Downsizing will be an upgrade


By: Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

EUGENE — Goodbye, Matthew Knight Arena. So long to your $227 million accouterments, your forestry hardwood and the cavernous setting in which it resides — and the thousands of vacant seats that come with it.

You have served well, Matt Court. But now that the Oregon School Activities Association has wised up, we will take root in a more reasonable venue. And we might once again be able to experience an electric, championship-style atmosphere that has been lost for several years.

In a move designed to improve the Class 6A, 5A and 4A boys and girls basketball state tournaments, the OSAA executive board last month finalized its state championship committee’s plan to relocate the big-school tourneys to smaller, cost-reducing venues beginning next season.

The OSAA cut ties with the University of Oregon’s 12,364-seat Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, moving the Class 5A boys and girls tournaments to the cozier 9,600-capacity Gill Coliseum on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, where the 4A tourneys have been played since 2007. And beginning next year, the 4A final site will be staged at two of the state’s newer and more spectator-friendly high school gyms — Liberty and Century, both in Hillsboro.

“One of the things we know, especially at the 5A and 6A (classifications), it’s pretty expensive,” OSAA assistant executive director Peter Weber said last week. “It’s expensive for us to run them at those facilities. Not to bad-mouth those facilities … but they’re more expensive.”

Good call — better move.

We can hope there will be no more dropping $12 per session per adult just to see the games, no more dishing out upward of $10 each day on parking. And more important, no more having the voices of players and coaches, as well as other sounds of the game, echo off thousands of unoccupied seats.

“A thousand people in a 3,500-seat place is a lot better than a thousand in a 12,000-seat arena,” Weber observed. “A little smaller facilities combined with better ticket prices, we think it’ll be great.”

“I can remember playing in front of 10,000 people at (Portland’s) Memorial Coliseum,” recalled Churchill boys coach Kelly Bokn, who was at the Redmond High helm for 14 years through the 2007-08 season and in 2003 guided the Panthers to the state championship in Class 4A — then the state’s largest-school classification. “That was pretty special for kids to do that. Now we’re lucky to get a couple thousand people to a game in the state tournament. It’s kind of sad how that’s turned out.”

Perspective time: Matthew Knight Arena seats 12,364. Total attendance at last week’s 5A boys/girls tournament was 12,962. And that is heavily weighted by the crowd of 3,569 that saw Jefferson of Portland defeat Churchill of Eugene in a rematch of the 2013 state final. Also included in that total: the 280 who watched the Bend girls rally past Wilson of Portland in the consolation round on Thursday morning.

“I think if you have a packed house, whether it’s in Bend High’s gym or here, it really gets you going and it’s a lot of fun,” Bend High girls coach Todd Ervin said. “It would be nice if you went out there and you weren’t quite ready and the packed house gets you rocking. … It makes it so much more fun and enjoyable when (the fans are) into it.”

It is time to get away from the high-caliber (and also high-cost) venues, regardless of their extravagance. It is time to rekindle the electricity of a state tournament that, aside from the 2006 and 2007 rivalry between future NBA stars Kevin Love (Lake Oswego) and Kyle Singler (South Medford), has been lost since the state split into six classifications before the 2006-07 school year.

Bend High players were diplomatic with their responses when asked about the change in venue for the state tournament. At least for Marissa Hayes and Jacob Parsons, all that matters is on-court play.

“It is noticeable,” said Parsons, a senior post for the Lava Bear boys, referring to a sparse crowd in a vast arena. “But we’ve just got to go out there and play hard. It’s still just a game.”

“We just play our game and play as a team, not let anything around us affect us,” said Hayes, a senior forward for the Bend girls.

There is no denying the joy that players and coaches can experience when competing in a venue like Matthew Knight Arena. (As Bokn put it: “This arena’s awesome.”) But when even the Oregon Ducks struggle to attract fans to the most expensively built on-campus court in the country, what shot do 5A high schools have?

Even at Gill Coliseum, home of the Oregon State Beavers, there will be difficulty filling the seats, Bokn concedes. But it is much easier to get the electric experience at the smaller Corvallis arena than at Matt Court.

“It’ll be nice,” Bend boys coach Scott Baker said. “You get more fans there in close, it makes it a little louder and a better atmosphere instead of just kind of dying away.”

The OSAA’s decision to downsize by nearly 3,000 seats from Matthew Knight Arena to Gill Coliseum for the 5A tournament, and by some 6,000 seats from Gill to Liberty and Century high schools, is a start to recreating the lost excitement.

Not even 6A has drawn an average of more than 3,000 spectators per session at the 20,000-seat Moda Center in Portland since the state split into six classifications. Heck, other than the 9,000 who watched Singler beat Love at Eugene’s McArthur Court (when the 6A and 5A boys tourneys shared the same final site), no single audience has totaled more than 6,100.

Obviously the state finals will draw larger crowds, but the average attendance figures are astonishingly low — especially at the 5A tournament at Matt Court, where, per session, as many as 10,000 seats go unused.

“We don’t need that much space necessarily,” Weber said. “So when you combine going to a little bit smaller facility with better ticket pricing — what we would call more regular ticket pricing — we think it’ll be better.”

Granted, we cannot assume that the energy will return. As Baker noted, we cannot predict that the fervor will be rekindled. We can only wait, then grade the OSAA’s decision.

“It’s hard to say,” Baker said. “We won’t know until we see what happens.”


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