High School Sports

Was this year’s Holiday Invitational the best ever? And could it change venues some day?

Fans filled up the John Wall Holiday Invitational this season. It was the tournament’s biggest success at the gate in the last 10 years.
Fans filled up the John Wall Holiday Invitational this season. It was the tournament’s biggest success at the gate in the last 10 years.

Something different was in the air on Dec. 27 inside Broughton’s Holliday Gymnasium. It was the first game of the first day of the 46th annual Holiday Invitational, and the stands were buzzing. The lower level was full and there were just a smattering of open seats around the top.

It set the tone for the rest of the four-day high school basketball tournament, which had thrilling matchups of all kinds: in-state teams versus out-of-state, teams with big recruits going against teams filled with players just hoping to get a few offers, and public schools going against private schools.

“It was a perfect storm,” tournament director Bill Sewell said.

Thousands of fans were turned away during the week, as Holliday Gymnasium’s capacity of around 3,200-3,500 was reached on three of its four days.

It brought back memories of when the tournament’s namesake, John Wall, and his high-flying Word of God Christian Academy team had the gym sold out hours in advance on any night they were scheduled to play in 2007 and 2008.

This year’s tournament may have topped those years.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I know it was the best atmosphere,” Sewell said. “It was certainly our best gate.”

All gate money goes to the Triangle Educational Advancement Foundation, a nonprofit organization which provides scholarships to Triangle area high school students. The concession sales go to Broughton. TEAF must also pay for use of the facility and other costs associated with the tournament, like teams’ travel, hotel and meals, so the better the gate, the more money left for scholarships.

Sewell said the first day and second day were the highest since he became tournament director.

One of the reasons for that, he said, is the success of the in-state schools.

On the tournament’s final day, Sewell called the coaches of the four teams that were set to play in the David West and T.J. Warren bracket championship games to ask if they could agree to switch games. He wanted the two out-of-state teams, Hillcrest Prep (Ariz.) and University School (Fla.) to play at 7 p.m. and the two in-state teams, Garner and Greenfield School, to play at 8:30 p.m.

Smart scheduling of the local teams was key on the other days too.

The first day pitted the host school, Broughton, against internet sensation Julian Newman and Downey Christian (Fla.), which kicked off the unusually high first-day gate.

The fans kept coming for schools with loyal followings, like Garner and Eastern N.C. schools Kinston and Greene Central. Each of them were spaced out on the bracket, which helped maximize attendance. And it certainly didn’t hurt to have the best of both worlds: a local team, Greenfield School in Wilson, with a big-time recruit (UNC signee Coby White).

The fewest fans came for the third day, which featured the consolation finals of the David West bracket that included mostly area teams early in the morning as well as the semifinals of the T.J. Warren bracket with mostly out-of-area schools, in the evening.

“I just feel like now, we’re better at what we do,” Sewell said. “One thing we learned this year was (to) set the tournament up so you have the local teams in the last game. That way, you keep the fans in the seats. Last year, we had two out-of-state teams in the last game, and people leave. The local kids are what the crowds really like to see. The stars from the area against the stars from out of the area: That’s the clash they really like.”

Return to Reynolds? Unlikely.

Success is a two-edged sword in high school basketball, where even the spacious Holliday Gymnasium can’t match the demand for tickets.

Any time fans are turned away at Broughton, fans wonder if the tournament will move to a larger venue. The tournament has moved around since it was formed in 1972. Venues have included the old Raleigh Civic Center and N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.

But Reynolds Coliseum is out, thanks to an NCAA bylaw adopted in 2011.

Bylaw, addressing men’s basketball, says that an institution “shall not host, sponsor or conduct a nonscholastic basketball practice or competition in which men’s basketball prospective student-athletes participate on its campus or at an off-campus facility regularly used by the institution for practice and/or competition by any of the institution’s sport programs.”

The NCAA defines scholastic competition as one organized by the state’s association for high school sports: i.e. state playoff and championship games. The Holiday Invitational is not “scholastic” in that sense, because it’s organized by the TEAF.

So Reynolds is out.

“We’ve attempted to talk to N.C. State, because it never hurts just to talk and just to see if there is an option available, but there really isn’t an option available,” Sewell said. “I know it’s tough to turn crowds away, and I hate that people can’t get in here, and I don’t want to see anybody stand in line, but this place is such a perfect venue for our event. Maybe if we had 500 extra seats it’d be even more perfect. But the atmosphere – you just can’t set it up more perfectly for this type of event.”