By MICHAEL BURWELL
The Ohio High School Athletic Association football playoffs will be expanding from eight schools per region to 12 beginning in the 2021 season after the OHSAA Board of Directors voted unanimously for the expansion at its May meeting on Wednesday.
The expansion will increase the number of football playoff qualifiers from 224 to 336. Last year there were 709 Ohio schools that played 11-man football, according to an OHSAA release Wednesday.
The top four seeds in each region will have a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The No. 12 seed will play at the No. 5 seed, No. 11 at No. 6, No. 10 at No. 7 and No. 9 at No. 8. In the second round, the No. 1 seed will play the winner of the 8 vs. 9 game; the No. 2 seed will play the 7/10 winner; the No. 3 seed will play the 6/11 winner and the No. 4 seed will play the 5/12 winner.
The higher seeded teams will have the opportunity to host their playoff games during the first and second rounds.
Expanding the football playoffs was one of several proposals the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association sent to the OHSAA in January, according to OHSAA Director of Communications Tim Stried. He said he believes there had been conversations about football playoff expansion prior to January, adding that “I think this is one of those things that we’re always talking about.”
Stried said a reluctance to schedule tough nonconference opponents, as well as the benefits and enthusiasm of schools making the playoffs, were factors in the proposal as well.
“There’s been a lot of schools that we’ve heard about that are leery of scheduling tough nonconference opponents sometimes because they’re afraid if they don’t get a win in their nonconference game or games, that it’s really tough for them to make the playoffs,” Stried said in a phone interview Wednesday. “So this gives schools a little bit more cushion or flexibility to try to schedule a tough nonconference opponent knowing that they’ve still got a good shot of making the playoffs. So that’s part of it.
“I think the other part too is just, you hear all the time about all the benefits and enthusiasm of schools that make the playoffs, and if there’s a way to increase that to bring in more communities and schools, then that’s a good thing. And of course the financial implications that go with that, too. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the cancellation of the 2020 OHSAA state tournaments in boys basketball, girls basketball, wrestling and hockey, as well as the spring sports season and tournaments, the OHSAA has taken a financial hit. OHSAA Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass said in a March 19 press conference that 80 percent of the non-profit organization’s revenue comes from ticket sales. The loss of the winter sports tournaments was about $1.4 to $1.5 million out of a $19 million total budget, and not having spring sports tournaments was impactful as well, according to Snodgrass.
“The financial ramifications of this are serious,” Snodgrass said in an April 21 teleconference with media members. “Eighty percent of our revenue generated from ticket sales. We lost a good share of those.
“Football this fall, for a combination of reasons, football attendance was down considerably this year. Put all of those things together and that’s another issue for us to solve. In the spring, everything I believe but track is a profitable sport for us. People often will say it’s all about the money; it’s not all about the money, but we’re a business that has to operate. Tennis, lacrosse, baseball, softball are all profitable sports. We lose that.”
The OHSAA receives a vast majority of the revenue generated from ticket sales during each round of the football playoffs, according to Stried.
“We had this proposal on the table that came in before the pandemic hit and before we had our financial losses, so the proposal was made before that. But I think due to our financial losses, this kind of rose to the top quicker and with more urgency,” Stried said. “Yeah, the financial benefits, there’s no question that it will help us financially in light of our current financial situation that made it a little more urgent.”
The OHSAA football playoffs consist of 28 regions in seven divisions. Football is the only OHSAA team sport in which not every school qualifies for the postseason.
Two teams that posted perfect records in 2019 missed out on the OHSAA playoffs.
Gibsonburg went 10-0 but finished as the No. 9 seed in Division VI, Region 23, while Northwood also went 10-0 and was the first team out as the Rangers finished ninth in Division V, Region 18.
Stried said those two teams missing the playoffs after going unbeaten was not the driving force behind the coaches association’s proposal.
“Those two teams that went 10-0, that came up a couple times in our conversations, but I think this was in the works even before that happened,” Stried said. “I think that certainly added momentum to the conversation.”
The football finals in 2021 are expected to end during the same weekend as previously scheduled (Dec. 2-5), according to the release. Schools will still be permitted to play 10 regular season contests.
“We still have details to work out regarding the format and specific season dates, but this vote by the board gives us the green light to finalize those details for 2021,” Beau Rugg, Senior Director of Officiating and Sport Management for the OHSAA and the Association’s football administrator, said in a statement. “We are thankful for the board’s support on this proposal, which will bring all the great things of playoff football to 112 additional schools and communities.”
Stried added that the OHSAA is discussing several proposals in regard to the start of the season.
“I think one of the big questions is would we start practice earlier or not or how would we modify the start of the season in terms of practice,” he said. “… We will need to certainly adjust the start of the season in some way.”
The OHSAA’s decision to expand to 12 teams per region is the first addition to the football playoffs since 2013 when a seventh division was added to bring the number of qualifiers to 224.
The OHSAA football playoffs began in 1972 when 12 schools qualified (four schools in each of three classes), according to the release. Expansion first came in 1980 when the OHSAA changed to five divisions with eight teams each (40 total qualifiers). A sixth division was added in 1994 and the number of qualifiers increased to eight schools per region in 1999 (192 total qualifiers).