HOT SPRINGS — From one perspective, the Cabot-Bentonville 7A boys state championship game was played in the greatest high school atmosphere possible Friday night.
Standing room only. Fire marshals closed the doors early. Bank of the Ozarks Arena was crammed to the rafters — so crammed that there was no room courtside for the Cabot dance team, who had to watch the game on TV in a VIP room until the final two minutes when they were allowed into the playing area to celebrate Cabot’s victory over Bentonville.
On the other hand, some folks called it a disaster. The 6,000-plus arena was so packed that some late-arriving fans from Cabot and Bentonville could not get in to see the game. Some had purchased advance tickets. Both Cabot and Bentonville had sold their allotment.
One reason was Cabot was in the boys title game for the first time.
But the main reason was it was the last high school game for Bentonville’s Malik Monk, a Kentucky signee and one of the best high school players in Arkansas history.
Monk was a marquee that had a far-reaching arc.
While it was storming a bit outside, there was an imperfect one in it.
* Despite the anger and rants, Hot Springs has and largest arena realistically possible to host the tournament, which belongs in central Arkansas. It is the perfect size for most games. The hosting role is set in stone for awhile. The new contract, approved last year, continues through 2021.
Verizon Arena in North Little Rock is not an option. Verizon officials don’t want it. Their bid to host when the contract was last renewed was token and so ridiculous that AAA officials had to hold back their chuckles.
Verizon treasures its weekends and holds them for big concerts and events in which they can sell $75 to $100 cheap-seat tickets plus liquor at the concession stands. Verizon is not going to bid aggressively for high school sports events.
* What happened Friday was an anomaly. The championship schedule is arranged so the smaller classifications have afternoon games, so theoretically those crowds will clear out for the larger schools later. Tickets are sold for a full-day session, as few or as many as a fan wants to see. The expectation is most fans of one team will leave after a game or two.
Friday, no one left. The fans who came from the early afternoon games did not leave, even the students for the 1 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. games. Kirby and Nemo Vista’s girls, the game before Bentonville and Cabot, played before an SRO crowd.
Everyone wanted to stay around to see Monk play.
With no one leaving, there was very little room for the late-arriving fans.
Steve Arrison of the Hot Springs visitors bureau, has been involved in hosting tournaments 18 years and said he has only seen such logjams twice.
It’s going to happen once in a blue moon with a marquee player or a team. There’s not a whole lot that can be done on the fly when, when a fans who are theoretically expected to leave in a natural ebb and flow, don’t leave and choose to stay the entire session.
* Arkansas fans, particularly in high school, are late-arriving fans. They are not conditioned to arriving early despite warnings from various media outlets. Some heeded. Cabot fans were seen in the arena by early afternoon for the scheduled 8:45 p.m. start.
* That said, it’s silly to sell advance tickets at the schools when those with advance tickets can’t see the game they want to see. Officials underestimated the far-reaching dynamics of the Monk-Cabot Cinderella situation.
* Two possible solutions:
1. Have afternoon and evening sessions, like at college postseason tournaments and some state and regional tourneys. Clear the arena after each session and allow only spectators with tickets for the next session back in.
2. Instead of 14 games spread over three days, start Wednesday and make it a three-game arrangement beginning at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with two hours between games.
Actually, Arrison was not unhappy with Friday’s dynamics. When he first brought the tournament to Hot Springs, he envisioned a time when enough excitement and interest in high school basketball could be created that the event could possibly outgrow Hot Springs.
"A lot of people were excited about watching high school basketball and that’s not a bad thing," he said.
Even with logistical challenges, demand is not usually a negative.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)