March Madness no longer plays in Peoria

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IHSA relocates boys state basketball tournament to Champaign, ending long-standing tradition for Peoria

PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — After 25 years, March Madness no longer plays in Peoria.

The Illinois High School Association announced Monday that the boys basketball state finals will relocate to Champaign for three years, starting in March 2021.

“We thought and still do believe that we put the strongest proposal out there,” said Jim Ardis, mayor of Peoria. “We are disappointed that they didn’t choose Peoria.”

The decision steals a long-standing tradition from the Peoria Civic Center, which has hosted the championship tournaments since the 1990s, and the move 90 miles south to the State Farm Arena likely spells the end to the March Madness experience.

“There’s an ego hit to this and we’d be fooling ourselves if we said there wasn’t,” said Ardis. “We are proud of everything we’ve grown this IHSA tournament to be while it is in Peoria.”

The March Madness tournament generates over $4 million annually for the Peoria area, according to J.D. Dalfonso, President and CEO of Enjoy Peoria. The organization spearheaded efforts to retain the event in the city of Peoria.

“It’s been difficult news to swallow today,” said Dalfonso, who grew up in Peoria. “But I am just proud of this community coming together over the last 24 years.”

Thousands of people travel to support their hometown teams, thus the weekend becomes one of the biggest draws for local restaurants and hotels. But Jeff McLinden, Jeff McLinden, the managing director of Peoria Pere Marquette Marriott hotel, says the focus now turns to how the community rebounds.

“When something like this happens, you lick your wounds but there also has to be some reflection. What could have been better and you learn from it,” said McLinden. “Secondly, the sun is going to come up tomorrow. We’ll get back up.”

The Peoria tourism had already experienced the absence of March Madness this year. In March, IHSA cancelled the 2020 tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the sting of the event’s relocation. Dalfonso says his heart also aches for the hundreds of volunteers, including some who have supported the tournament for all 25 years.

“We always say it can’t get any worse and every day we are writing history, but then news like this comes down the pike like this,” said McLinden. “It just seems like March 15, it’s been one thing after another.”

Ardis believes the community will be able to move forward, though this is a tough moment.

However, the loss is bigger than the money, says Dalfonso. There will likely be other artists and groups eager to book the Peoria Civic Center for the now vacant weekends in March. This is about tradition. This is about the memories and history made in the River City. This is about the pride of Peoria, the city that originally coined the March Madness experience.

“Not being able to write those stories and experience that weighs heavier than the economic impact,” said Dalfonso.

Dalfonso and Ardis are reminded that the Peoria area continues to play host to other prominent IHSA championship events and will continue to foster a strong partnership with the organization. Leaders are also eager for the expected boost to local businesses as Illinois enters into Phase 4 of Governor J.B. Pritzkers’ Restore Illinois plan on June 26.

“It’s been a tough few months since March, to say the least,” said Dalfonso. “We are looking forward to some good news to share here and I am looking forward to sharing that when it comes.”

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