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Future of UIL State Basketball Tournament Clouded by Austin’s SXSW Festival

Grapeland coach Owen Clifton addresses his team from the bench during the Sandies’ 85-71 win over LaPoynor in the Class A Division I Region III championship game March 1 in Tyler. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Some of entertainment’s biggest names flock to Austin every March to take part in the ever-popular South By Southwest, a 10-day long series of film, interactive and music festivals across the city.

But the growing popularity of the event is beginning to squeeze out what has become a longstanding tradition in the state capital — the UIL state basketball tournament.

Outrageous hotel rates in Austin to meet the demand for the thousands of festival goers are having an adverse affect on school districts participating at the state tournament. The public schools, which have been continually strapped by reductions of budgets, either have to pay unreasonable sums of money to stay in town or are forced to lodge their teams well outside of Austin to avoid the higher costs.

Count Laneville head boys basketball coach Hosea Lee, whose team participated in the state tournament last week, among those in favor of change.

“I think they probably to need to move it,” Lee said. “Take it to Jerry World; I’m sure he’d have us up there. That’s where all the football is now and it’s more accessible. You’ve got Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth with plenty of hotel rooms. Even Houston or San Antonio. I don’t have anything against Austin, but from an accessibility standpoint, I think it’s in the best interest for them to move it.”

Laneville’s team stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Round Rock, which is 23 miles north of the University of Texas’ Frank Erwin Center on Interstate 35. Nazareth, which also played at the state tournament this season, stayed in Marble Falls — a 100-mile round trip from the Erwin Center.

Attendance at the state tournament has dwindled in recent years, which can be directly correlated to the affect SXSW — which runs from March 8-17 of this year — has on the city of Austin.

“As a basketball coach I’ve been there six times and it seems like every year we’re further out,” Lee said. “As far as the fans go and administration and all that, the bad part is the high prices (at hotels). A lot of people want to go to Austin to enjoy our sport. I have two boys and when I’m not (coaching), I want to take them down there to make them understand what it is I do and show them so they have the passion to get there when they get into high school.”

Cutbacks in public education have certainly taken their toll as well. The UIL helps participating schools find available hotel rooms that work with the schools’ budgets, but the district’s themselves are responsible for footing the bill.

“I think it affects everyone, especially us,” Lee said. “We were the smallest school down there, and I think from a budget standpoint, it weights heavily on everybody. Not only that, but we’re in Region IV and our regional tournament is in New Braunfels. We go six hours, which is further away (than Austin), and if we win we have to turn around and do the same thing the next week.”

Not all coaches are in favor of changing the venue, but rather the dates the state tournament takes place.

“I think the only way to change would be to move everything up a week,” said Grapeland boys coach Owen Clifton, whose team also played at the state tournament earlier this month. “I don’t think you move it back because the season is long enough as it is. Most districts are six-team districts so you could still start in January, and not during the Christmas break. In the seven- and eight-team districts they already start in December. I think it has to stay at the Erwin Center because there’s just too much tradition to move something like that.”

Clifton said moving the venue away from the centrally-located Austin could alienate schools further away the host site, but agreed the UIL needs to be proactive on the issue because the logistics have gotten out of hand.

“We got lucky because we had the early game Thursday and the UIL got us on 35 and 290 at the Crowne Plaza,” he said. “But our fans struggled; some of them had to stay in San Marcos, Georgetown or Bastrop.”

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