By John Larson
Tacoma Dome has hosted its last high school football title game. On June 2, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Executive Board voted not to renew its contract with the venue as the host site for the championships. The cost of renting the facility and changes to the fan experience due to Dome renovations done last year were primary reasons behind the decision.
“The Tacoma community and the Tacoma Dome have been great hosts for many WIAA state championships over the years,” said WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese. “They will continue to provide an exceptional experience for the WIAA Mat Classic and Hardwood Classic events,” he said, in reference to the state tournaments for wrestling and basketball.
Tacoma Dome began hosting some playoff games in 1983, its first year of operation. The state title games had been played at the Kingdome until relocating to Tacoma in 1995. There are six classifications in this state, from the smallest schools at the 1B level up to the largest at 4A, held on the first weekend in December, with two games on Friday and four on Saturday.
“Ultimately, the Executive Board needed to evaluate whether holding the Gridiron Classic in the Tacoma Dome made sense for the Association, student-participants and fans. Costs of renting the facility have continued to increase and WIAA staff received criticisms regarding the new seating arrangement for football,” Colbrese remarked.
As a multi-use facility, Tacoma Dome has never been absolutely perfect for all events. It has not had a pro sports tenant since the minor-league hockey Tacoma Sabercats folded in 2002. With concerts being the major source of revenue for the Dome, the renovations last year aimed to improve the concert experience for fans and artists.
The new, improved Tacoma Dome opened last fall, hosting a trade show and a few concerts prior to the 2018 title games. Colbrese said WIAA staff received some complaints from fans about the new seating arrangement. Many of them felt the sight lines were not well suited for watching football.
No decision has been made about replacement venues. WIAA staff and the board are studying their options. Basketball is currently split among three cities – Tacoma, Spokane and Yakima. Several other sports have championships played in several cities. It is likely that football will be split into several sites. Due to costs, it is unlikely that Seahawks Stadium or Husky Stadium would be considered.
“We take a lot of pride in hosting it,” said Kevin Ikeda, principal of Stadium High School. He played the sport while attending the University of Washington, where his coach was the legendary, late Don James. Asked about his school’s football venue, Stadium Bowl, Ikeda said it can seat 15,000. However, parking is scarce in Stadium District. The small parking garage that was built when the school was renovated several years ago would not accommodate the crowds that state title games would attract. “It would not work here,” he said.
Venues in the area that might work in terms of rental cost, seating capacity and parking include Mount Tahoma High School and Sparks Stadium in Puyallup.
Colbrese said that the board needs to make decision that take into the financial situation of an organization that oversees multiple sports, as well as the budgets of families that attend.
“Fans will see lower ticket prices by no longer paying the service fees associated with the Dome, and related costs of attending the event, such as parking and concessions, will be significantly reduced as well.”
Dean Burke, Executive Director of the Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission, said that in the conversations that have been happening so far, there has been one key part of the equation that’s been missing or understated: Attendance.
“Rising rental costs are a normal factor, and the Dome has been transparent in keeping those costs at a minimum,” he told the Tacoma Weekly. “We’ve done our part to offer support there too, but here is the big piece that few realize: Since 2006, attendance (measured in actual ticket sales), has declined by 48 percent. Only once, in the year 2012 was there a random spike in the positive direction, but all other years have shown steady decline. So while venue costs have gone up modestly, spectator ticket revenue has fallen by nearly half.”
Burke noted that attendance statistics appear to follow two trends:
- Participation: Youth football participation in the US has been in steady decline for the last decade. Youth football players ages 6-18 have declined by 38 percent since 2009.
- High school football participation, nationwide, has declined by 6.5 percent during the same period. (And in the state of California, the high school decline is 12 percent).
- Spectator/ Event Consumption: Mobile devices, social media, live streaming – all have had measurable effects on how live sports events are experienced and consumed. This trend is why professional leagues are spending millions on “fan experience” and creating more of a social atmosphere at games than ever before. This appears to be affecting youth sports the most. Immediate families still attend, but fewer “non-family” fans are attending.
“There is hope for Pierce County still,” Burke said. “We are working with the WIAA on the possibility that the state finals may indeed remain in Pierce County and could be played in Sumner or Puyallup stadiums. Both have semi-covered seating and would be a smart move financially.”