District tournament feels lost with packed schedule


Six years ago, many central Ohio high school boys basketball fans were shocked when the Central District moved the vast majority of tournament games from the Fairgrounds Coliseum to various school sites.

For years until that time, all Division I boys games took place in the building often referred to as "The Barn." But the move was understandable, if not necessary. Back then, the Ohio Expo Center charged the Central District approximately $1,100 per game to rent the Fairgrounds, a price that included the facility's phones, public-address system, scoreboard, security and staff.

One district official only half-jokingly said the organization "took a bath" for a lot of the games, meaning they lost quite a bit of money and probably wouldn't recoup it.

The district has since moved to having higher-seeded teams play host to early round games, not only in basketball but in several other sports, including baseball, soccer, softball and volleyball. The district hopes the move will reward better teams and result in better attendance.

But it comes with a price.

This year, the vast majority of basketball games for both genders and in all divisions are taking place simultaneously. On the boys side, all Division I and Division IV first-round games will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at sites that will play host to one game each. Division II and Division III games will be played at 1 p.m. the same day.

That mirrors the girls schedule from exactly seven days prior.

The district will follow the same pattern for the second round.

I was disappointed and baffled when I took an early look at the brackets.

Other than the win-or-go-home mentality, it doesn't feel like a tournament with single games being played simultaneously at multiple sites. Even the district semifinals, which consist of two games per night in early March at sites ranging from Jonathan Alder to Olentangy to Newark, can feel more like games in the first two rounds to the casual fan. The difference is the teams usually are more evenly matched by then.

But as far as the atmosphere for single-game sites are concerned, it might as well be a random Tuesday night in January.

There's improvement in the later rounds. Boys district finals will take place on four consecutive nights at the Fairgrounds, starting March 6 for Division IV and continuing through March 9, when three Division I finals will take place at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The caveat for the tripleheader, however, is the arena is cleared after each game, quite unlike the old six-pack Saturdays in which a fan could watch six Division I early round games for the price of one.

Those basketball bonanzas were just, for lack of a better adjective, fun.

My favorite weeks as a reporter usually have taken place during the postseason. Off to Mount Vernon one night, Newark the next, then Dublin Scioto or maybe the Fairgrounds.

If you get to the Fairgrounds, it means your team is doing well. It was and is something to be earned. (Better than the college football bowl system, isn't it?)

Basketball tournament season rates up there with a certain annual multiday festival in late May, better known as the district softball tournament at Pickerington Central. Although some Division I and Division IV semifinals have moved three miles up the road to Pickerington North, that event remains largely intact.

It's hard to beat four usually intense games being played simultaneously, complete with dueling chants and shouting from the press box to one or more of the other three to get scoring updates. And there always was just enough time between games for writers to finish their stories before the next session got rolling.

The fun in both sports was in the urgency and not-so-overt festoonery.

Here's hoping that against considerable odds, that atmosphere isn't gone forever.