TACOMA — The 2019 Washington high school football state championships came and went with rave reviews from event organizers in its first year in an outdoor, multi-site format.
But what will the future of the WIAA’s Gridiron Classic look like?
The WIAA signed one-time rental use agreements with three high school stadiums in Pierce County — Mount Tahoma Stadium, Harry Lang Stadium (Lakewood) and Sparks Stadium (Puyallup) — for Saturday’s games, and the association says it’s exploring all options for next year as it grapples with a years-long trend of decreased attendance for the Gridiron Classic, a main source of revenue for the association.
“Everything’s open right now,” WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman said on Saturday. “We’re going to evaluate, we have a long ways to go.
“We have lots of work to do before we can make any recommendations.”
Talks for next year have included several large-scale facilities. The WIAA is in early discussions with CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, and University of Washington’s Husky Stadium in Seattle. But those large stadiums would also entail higher rent, which present similar budget restrictions that in part caused the WIAA to leave the Tacoma Dome.
In order for either large scale setting to be feasible, Hoffman said it’s going to depend on what “they’re able to work out with us.”
Hoffman does not anticipate any action on next year’s site until March at the earliest.
According to the WIAA, 11,178 people attended the six championship games, a new all-time low, though it appeared several games were near capacity and the combined capacity of the three stadiums is roughly 13,000. The total decline in attendance was anticipated, the association says, in step with a long-term trend. In 2018, the event netted 13,358 attendees at the Tacoma Dome, then an all-time low total attendance by more than 2,000 tickets.
The WIAA Executive Board voted in early June not to renew its contract with the Tacoma Dome, which had housed championships in each classification since 1995, citing increasing rental costs and a decline in attendance. In September, the board unanimously approved the three-site Gridiron Classic for Saturday’s 2019 state championship.
Hoffman said at the time that preliminary estimates showed the association would save around $65,000 on the three-site outdoor format compared to what it paid to rent the Tacoma Dome in 2018. The WIAA declined to disclose financial information until January when it presents the figures to the executive board.
Hoffman was pleased with the environment in the event’s first year outside of the Tacoma Dome since 1995 — the Kingdome hosted the event for 18 years previously — and implied the environment better fits the event than a college or NFL stadium with the majority of the seats empty.
“Good crowds, kids gotta play in loud, packed stadiums, rather than in empty museums,” Hoffman said. “It’s great, it’s what high school football should be, it’s exactly how high school football should feel at the end of the day.”
Some coaches who were on the sidelines in Saturday’s state championships agreed, but hope the event lands in a bigger arena going forward.
Odessa’s Jeff Nelson, whose Tigers won the 1B title, would rather see the game played in the Tacoma Dome, but said playing at Mount Tahoma Stadium was “fantastic.”
“The kids said this is probably the best stadium we’ve ever seen for outdoors, it wasn’t a let-down,” Nelson said. “They would prefer to also be in the dome, but it is what it is. I think it was a great set-up.”
Nelson hopes sites in Eastern Washington will be considered, such as Washington State’s Martin Stadium or Eastern Washington’s Roos Field, though he acknowledges weather would become a factor. On Saturday, Odessa and Naselle played through persistent rain.
Bothell coach Tom Bainter, whose Cougars played in the 4A game at Mount Tahoma Stadium, said the facilities were great and well-run, but said a single site for all six games would offer a “special” fan experience.
Bainter said he attended games at the Kingdome when the state had five classifications.
“I hope there’s an opportunity for just some conversation that would include some coaches and athletic directors and see if we can’t find a venue that can host more games so that more fans can enjoy a day and not have to move around,” Bainter said.