CHAMPAIGN – March Madness is returning to Champaign-Urbana.
The Illinois High School Association board voted Monday to move its Boys Basketball State Finals tournament from Peoria to the University of Illinois State Farm Center for the next three years. The board voted to keep the girls’ tournament at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena in Normal, rejecting a bid from Peoria.
In a news release, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said there’s “incredible passion for high school basketball” in both Champaign and Peoria, and that both communities submitted impressive bids for hosting the tournament. But he said the timing felt right for moving the tournament, as it changes from a two-weekend event to a three-day format.
At a news conference held later on Monday, Anderson added that the State Farm Center’s 2016 renovation also helped convince board members that now was the time to move back to Champaign.
“The venue is absolutely top-notch,” said Anderson. The investment that the university made in the facility is really a crowning jewel for this state.”
The decision ends a quarter century of tournament play at Peoria. Before that, the U of I Urbana campus hosted the boys’ tournament for 78 years, from 1919 to 1995. From 1963, games were played at the State Farm Center, under its former name, the Assembly Hall. Prior to that, the tournament was held at Huff Gymnasium. In 1939, IHSA assistant executive secretary Henry Porter wrote an article for the association’s magazine that described the tournament as “March Madness”. Newspaper reporters picked up on the phrase, and it became a popular nickname for the event. Today, March Madness is used by many tournaments, including NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball, but the IHSA holds the trademark for the name.
In 1995, Champaign-Urbana fans were shocked when the IHSA board awarded hosting rights for the Boys Basketball State Finals to Peoria. From 1996 to 2019, the tournament was played at the Peoria Civic Center’s Carver Arena (the 2020 tournament was canceled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Peoria gained a reputation for emphasizing a more enjoyable experience for fans at the tournament, from more reasonable hotel rates to the games and exhibits that made up the “March Madness Experience” outside the Carver Arena.
Jayne DeLuce, president of the tourism group Visit Champaign County, says the people involved have changed over the past quarter-century. She says the new tournament bid that the IHSA Board approved Monday reflects greater collaboration between the community and the university than there had been before. DeLuce says today’s approach is different from that of the Champaign-Urbana community of the 1990’s, which she concedes may have come to take March Madness for granted.
“I use the word, a little bit of complacency, where we never thought that the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana,” said DeLuce. “And people today are dedicated and passionate about keeping it here forever.”
Champaign’s bid for the tournament includes interactive high-tech fan attractions around the arena, and room rates guaranteed to be below rack rate (the initial asking price) at 13 local hotels. DeLuce says March Madness is expected to bring an $4 million impact to the Champaign-Urbana economy each year.
(This article has been expanded from its original length — JM 6/15/20 10:20 p.m.)