an average of 126 miles one way.
Aaker said he was a fan of the region format and the geographic representation it represents, but admitted he's been won over by the game results so far.
"But we've kind of had that, if you look at the brackets we've had," he said. "This being the third year, I think it seems like we've found something that works. ... If your goal is to not penalize teams for where they're located, this is a good solution."
Class A is playing under this format for a third year, as it ended up being the experimental division with it first in 2016-17. Denning said the slow rollout probably helped convince the public that the new format would work.
"I think there was support from Day 1, but there's always resistance to things that are unfamiliar," Denning said. "Over the course of time, people have gotten more comfortable. Whenever you're doing something differently, sometimes making the changes one piece at a time works best."
Swartos called attention to last year's Class A boys tournament, in which three Native American schools - Crow Creek, Pine Ridge and Red Cloud - qualified for the state tournament.
"In the past, they could only get two teams in, mainly because of where they are located," he said. "We've certainly seen it in volleyball with Warner and Northwestern playing in the state championship in Class B volleyball where many years the de facto state championship was in the district championship round."
Swartos said he's heard fans lament the loss of region championship games but feels it was a worthwhile concession.
"You hear from the people who talk about the region finals, and how great those games were. Those were fun," Swartos said. "But it's also not fun to be Warner or Northwestern and knowing you're a top-two or three team in the state, and you're not going to get out of your region or to the state tournament."
In 2015-16, which was the last year South Dakota used districts and regions in all classes of basketball, the SDHSAA brought in $127,485.40 in boys basketball substate income, and $90,848 in girls basketball substate income.
Last year, which was the first with all three classes using the new format, had income at $128,325.52 for boys basketball substate games and $91,255.72 for girls basketball substate games.
The close nature of those numbers is purposeful, and Swartos called it "a wash" for the SDHSAA from before to now. For SoDak 16 games, the SDHSAA now takes a larger share - 50 percent - of the gate receipts, and in the case that there's any profits from the games played, those are shared four ways: with the SDHSAA, the host school, and the two competing teams. If the game loses money, the two participating schools pay back the host school.
Swartos is also quick to point out the importance of the income from tournament play this time of year, in supporting non-revenue sports and activities.
"We want to keep it revenue neutral, and that's where we want it to be," Swartos said. "Because the funding we generate continues to support state events that we don't charge admission to, such as tennis and golf or oral interp," he said.
Aadland said the decrease in Class AA playoff games has certainly hurt profits, with a reduction of games from 22 or 24 to eight.
"But we knew that going in, and the idea was that it was worth making less money and getting the postseason right," Aadland said. "From a financial standpoint, it's played out exactly as expected."
From a Mitchell perspective, hosting games at the Corn Palace provides a few extra expenses that other schools don't have, such as renting out the arena and paying for security. Events at the Corn Palace have a security and crowd control requirement, and in almost all cases, that includes a Mitchell Police Division officer being on hand and the school district covering those costs.
To help incentivize schools to be willing to host the games, the SDHSAA pays hosts a management fee, to help pay game staff and other expenses. Aadland said that fee helps schools not lose any money on the games, but said it's not a money-making venture.
"If I was only to do it only on whether we'd make money, I probably wouldn't do it," Aadland said.
Instead, Aadland said, it's more important that Mitchell and the Corn Palace are involved from a community standpoint, bringing people to town for a night where they might eat at a local restaurant, stop at a convenience store or make other purchases in town.
"If you're going to have these games and not be at the Corn Palace, that doesn't make a lot of sense," Aadland said. "I want people to be coming to Mitchell and having a good experience when they're here."
Class AA talks about tweaks
As for what's next, there's support for continuing to change the Class AA regular-season structure. This season has been the first in which the Eastern South Dakota Conference, of which Mitchell is a member, has abandoned its long-held 16-game conference schedule, and is now playing every other team once for ESD play.
A proposal from the state's basketball advisory committee called for only the 17 games between Class AA opponents to count toward state seeding, while two additional games would be added to the regular season, bringing the regular-season total to 22. The goal is to have every Class AA school play each other during the regular season.
Mitchell boys basketball coach Todd Neuendorf said it's the biggest issue he wants to see corrected.
"I'm still not sold on the fact that not everybody is playing everybody," Neuendorf said. "Our schedule couldn't be any harder than what we had this year. There are going to be teams that get in ahead of us that didn't play the type of schedule we played this year. I like the thing in overall concept, but everybody has to play everybody to make it real."
The scheduling change is a big ask for some West River schools. Sturgis Activities Director Todd Palmer, who previously held the same position at Chamberlain, spoke to the SDHSAA Board of Directors on Wednesday, saying that every cross-state trip for his school costs $3,500 to $5,000, and he said that cost is difficult to take on with tough budgets. He said hosting Mitchell and Huron in basketball on back-to-back dates didn't come close to matching what Sturgis hosting Rapid City Stevens did for gate receipts.
"Gate receipts don't power our activities, but they for sure offset the costs of those activities," Palmer said at the meeting.
Swartos said basketball and volleyball will likely continue to benefit from having a consistent format going forward, and with each class playing under the same concept.
"You try to get something you think will work best overall for everyone," he said. "We have to look at things from a state perspective, and you find a way to do things that work to serve that mission and benefit all students."