Ohio’s high school football playoffs were expanded to include 16 teams per region in April, and that number is set in stone, according to the state’s governing sports body.
Leadership of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association is not pleased with that decision.
The OHSFCA took to social media on June 15 to address its membership and voice its displeasure with the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s desire to stay with the 16-team format, which its board of directors voted in favor of, 9-0. It will take effect this coming season.
“Recently, members of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association met with the OHSAA board,” it read. “Our meeting was an attempt to seek a pause to the 16-team playoff expansion that is to take effect at the end of the 2021 high school football regular season. We were asking the OHSAA to revert back to the original 12-team playoff proposal. The 12-team playoff model was reflective of nearly 70% of our member coaches.”
“Despite this attempt, the OHSAA has voted to continue with the 16-team playoff system,” it continued. “We are disappointed with this outcome, however, we will continue to work towards the goals that reflect our members, are supportive of student-athletes, and uphold the integrity of the game of football. Thank you to those that reached out and voiced their concerns to the OHSFCA and to the OHSAA board members considering this issue.”
In April, the coaches association again used a social media post to speak out against the move, alleging it was financially motivated due to revenue losses sustained during the height of the pandemic.
In May 2020, the two organizations had agreed to increase the state’s playoff field from eight teams to 12 starting in 2021. In a statement, OHSAA executive director Doug Ute said the increase to 16 teams was a response to positive feedback received during the abbreviated 2020 season, in which every participating team in the state was allowed into the playoffs.
After a six-game regular season, 664 teams experienced a tournament game, regardless of record, a major jump from pre-pandemic seasons when 224 teams would make it. Under the new model, 448 teams will qualify for the postseason.
“Last fall we received overwhelmingly positive feedback when we allowed every team to enter the football playoffs due to the shortened season because of COVID-19,” Ute said. “We know there are some who want to keep the football postseason to a similar number of schools, but the postseason tournament gives such a positive experience for our student-athletes, the schools and their communities that we felt strongly about giving that opportunity to more schools to make the playoffs. And football remains the only OHSAA sport in which not every team automatically qualifies for the postseason.”
There are 817 member schools currently under the OHSAA umbrella, and 709 field varsity football teams. Any increase in playoff participants matters for the organization. A non-profit, the OHSAA receives 78% of its annual revenue from tournament fees and ticket sales, with officials dues and corporate sponsorships making up the other 22%.
In March 2020 as the pandemic took hold, the OHSAA canceled the state boys and girls basketball and wrestling tournaments, then the entirety of the spring season. The revenue losses were estimated at $1.5 million for just wrestling and the two basketball events, which along with football in the fall and baseball in the spring typically bring out the most paying customers. It predicted that it would lose $1.3 million for the 2020-21 school year due to venue capacities being limited by state-imposed pandemic protocols. Stadiums and gymnasiums were capped at 15% capacity.
But allowing every team into the football playoffs last October proved a lucrative decision at $8 per ticket for each round. Though a specific number wasn’t given, the OHSAA reported after that the expanded football tournament field had led to a net positive in the budget.
While money has been an issue for the OHSAA, which was forced to make a myriad of cuts to its operation in 2020 to stay afloat, the football coaches association is worried about what a 16-team playoff bracket could look like competitively.
The 12-team format the OHSFCA agreed on would’ve allowed for the top four seeds in each of the state’s 28 regions to receive first-round byes. Now, all 16 teams will play each round, meaning the No. 1 seed will host No. 16, No. 2 will welcome No. 15 and lopsided results and long travel times could follow.
“Personally – and I think our coaching staff feels this way – we preferred the 12-team playoff,” Bay head coach Ron Rutt said. “Sixteen teams is just a lot per region, and those one versus 16 and two versus 15 matchups, it’s just not going to be competitive, year in and year out, in my opinion. I just feel it’s kind of a bad set up, where you’re going to have some teams who maybe go 3-7 or even 2-8 and their prize is a trip out to Toledo Central Catholic to play a first round playoff game. I don’t think it’s very fun for those lower seeds.”
Avon Lake coach Matt Kostelnik, whose Shoremen have regularly been near the top of the seeding in Division II, Region 6, also voted in favor of the 12-team format for many of the same reasons as Rutt, whose Rockets occupy Region 10 in Division III.
“We really didn’t have a choice. They were going to expand it anyway,” Kostelnik said. “The way we look at it at Avon Lake is, we need to prepare to be successful no matter what, so it is what it is at this point. Twelve, in my opinion, is a better number. You’re going to have some anomalies that happen this year, some teams that weren’t successful that maybe catch lightning in a bottle. But traditionally speaking, a one versus a 16 is not in the realm of safe. In a sport where we’re trying to appeal to more safety measures, like rugby-style tackling and giving players more breaks and making equipment safer, to add an extra game to the schedule and have kids play each other, I think that goes a little above and beyond.”
Bryan Morgan is entering his first season as coach at North Ridgeville, following an eight-year run as the school’s varsity boys basketball coach. Taking over a Rangers program that last made the playoffs the traditional way in 2015, he understands both sides of the ongoing argument between the state organizations.
But for a team like the Rangers that is looking to build a foundation after five straight losing seasons, 16 open playoff spots makes for an attainable goal.
“As a coach of a program that is looking for positives and stepping stones to show the kids and the community we’re heading in the right direction, I am for the expansion,” he said. “To make it easier for us to get in would only benefit us right now. But I can also see the other side of it. When I was in high school, only four teams per region got in, and it was a big deal. I think Ohio football, it’s the only sport where you have to have a respectable record to get into the playoffs, and it’s something that a lot of teams take pride in. If you water that down, it sort of takes away that special feeling of making it in.”
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