Hallihan: 'It's been a tremendous run in Storm Lake'
The Iowa Games is about to announce the end of the Storm Lake Regional, a mainstay for the past decade in the statewide sports program that functions as Iowa's version of the Olympiad.
For longtime Iowa Games leader Jim Hallihan, the decision was not an easy one.
"Storm Lake has been my favorite regional, and the one I make sure I get to every year personally," he told the Pilot-Tribune in an exclusive interview. "The people of Storm Lake have been so good to us from the beginning, and so supportive, but the bottom line is that if we can't attract enough people to compete and make a good event of it, it's not fair to the community to keep going."
While the decision is not yet set in stone, it is virtually certain that there will be no Iowa Games in Storm Lake in 2004, Hallihan said - and probably no regional at all for the western half of the state.
The Summer Games finals in Ames will continue, and a regional will be held in Des Moines, with a second regional probably in either Cedar Falls or Iowa City. In the past, there have been five or six regionals around the state.
The Games in Storm Lake had gradually been whittled down to little more than a basketball tournament. Several years ago, the event included an opening ceremony with speakers and a torch lighting in Chautauqua Park, and a myriad of events for youth and adults including soccer, basketball, walk/run, biking, bowling.
Iowa Games officials decided to move the soccer to Denison due to the stability of the fields at the Field of Dreams, and later, to eliminate them as a regional event. The other sports gradually disappeared with a lack of participation.
"One thing we've found is that the public's interest in a sport will come and go. It never stays the same. Several years ago, coed volleyball was huge, and now, no one is interested," Hallihan said.
At its height, the Storm Lake Regional attracted some 1,000 competitors each summer.
That's more than the urban areas of the state could muster. As of last year, that was down to about 250 basketball players, according to Hallihan.
"It's not just in Iowa - this is a participation trend we are seeing nationwide," he said. "It has gotten to the point where teams in some age classes in Storm Lake were just being scheduled to play for the sake of playing games, because there were few enough entries that they had already qualified for finals just by showing up."
Storm Lake is also losing its commissioner, as Scott Randall was stepping down to accept new employment, and the person who had organized officials for the Games was also leaving. "There is also the issue that when we play in Storm Lake, we have to pay rent for the gym at Buena Vista, and while that isn't a lot, it does cost money," Hallihan said.
Months of soul-searching have gone into the decision that is soon to be formally announced, Hallihan added. "I've mulled it over for a long time, and gone over and over the statistics and the surveys that we do. We've been kind of in limbo, but it seems like all factors point to this being the time to reduce the regionals. It isn't something I want to do, but the participants are dictating it."
Hallihan said he will probably look into the situation again in a year or so, and if the demand ever rises again, there could be a possibility of adding Regionals back into the program, including Storm Lake.
For Randall, the volunteer leader of the Games in Storm Lake for the past few years, the decision is hard to swallow, if not unexpected.
"It's nothing we did wrong in Storm Lake. The Iowa Games is a non-profit program, and after last year's event, I knew that it was a possibility this would happen," Randall said. "I'm afraid that once it does go, Storm Lake may not see it ever come back. But maybe in a couple year's time, if they see the participants from western Iowa being lost, they may reconsider. I know that if the Iowa Games comes back to western Iowa at all, it will be to Storm Lake."
Randall said he will miss the Games, and especially working with the Iowa Games organizers and the other local volunteers. "It's been a lot of fun, and the event brought many people into Storm Lake in a positive way, and it was just one more feather in Storm Lake's nest," he said.
While it hasn't proved cost-effective to run six Regionals across the state, Storm Lake remained one of the top two sites, along with Cedar Rapids, in fundraising, administration, volunteers involvement. "We were the whole package of what the Iowa Games was looking to do, but participation had become our one weak point," he said. "We just can't compete with the population of the central and east regions of the state."
There was some discussion of holding just a men's basketball tournament this year in Storm Lake, but Randall opposed that idea. "After what the Iowa Games had been in Storm Lake, it seemed like it would really take the luster away to have it become just 10 men's teams playing basketball here."
Will the Iowa Games ultimately survive the elimination of a majority of its Regionals?
Hallihan said he hopes the decision will not hurt the viability of the Finals program in Ames. While youth basketball numbers declined at the Storm Lake Regionals for the past two years after years of steady increases, the Finals numbers held steady, Hallihan said.
Storm Lake's Randall said that while the Regionals in June had to compete with so many different camps and programs for youth who might otherwise take part in the Iowa Games, the Finals in July have slightly less competition from other programs.
Hallihan said that eliminating Regionals may clear up a few headaches for the program.
It had also become a problem that adult teams would play in places like Storm Lake and qualify for the FInals, but then not show up, forcing officials in Ames to scramble to redraw the brackets for medal competition. "We find that the adults more often want to stay close to home, and they may not be willing to give up two weekends to compete. We hope that by making just one trip to Ames for one weekend, they will continue to want to play."
The Games are also suffering from their own success. "Our mission is to promote sports, and sometimes we've done too good a job. Places like Des Moines have seen our success and come up with their own big basketball tournaments, and other places have done it with volleyball and other sports. We used to be the only show out there in the summer, but now there are competing events looking for participants all over," Hallihan said.
Storm Lake has been a great example of community volunteerism and involvement with the Iowa Games - much more so than the other Regional sites in the state's biggest cities.
"That made it a hard decision (to potentially drop the local Regional). I don't mind doing the work, but if we don't have the teams, a decision has to be made," Hallihan said.
"It's been a tremendous run for Storm Lake and the Iowa Games."