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Venue change could boost interest in football finals

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Considering his team has lost three state semifinals since 2009, it's not surprising what Marion-Franklin High School football coach Brian Haffele thinks about holding the championship games in Columbus the next two seasons.

He doesn't care where the games are played as long as the Red Devils are playing -- even in what might feel like an empty stadium.

After having five state finals per year in Ohio Stadium from 1983-89, the state championship games were held the last 24 years in northeast Ohio.

Beginning in 1991, the games were played at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, which is home to Massillon Washington, and Fawcett Stadium, the home field for Canton McKinley and the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.

The communities relished the spotlight and the annual financial boost, and players enjoyed top-notch facilities.

Because Fawcett seats more than 22,000 and Paul Brown Tiger has a capacity of more than 16,000, games until recent years generally had an intimate feel to them.

In 2012, the combined attendance of six state championship games split between Massillon and Canton was 43,911, well off the state-record 65,663 that watched the 2001 state finals.

Last fall, despite the addition of a seventh division, the total attendance of all state finals was, surprisingly, even lower -- 37,766, or about 5,400 per game.

So what will it feel like Dec. 4-6 when each game is played at Ohio Stadium, where the capacity is more than 100,000?

The answer is obvious, although things might not be as bad as they seem.

The Greater Columbus Sports Commission recently launched the "Gridiron Gang" made up of 50 business and community leaders with the hope of selling at least 5,000 all-session tickets.

While that should help, if successful, the fact Ohio Stadium is centralized should increase attendance as well.

Hamilton County, which is home to schools such as Cincinnati Moeller and Cincinnati St. Xavier, is about a four-hour drive from Canton but just two hours from Columbus.

Moeller's 55-52 win over Mentor in the Division I final last December was played in front of just 7,126 -- meaning two-thirds of Fawcett Stadium was empty for the offensive explosion.

While it seems likely that attendance will shift back in the right direction, there's little that can be done to make the home of the Buckeyes not feel empty during the state football finals.

According to OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross, though, venue size is "down the list of qualifications."

He uses soccer, which sometimes has drawn as few as 1,200 fans inside 22,000-seat Crew Stadium for state finals, as an example.

"Tournaments being held (in central Ohio) are a whole lot less of a drive, and we're hoping to build up attendance through that," Ross said. "Our feeling is that it'll be a little different, but what we hear is that kids want to have an opportunity to walk down the tunnel at Ohio Stadium."

Playing state football finals in large stadiums isn't a new idea.

Michigan holds its title games at Ford Field, which is home to the Detroit Lions and can seat 70,000. Its most-attended state final last year, in Division IV, had 27,945 fans.

"In a lot of other states the championships are in big stadiums," said Haffele, who was an assistant in 2011 in the Ohio North-South All-Star game in Ohio Stadium.

"I've heard other coaches say there's something special about Canton or Massillon, but for a young person, coming to (Ohio Stadium) is special."

With attendance lagging in recent years, it seems like an ideal time to find out whether a potential lack of atmosphere can be offset by the experience players will get by being in the Horseshoe.

Jarrod Ulrey is a ThisWeek sportswriter. Follow his blog, "On the Recruiting Trail," for the latest in central Ohio high school recruiting news.

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