MURFREESBORO — Tennessee’s high school football state championships are headed to Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium for the next two years.
The TSSAA Board of Control voted 11-1 in favor of Chattanooga on Tuesday largely because Cookeville proposed to sell advertisements on its video board, a potential legal hurdle that could have breached the TSSAA’s contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield as the event’s sole sponsor.
The BlueCross Bowl includes all nine football state title games and has been at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium since 2009.
TSSAA attorney Rick Colbert advised against entering into a contract with Cookeville unless it changed its proposal regarding advertisements.
Cookeville was given multiple chances in recent months to clarify that part of its proposal, TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. The Board of Control convened briefly to call Cookeville’s representatives for clarification before a third vote, but the proposal was unchanged.
“It was a legal issue for us. Was it surprising? I understand where they were coming from because they’re looking for different ways to get revenue themselves,” Childress said. “So we understand it, but it’s something we couldn’t honor.”
Childress said the decision is not a knock on Cookeville, which was a great host for 12 years. But the TSSAA potentially breaching a contract with other sponsors was a “huge deal.”
Grant Swallows, a former Tennessee Tech standout who represents the Cookeville region for the TSSAA, wanted the board to get clarity before voting because the city has been a loyal partner.
“I think for the region and the university, it’s a badge of honor for everyone to get to Cookeville and play a state championship,” Swallows said. “They’ve done nothing wrong to lose that, but at the end of the day, sometimes your circumstances lead you to that point. I know it’s going to be hard for them to not be able to host. But at the end of the day they have an (opportunity) to maybe upgrade the facilities they’ve talked about the last couple years. I hope they’re in the discussion in the next couple years.”
The board also discussed concerns with the playing surface at Tucker Stadium. Tennessee Tech athletics director Mark Wilson said he hopes new artificial grass can be installed before next fall or in spring 2022 at the latest.
Chattanooga was the only other site to bid on the 2021 and 2022 games. Its contract guaranteed the TSSAA $250,000 compared to Cookeville’s $253,000 and included 105 hotel rooms.
Chattanooga is a longer drive from Nashville and Memphis, but the TSSAA has experience holding events in the city. And Finley Stadium is highly regarded for sporting events, holding 22,000 people not including luxury seats. Tucker Stadium, built in 1966, seats 16,000.
Previous TSSAA concerns about locker room space and where players would dress at with so many games being played at Finley Stadium were resolved, Childress confirmed.
“We feel comfortable going there,” he said.
Chattanooga Sports constructed the bid and touted fan experience — vendors and pregame activities, a new jumbotron, walkability in a nice downtown and restaurants — and a larger spectator capacity as perks of the city.
Football playoffs are a financial boon for Tennessee schools. They received $624,646 from playoff games through the semifinals in 2020, even with capacity reduced.
The board also voted to allow summer team camps and 7-on-7 football to resume in accordance with the TSSAA calendar, as long as COVID-19 protocols are in place. Those activities had been suspended since the pandemic began.
The board approved a new postseason wrestling format in 2022. Now, the state tournament will be a 16-person bracket for each classification and a sectional round was added to the postseason for the individual tournaments. The Division II tournament will be determined at a later date.