In sports, and really in today’s culture at large, you’re supposed to pick a side.
This isn’t ESPN’s ‘First Take’, though, or ‘Undisputed’ with Skip and Shannon. This is a piece about Friday’s groundbreaking Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association assembly vote to implement a statewide playoff tournament for all high school sports.
Imagine a first round state tournament game that has Bishop Fenwick traveling to Agawam, or …
The raw truth is that if I was voting in this particular election, I don’t know if I’d say yes or no.
My initial reaction when I heard about this proposal almost a year ago was “absolutely not.” The more I’ve learned about how various facets address concerns with the current format, however, my stance has softened.
There are definitely things about a statewide tournament, which would begin in the fall of 2021, that are good.
Let’s start with the positives. Having every sport use the same format for the playoffs would be less confusing for those that follow high school sports on the margins. Having fair divisional alignments across the state eliminates gigantic schools in other regions playing much smaller ones in football Super Bowls at Gillette Stadium. Team’s wouldn’t meet in a state final with one having playing five playoff games to get there and its opponent having to play only three games to do so (although I think that concern is overblown).
A statewide tournament absolutely makes better games at the end of the playoffs. State finals and semifinals are much more likely to be compelling games, and that’s not always the case with the current sectional play format. If two titans happen to be in the same geographic region, they currently meet in the first or second round.
On the flip side, under the new proposal you’d be getting a lot of bad games at the beginning of the state tournament. Since that’s when most teams are still involved, maybe that’s not great news.
The negatives of a statewide tournament?
Obviously travel. A first round playoff game between Ipswich and Athol isn’t appealing to anyone. If you’re a working parent, the further away your child’s state playoff game is, the more challenging it’ll be to get there. This isn’t “Hoosiers”, where the entire town can shut down and caravan across the state to watch their team play; having to choose to go or not go is a lousy position to put families in.
You’re also losing the meaning of winning a North sectional championship. Girls hockey already has a statewide tournament, and Masconomet went to back-to-back state Final Fours in 2017 and ‘18. But the Chieftains don’t have the trophy or team photo with an MIAA banner that a semifinalist in any other sport would get as a sectional champion. Though they went further than some sectional champs, it didn’t feel that way because they ‘only’ made the semifinals of one big bracket.
What’s the consensus opinion? There isn’t one.
I ran a Twitter poll this week asking how folks felt and ‘What? I haven’t read it’ was tied for the most votes with the ‘Ruinous, it’s the end of high school sports’ option. Those each got 26 percent while “Awesome I love it” and “Meh, I’m sure it’s fine” each got 24 percent.
My unscientific poll shows the state is deadlocked about whether this is good or bad.
It’s the “What? I haven’t read it” that should scare you the most. Hopefully, people won’t be waking up on Monday after this thing passes and reading it for the first time. That most of the social media discussion on the issue is between media members rather than coaches, fans or officials makes me wonder.
On the North Shore, it’s also divided. The feeling I get out of the Northeastern Conference schools is that the majority of them — perhaps even three quarters — will vote no. The Cape Ann League is the opposite, with most schools in favor of it. The parochial schools (St. John’s Prep, Bishop Fenwick) are certainly in favor.
The X-factor here is power seeding. Regardless of the statewide vote, every sport in the state will seed by a proprietary MaxPreps ranking next year instead of straight winning percentage.
I’ve become a huge proponent of power seeding — it’s worked very well in the football and lacrosse playoffs. There’s a good chance power seeding will solve many of the ‘best teams meet too early’ concerns about sectional tourneys. I wish we could see how that shakes out before having to choose yay or nay on the statewide proposal.
Realignment is also coming no matter how Friday’s vote goes. That means many schools currently in the North or South will be shifted to the Central region of hte state in order to balance the number of teams in each section. It’s unlikely to impact the teams in The Salem News coverage area, though, so let’s leave that to the side.
A word about the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee (TMC): it doesn’t get said enough, so thank you for working on this. The administrators that researched and drafted this proposal gave their time and put themselves in the arena. They’re good, hard-working people — not some cabal looking to take over high school sports. It’s not easy to have something you poured sweat and tears into dissected and argued about by the entire Bay State.
The TMC deserves gratitude and respect whether the vote goes up or down.
I’ve turned the pros and cons over more times than I can count, and I’m still not totally sure if a statewide tournament is a positive, negative or neutral.
I keep coming back to the girls hockey playoffs. I doubt anyone in the state has seen as many girls hockey tournament games as I have over the last dozen years; I’ve sometimes wished girls hockey had a North and South playoff. I’ve never wished the soccer or baseball tournament was statewide.
So I suppose if forced to picked a side, I’d vote no.
But if the statewide tourney passes on Friday morning, it’ll be fine. In any bracket, under any format, the games will go on.
And we’ll plan on being there to tell the stories.
Matt Williams never played in a state tournament game, but has covered hundreds of them in a dozen sports since joining The Salem News in 2007. Let him know how you feel about the proposal at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.