PIAA taking bids to host basketball championships

Friday, April 12, 2024 | 8:14 PM

Giant Center in Hershey has hosted the state high school basketball finals for more than a decade, but could or should the PIAA championships go elsewhere?

As it does every four years, the PIAA is accepting bids from basketball arenas around the state interested in hosting the championship games in 2025-28. There was a time decades ago when the finals bounced from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and cities in between. But Hershey has been their home since 1980 with the exception of a six-year stint at Penn State.

While watching this year’s finals at Giant Center, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said it’s too early to say where next year’s championships will be played. But Lombardi said he believed a spot in the middle of the state remained the best option.

If so, it seems likely the finals would stay in Hershey.

“If you go too far west or too far east, guaranteed what happens is the bulk of the teams (in the finals) start coming from the opposite area,” Lombardi said. “Now that we don’t have a traditional east and west (bracket) to some classifications, that makes it even more complicated.”

Venues hoping to host have until May 1 to submit bids.

The last time the basketball finals were played somewhere other than Hershey or State College was in 1979 when the Civic Arena hosted six championship games. Pittsburgh was an occasional host of the games stretching back to the 1930s when they were played at the Pavilion in Pitt Stadium.

In that era, the state finals were scattered each year at gyms across the state. In fact, New Castle hosted a boys final between Clarion and Jim Thorpe in 1962.

Lombardi said the idea of spreading games out around the state doesn’t interest him.

“We did that years ago, and it didn’t work,” he said. “Having a centralized location as best you possible can … has seemed to work the best.”

Nowadays, few venues submit bids to host.

The PIAA in 2020 received one from Duquesne in conjunction with tourism nonprofit VisitPittsburgh to bring the games to Western Pennsylvania. Four years earlier, VisitPittsburgh submitted a bid with Pitt to hold games at Petersen Events Center. Each time, the PIAA chose bids from Hershey Entertainment, which runs Giant Center.

A spokesperson for VisitPittsburgh said the organization was reviewing the PIAA’s latest request for bids.

The PIAA sent out its requests in late March to a statewide group of venues that included Duquesne, Pitt, Robert Morris and IUP. Others on the list were Giant Center and Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, as well as Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown and a number of arenas near Philadelphia.

The PIAA also is collecting bids to host the wrestling, competitive spirit and swimming and diving championships. But they, too, could remain where they are. Giant Center hosts wrestling and competitive spirit, and Bucknell hosts swimming. Sites will be finalized at the PIAA board meeting in May.

The PIAA made a major change two years ago by moving the football finals from Hersheypark Stadium to Cumberland Valley High School. Lombardi said he has heard no such talk involving basketball.

“I haven’t heard any early conversations from anyone looking to do anything (unexpected) in basketball,” he said. “Maybe somebody’s out there who’s going to bid, but I don’t know.”

Lombardi emphasized that the PIAA is pleased with Giant Center, a 10,500-seat arena home to a minor-league hockey team. The arena has hosted the state finals since 2003 with the exception of a six-year span at Penn State from 2007-12.

Attendance for this year’s finals was 19,167. That’s down about 1,000 from the year before, but Lombardi said he still was pleased. The schedule included 12 games over three days.

“We always figure if we can average about 6,000 people in attendance in a day, that’s all right,” Lombardi said. “Especially at (that) time of year, you have the NCAA basketball tournament, the NCAA wrestling tournament and spring sports are starting.”

The PIAA basketball finals drew more than 30,000 per year at their Giant Center peak in the early 2000s. Lombardi said times have changed, including how fans prefer to watch the state finals.

“We’re on statewide TV, and we’re on web streaming,” he said. “We have a lot of irons in the fire where people can get access that you didn’t have 20 years ago.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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