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Sports Commentary: A single sports conference for central Illinois explored

Ike Brannon
Ike Brannon

When the Richwoods football team faced off against Metamora in 2012 it was the hottest ticket in town. The schools without a doubt have the strongest football programs in central Illinois and regularly advance far in the playoffs.

An overflow crowd of 4,000 showed up to watch the contest, which was the largest attendance for a high school game in recent memory — perhaps since the demise of the Peoria Turkey Bowl in the early 1970s.

Another reason it was a hot ticket was that despite what ought to be a hearty rivalry, the two teams rarely face off: 2012 was the first time the teams played one another in more than a decade. That the two best area football programs rarely meet is a shame both for the schools as well as the community. 

The main reason the two schools rarely meet is that they belong to different conferences: Metamora plays in the Mid Illini, which consists of the large suburban schools, and Richwoods’ football team — along with the other three big Peoria high schools — plays in a conference with teams from Galesburg, the Quad Cities, and Quincy. For the Peoria schools it is a terrible fit — the long distance between schools means that few fans from the Big Six schools will travel to Peoria to see a game or vice versa, and nothing remotely close to a rivalry exists between any Peoria schools and any teams out west. 

But the Mid-Illini schools — and the rest of us — lose by not regularly competing against the Peoria schools: having two conferences means that the top suburban and city teams meet one another only on a haphazard basis, depriving central Illinois sports fans of the sorts of high-profile, fan-friendly games that would re-ignite interest in area high school sports.

The Peoria schools and the suburban schools don’t play in the same conference for a couple of reasons: First, there are too many large high schools in the area to execute the typical conference schedule of each team playing one another once in football and twice in basketball. 

What’s more, the Mid-Illini schools don’t match up all that well with the Peoria schools in many sports: While Central and Manual are often singularly dominant in basketball, they often have trouble fielding teams in a number of minor sports. The last thing a harried high school athletic director wants to deal with is a regular opponent who won’t know until September if it can actually field a team, and there are probably some area basketball coaches who would rather not take on a Peoria school in the years it is contending for a state championship.

But the large high schools in the area could indeed form a single sports conference that largely avoids these problems if we were to take a page from European soccer when integrating the teams for major sports.

Put simply, we should create a relegation league for the major sports. For football and basketball the 12 team conference (13 if IVC joined) would split into two divisions based on a team’s strength. One way to do so would be to switch the bottom two teams in the first division in the previous year with the top two teams 

in the second division, which is what relegation leagues do. 

Alternatively, we could create a committee of sportswriters and other officials to split the conference into the two divisions before the season.

Scheduling would then be straightforward: for football, teams in each division would play each other once as well as three teams in the other division, with one non-conference game filling out the schedule. In basketball, teams would play a home-and-home series against the teams in their division and one game against each team in the other division, and have room for one or two non-conference games.

For most minor sports there’s little need for any demarcation. 

Baseball and softball could have all twelve teams play each other twice, with the help of a few doubleheaders.  

For track and cross country we can have a few triangular meets and allow every team compete against each other. For sports like soccer and tennis and swimming, where not every school fields a team, the combined conference may turn out to be just the right size. 

A single conference would boost interest in high school sports by allowing the best area teams to regularly face each other while also creating a single focal point for area high school sports. 

With the best teams in the area regularly facing off, more high-profile games will occur, boosting media coverage and fan attention. The relegation structure means that the teams on the bubble will be trying harder to enter (or remain) in the first division, making for meaningful games even among teams not contending for the conference championship.

We would also have more evenly paired match ups than is currently the case. While there will still be incidences where the best area team gets to feast on the struggling teams, this would be greatly lessened by the two division format. 

Another benefit is that area student-athletes will spend much less time on a bus traveling to games, saving them study time and their schools, and taxpayers, money that could be better spent elsewhere. 

A possible objection from football coaches might be that the lesser schools in the A division might find themselves disadvantaged and miss the playoffs while the top schools in the B division sneak into the playoffs. It may well happen, but it is a minor point: A team in the first division that wins a single divisional game will have a chance to make the playoffs, given that it will have four winnable non-divisional games. 

Besides, the sanctity of a slightly above average football team getting a perfunctory playoff game is slightly absurd: regardless of how we split the divisions the best teams in the area will make the playoffs. Splitting them this way will make them better-prepared to advance in the state tournament.

In the early 1980s, when I played basketball and ran track for Bergan high school, the Mid-State conference had ten teams. 

Big football and basketball games regularly sold out, and the local media devoted outsized attention to these events. They unified our community in a way few other things did. 

These days major area sporting events big enough to transcend the sports page are few and far between. 

However, a single sports conference comprised of every major high school in Central Illinois would bring renewed attention to area athletics, renewing old rivalries and creating new ones. It would also save taxpayer dollars and reduce the travel time for hundreds of area athletes. 

The potential benefits are too great to allow inertia to prevent it from happening. 

Ike Brannon, a native of Mossville, is an economist residing in Washington, DC.

Editors note; The Mid-State 6 conference will be adopted into the Big 12 Conference beginning the 2013-14 academic school year.