Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michigan's Weekend O' Prep Football Still A Great Value

For all the nay-saying and negative news pouring out of Michigan these days, there's still a lot to brag about in our state. We still have the charter game of the marquee weekend in pro football's regular season with the Thanksgiving Day matinee. Yes, the Detroit Lions haven't been compelling theater in nearly three consecutive presidential terms, but I'll address that later.

Following the annual Turkey Day game, the Michigan High School Athletic Association holds it's yearly football finals at Ford Field, another Michigan tradition since the mid-to-late 1970s at the Pontiac Silverdome. There was a tremendous crowd for yesterday's Lake Orion - Rockford matchup, the gold stamp contest among eight different championship games over Friday and Saturday. I would guesstimate the assembled masses at near 20,000 for the Division I final, and I'm surprised it wasn't significantly more.

I'm surprised because we've all heard so much about our dying economy's terrifying effects of the last nearly two years. There's thousands of houses in foreclosure, jobs literally evaporating, credit virtually impossible to secure, the list is endless. Yet the Lions, at 0-11 and practically begging for people to buy tickets, get a sellout on Thanksgiving at over $40 a ticket and parking around the stadium going for $50 a car. The MHSAA? Despite the great turnout, they still had seats to spare in the endzones of the lower bowl in Ford Field. For the cost of a $10 ticket, a fan gets four games and parking locked in at $6 per car at a handful of lots, making the day-long experience of four games at Ford Field less than dinner for two at a coney island.

I'm very surprised that more fans don't take advantage of the incredible value that is the MHSAA football finals. Yes, this is a Lions town and Detroit fans have supported their team in even the most head-turning times (for example, this year, right?), so that much I understand. It's this loyalty that makes Detroit one of the nation's great sports towns.

I've sometimes been critical of the MHSAA, like many coaches, administrators, fans and fellow officials have been on many different issues. That's life. Sometimes my writing and refereeing is seen as dead-on and other times it's viewed with a less complimentary eye. After two years of attending the football finals in two different capacities, I'm floored at how effective a small army of dedicated athletic administrators, aka the MHSAA, are at transforming a mammoth, 65,000-seat facility that earned a SuperBowl and a Final Four into an incredible experience for 16 competing schools and all the marching bands, cheer squads, pom-pon teams and dance corps that accompany the championship teams. The MHSAA is to be applauded for that.

Last year I volunteered as a down box linesman for two of the eight games, and this year I covered the Lake Orion - Rockford matchup for The Oakland Press. You can read my championship game sidebar story that ran in today's edition here, and the Lake Orion - Dearborn Fordson retrospective that ran last week is linked here. I've often wondered aloud why the MHSAA doesn't share it's championship experience with a greater pool of officials, and the MHSAA has begun to address this very issue in a more proactive manner. Yet after this weekend, I can say with absolute conviction that Michigan's football finals is an incredible experience in a mesmerizing venue and it's something anyone associated with prep football should support in earnest. That might mean pushing hard to earn a finals assignment as a contest official, or volunteer as an administrator or coach, or simply purchase a few tickets and bring the family.

It's really an incredible undertaking and one that is done for the kids, which makes it all the more remarkable in today's economic climate. There are game site options available to the MHSAA that would be much more cost-friendly than Ford Field. The MHSAA gets no discount to play their championship at the Lions' facility because to Ford Field, it's just another date that could be booked with a different event, and you don't stay in business giving your product away all the time. There's no media discount either -- the cost to hook up to Ford Field's BlueZone internet service on a per day, per reporter basis was $30, the same as a Lions game. Yet the finals continue to be held at the state's premiere facility because our Michigan schools, stocked by Michigan families, expect no less of an experience than the generation before them, and the MHSAA is committed to delivering on that promise.

Our state's communities get a SuperBowl-quality experience in a SuperBowl venue -- and how many prep football fans around the country can say that?

~ T.C. Cameron is writing Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due in August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing.

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