Open Division title game at Sun Devil Stadium

Pregame festivities unfold as Chandler takes the field before playing Scottsdale Saguaro for the Open Division state championship Dec. 7 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.

TEMPE — Sun Devil Stadium was a fitting venue for the spectacle of the 5A, 6A and first-ever Open Division football state championship games held in December. But it also raised questions of cost and what can be done for conferences below the 5A level.

Cost is always a factor, especially when an organization is spending other people’s money.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association collects membership dues from all of its 268 high schools. Most of those schools are public schools, but the AIA is not a public entity.

When PinalCentral asked the AIA how much money it spent to hold three football state championship games at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium and how much revenue it made, it refused to provide answers, citing its status as a private, nonprofit organization.

“As stated previously, the AIA is not a state entity and not subject to public records,” AIA spokesman Seth Polansky said in an email. “That said, any facility contract terms are confidential and not disclosed. Any financial data is released through the public access to the IRS Form 990 that is housed on Guidestar.org after audit. The AIA releases no other information pre-audit for any specific event, revenue included.”

Financial data released through Guidestar.org lags well behind real time. For instance, the most recent Form 990 information available for the AIA is from Fiscal Year 2017. In that year, its total revenue was $12,697,309, and its expenses were $12,377,341.

The AIA’s refusal to provide records was a temporary roadblock to getting information the public has a right to know. PinalCentral then requested the same information from ASU. As a public institution, it must abide by Arizona Public Records Law, and it did.

To rent the facility for two days — Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day — the AIA paid $114,207. Broken down by a per-game basis, that’s $38,069 per game. The estimated cost ASU provided the AIA before the events were held was $130,000, so the invoice sent to the AIA on Jan. 28 did come in below that number.

The question of whether or not that is a reasonable cost to pay for championship games depends on how much revenue the AIA made from ticket sales to those games.

Polansky said the AIA only makes money from ticket sales. He said all revenue from parking, concessions or anything else is under the sole control of the host venue for all rounds of the state playoffs either at schools or neutral sites.

The AIA would not release figures on revenues it made from ticket sales to the games held at Sun Devil Stadium. David Hines, executive director of the AIA, said the organization made a profit on the contests, although not to the extent it wanted.

“Financially, we did make some money after expenses, however, football is the driver to help support many of our non-revenue generating sports,” he said in an email to PinalCentral. “Don’t have all the final figures in but we did finish with a positive number, but still lower than needed for the end of year totals.”

Hines said the AIA plans to have championship games at Sun Devil Stadium again for the 2020 season, but he is not sure which games or how many will be played at the site.

Where will 4A and other conferences play title games?

In Arizona high school sports parlance, 1A-3A schools are considered “small schools,” while 4A and up are “big schools.” In that respect, it was curious to see 4A left out in the cold as the only big school conference that didn’t get to play its championship game on the glitzy stage of Sun Devil Stadium. The 4A championship game was played at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise.

That decision did not sit well with some 4A coaches in Pinal County.

“I want to have the 4A game there (Sun Devil Stadium),” said Casa Grande Union coach Jake Barro, who called playing the game at Willow Canyon High School “ridiculous.”

Barro, whose team made it to the 4A quarterfinals before losing on a last-second field goal to Goodyear Desert Edge, said he hopes the 4A championship game will be at Sun Devil Stadium in 2020.

Barro added the 1A, 2A and 3A games should also be played at a college stadium because he said there’s nothing unique about playing at a high school.

All three levels played at high schools — 1A played at Coronado High School in Scottsdale on Nov. 16, 2A was held at Coronado High on Dec. 6, and the 3A title game was at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert on Nov. 29.

“I think there’s something to be said for having a special venue for the state championship,” Barro said, adding there was “no excuse” for the AIA to put the 4A title game at Willow Canyon. “You don’t want to play at a high school.”

Poston Butte coach Dain Thompson shared similar sentiments, saying it was an insult to 4A teams to not just hold the game at a high school but one on the west side of Surprise, about an hour drive northwest of central Phoenix.

“Having it at a high school at the northwest side of the world was a slap in the face,” he said.

Like Barro, Thompson said the state championship game deserves something better than just a random high school venue.

“It’s nice to culminate (the season) with something special,” he said.

When Thompson was an assistant coach under Paul Moro at Lakeside Blue Ridge, he coached in some championship games played at Mesa Community College. He said MCC did a “great job,” and it was a good experience for the players.

In Thompson’s view, as long as it makes sense financially, it should be done.

“If the money is there, spend it on the kids,” he said.

Some coaches and media questioned why the AIA didn’t have two doubleheaders for the big school championship games. The 6A game was played as a standalone event Dec. 6, while the 5A and Open Division title games were both played Dec. 7.

Hines said the simple explanation for this is that ASU limits how many games the AIA can play at Sun Devil Stadium.

“This past year we were limited to three games, which was one more than the year prior,” he said. “The number of games played at Sun Devil Stadium is at the discretion of ASU.”

The 4A championship would have been played at the University of Arizona if a Tucson school had made the championship game. That did not happen, as Gilbert Mesquite played Goodyear Desert Edge.

As for the 1A, 2A and 3A games, it’s a bit complicated. Since 1A ends its season two weeks earlier, Hines said the conference doesn’t want to extend its season to play its championship with 2A and 3A.

Another issue is the time of day the championship games are played, which could affect whether or not 1A, 2A and 3A schools play at a venue like Phoenix College or other junior colleges in Maricopa County. All those conferences have requested to play games in the evening instead of the afternoon.

Hines also said the 2A Conference has requested not to play at the same venue as 3A.

“We have played the 2A/3A [championship] on the same day, but the 2A [schools] requested not to play at the same site as the 3A [schools] and play their games in the evening, not the afternoon.”

Hines added the University of Arizona (for schools not in Tucson) and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff are not viewed as likely options because conferences have asked to stay in the Phoenix metro area as much as possible.

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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