COLUMN: An 8-game football season hurts schools, but not IHSAA

In 2008 the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s board of control made a polarizing decision when it opted to expand the football playoffs from 16 to 32 teams in each of the six classes.

Proponents of the shift argued the old system unfairly penalized deserving teams that, by the luck of the draw, got stuck in difficult districts and finished outside of the top two. Those in opposition stuck to the claim that adding teams – a total of four per district, to be exact – to the postseason would do nothing but water down what was already a strong playoffs system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, that kind of thing.

Optimists said the IHSAA was only trying to increase the opportunities for hundreds of kids from Keokuk to Rock Valley. Cynics channeled their inner Rod Tidwell – Show me the money! – and said the additional playoff round was nothing more than a financial windfall for the association.

And now the IHSAA has made it publicly known that it is thinking about making another dramatic change to the football landscape, and it all filters back to that watershed moment in 2008.

Later this week the IHSAA board of control will again meet and decide whether or not to reduce the regular season from nine to eight games. At the crux of the debate is player safety; since the expansion of the playoffs and the tight fall calendar in which the IHSAA abides by, the playoffs usually begin in late October and end the week before Thanksgiving. That pushes playoff qualifiers that keep winning to play as many as four games in 15 days and, well, that passed the border of ridiculous about one game ago.

Dropping one game from the regular season slate would allow the playoffs to begin a week earlier and eliminate the need to play so many games in so few days, or so the theory goes.

On the surface you could theorize the IHSAA is again only looking out for its student-athletes.

The argument could also be made the IHSAA is only looking out for itself.

Losing one regular season game would mean that schools would see the profits from one home game evaporate into thin air every other year. That may not sound too extreme, but if you’ve been paying attention to the financial dire straits of school districts around the state then you understand that every penny counts.

Webster City Athletic Director Bob Howard estimates that the loss of one non-district game – the gate receipts and concessions that come from that extra home game – could cost the Class 3A school as much as $7,000. Todd Coy, his contemporary at 1A South Hamilton, said that figure could be as little as $2,000 and as much as $6,000, depending on which game was sliced from the schedule.

For 4A programs, where attendance overflows for some rivalry games, the financial loss could exceed $10,000 or $15,000.

We’re talking real money here; dollars that are used to buy protective equipment, uniforms and various other necessities for not only football, but a wide variety of sports programs. How do you think schools pay for baseball bats, tennis balls, soccer goals, etc.? Those sports don’t bring in revenue, yet they survive because of the money football places on the table.

Perhaps better solutions are staring the IHSAA right in the face – scale back the playoffs or simply move the regular season up a week, to what has confusingly always been known as Week Zero.

Research shows that the expansion of the playoffs hasn’t done a great deal to alter the finished product. In the six years since the move, No. 4 seeds are 15-248 all time, a winning percentage of .060. Only one No. 4 seed has ever won more than one postseason game – Pella actually reached the 3A state title game in 2009 – and most of the time those first-round games against No. 1 seeds are blowouts.

Since Class 4A in the western portion of the state went to the district format in 2012, No. 4 seeds are winless.

No. 3 seeds have fared better – 101-248 all time (.407) – with Dike-New Hartford making the 1A finals in 2010 and two others advancing to the semifinals. Still, only 16 teams have ever claimed more than one postseason victory.

Area schools Webster City, South Hamilton and Northeast Hamilton have all benefitted from the expanded playoffs in recent years and I get it – reaching the playoffs is a boon to school pride and prestige. But it’s the big picture that is important.

According to the IHSAA, the thought of returning to the former playoff system isn’t even up for discussion. It has many, myself included, wondering why?

Here comes Rod Tidwell again.

After some prodding, Howard said WCHS kept approximately $700 from the thousands of dollars in gate receipts from last fall’s home playoff game against Grinnell. The remainder of the revenue – somewhere in the vicinity of 90 percent – went into the IHSAA coffers.

Is it possible the IHSAA isn’t willing to trim the playoffs because it would cost the organization a significant chunk of change? Is this yet another example of the old saying, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer?”

I can’t answer those questions, but I think the IHSAA should give some answers before its board of control goes behind closed doors and does irreparable harm to our state’s football programs.