SUN PRAIRIE — The massive field house inside Sun Prairie’s new high school, which is scheduled to open in the fall, is a facility that can serve a great number of purposes.
As athletic director Jim McClowry is quick to point out, its primary benefit is that of a spacious classroom for physical education students that eliminates overcrowding and gives teachers myriad options of activities to include in the curriculum.
There’s also the obvious advantage to the school district’s student-athletes, who will have a breathtaking venue to call home.
But there’s an ancillary benefit to having a large facility with ample parking, and plenty of other bells and whistles, that has McClowry excited about the future.
For years, McClowry has applied to host the Madison area’s WIAA Division 1 boys basketball sectional — the biggest cash cow of the year when it comes to prep postseason events in the area that are held at school sites — knowing Sun Prairie had little chance of being selected.
Not anymore. McClowry is confident a state-of-the-art facility will make Sun Prairie a player in the eyes of the WIAA.
“We were never going to get it until we got here,” said McClowry, noting Sun Prairie has been a host for Division 2 postseason games. “I think we’ve positioned ourselves with this new facility to host one. We’ll get our turn.”
Hosting WIAA-sponsored tournaments can be a lucrative endeavor for a high school athletic department.
The host school gets 20 percent of total ticket receipts right off the top, plus an additional 25 percent of what remains after the cost of officials is taken out of the gate. So, Waunakee, which packed near-capacity crowds into its 1,800-seat gymnasium last year for two semifinal games and the championship of the area’s sectional final at $4 per ticket, collected about $8,000 for the three games combined.
That’s not all profit, because athletic director Brian Smith had to pay workers, but it also doesn’t include money generated from concessions and the $1 per ticket the school charged for overflow fans who wanted to watch the game on a closed-circuit television inside the school’s performing arts center.
This year — as it has been in many previous years — the beneficiary is Middleton High School.
In fact, the phrase “Middleton sectional” has become an almost-annual part of the area basketball lexicon. Counting this year, the school will have hosted a Division 1 boys sectional final in nine of the last 11 years.
“There aren’t a lot of options as far as large facilities in the Madison area,” said WIAA associate director Debra Hauser, who plays a large role in selecting tournament sites, “so that’s why you see us using the same sites for basketball.”
While the various stages of the WIAA girls basketball tournament also are well-attended, there haven’t been the overflow crowds seen on the boys’ side, which at many venues result in fans being turned away at the gate because the events are pre-sold and closed circuit isn’t an option.
To put it into perspective, last year’s Division 1 girls sectional at Middleton, which featured the host school as well as Madison Memorial, Sauk Prairie and La Crosse Logan, drew 3,083 fans over the three games — about 60 percent of the attendance of the Waunakee boys sectional.
Middleton will serve as host of the Madison-area D1 girls sectional again this year, on March 19-20, the fourth time in nine seasons that has occurred.
Even though a renovation increased its gym’s capacity for basketball to 2,035, Middleton is still the second-smallest of the eight Division 1 boys sectional venues. Four of those games will be held at facilities that house, or have housed, college programs: the Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee, which hosts two sectionals and is home to the Marquette women’s program; the Kolf Sports Center on the UW-Oshkosh Campus; and the Brown County Arena in Ashwaubenon (the former home of UW-Green Bay’s teams).
Hauser and the WIAA looked into finding a larger facility to host the Madison area Division 1 sectional but came up empty. She said University of Wisconsin officials didn’t want to commit to renting out the UW Field House or Kohl Center at such a busy time of year for its athletic programs, while renting the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum came with too hefty of a price tag.
Madison West — which currently boasts the largest gym in the area at 2,100 seats, and hosted six Division 1 boys sectionals in the 1990s — is no longer a viable alternative because of the lack of parking in the area, Hauser confirmed.
Hauser admits using high school facilities is less than ideal because fans might be left out in the cold due to space constraints. That could be the case this week, with a four-team sectional that includes third-ranked Madison Memorial and fifth-ranked Madison East — the two regular-season meetings between the Big Eight Conference co-champs were sold-out affairs — and two other loyal fan bases in Sun Prairie and host Middleton.
As was the case at Waunakee, Middleton will provide overflow fans with the option of watching the game on closed-circuit television. Besides an increase in capacity, Middleton’s gym renovation also includes upgrades to the bleachers and lights, a paint job and a more aesthetically pleasing floor.
“You do the best you have and just remind people that there’s no other facility (in the area) that can do what you’re doing,” Middleton athletic director Luke Francois said. “We’re certainly not trying to have a monopoly on the ability to host this; we’re just fortunate that we have the facilities and the location that allows us to do it.”
The new Sun Prairie field house, which according to McClowry will seat 2,100 fans for basketball, gives Hauser another option in the Madison area, and she said she plans to rotate the sectional among venues that are interested and capable of hosting.
But even a capacity of 2,100 — or the 2,035 that Middleton offers — might not be enough some years.
“It’s something we’ll probably continue to wrestle with for years to come until we get a long-term solution,” Francois said. “But for now we’ll do our very best to make sure we’re taking care of those that want to see some good basketball.”