ATLANTIC CITY - As soon as he gets his new calendar each year, Lower Township resident Terry Brown starts flipping pages and circling important dates.
Along with various birthdays and anniversaries, the 62-year-old scribbles "state wrestling in AC" for the first weekend in March. A former high school wrestler from Grove City, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, he's been attending the state individual wrestling tournament at Boardwalk Hall with fellow Lower Township resident Kevin Boyle and Dennis Township resident Mike Perry since the tournament first moved here in 1992.
"I used to go to the ones in Pennsylvania, but somebody invited me to this one year and I've been coming ever since," Brown said Saturday during a break from the tournament at Boardwalk Hall. "I fell in love with this event because it's the ultimate tournament and it's held in one of the best venues in the country. I hope they never leave here because it's great."
The future of the tournament at Boardwalk Hall will be decided in the next couple of weeks. The current contract between the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association - the state's governing body for most high school sports - and Boardwalk Hall expires after today's finals.
NJSIAA president Steve Timko and Boardwalk Hall general manager Greg Tesone both said they hope to keep the three-day tournament at the arena, which has drawn large crowds for 18 years. Last year's three-day, four-session tournament was watched by 38,749 spectators.
The tournament initially moved to Boardwalk Hall in 1992 after 22 years (1970-91) at Princeton University. Then it was held at two other venues - Atlantic City Convention Center and Meadowlands Arena - from 1998-2001 when the Hall was undergoing a $90 million renovation.
"We want them back and they want to come back," Tesone said. "So I don't see any reason why we won't be able to work out a deal."
The stands are almost always packed. Friday's opening rounds drew an announced crowd of 9,432. Saturday's quarterfinals and semifinals were conducted in front of a combined 20,203 fans. More than 10,000 are expected to watch the championship matches in 14 weight classes today.
The excitement and intensity creates a terrific atmosphere for the wrestlers, all of whom begin their seasons with the goal of competing for a state championship in front of roaring fans.
"I've been dreaming about wrestling at Boardwalk Hall my entire life," Lacey Township senior 220-pound wrestler Lex Knapp said after winning his quarterfinal match Saturday. "The atmosphere in here is incredible. When I first got here (on Friday), I just walked around and took it all in. I wanted to capture the moment because I know I'll never get to experience anything like this again. It's just awesome."
Timko's only concern was whether the NJSIAA can afford to return to Boardwalk Hall.
Exact statistics were not available for last year's tournament. But state Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland, provided information to The Press last year that indicated the NJSIAA pays approximately $113,000 in expenses for the tournament. The amount includes $72,000 in rent to Boardwalk Hall and $30,000 for referees, announcers and staff.
As has been the case for the last few years, ticket prices were an issue this weekend. Adults were charged $10 and and seniors citizens and children $2, the same as last year. But a new $1 facilities charge means the NJSIAA gets $9 and $1 for every ticket sold.
"The best thing I can say at this point is we'll be making a decision in a couple of weeks," Timko said. "Don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean I'm the least big dissatisfied with Boardwalk Hall. We're very happy here and Boardwalk Hall has always been great to us, outstanding. It's been very successful here and we'd love to come back, but I have to look at everything from a financial standpoint."
Burzichelli argued in a phone interview Saturday that the tournament still makes plenty of money for the NJSIAA. Revenue figures for last year were not available, but the 2010 tournament made $140,000 in net profit. Even with the $1 facilities charge, this year's tournament should produce more than $100,000 in revenue.
Losing the tourney would be a big blow to Boardwalk Hall, which is losing the Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball tournament after next week and lost the Legends Classic college basketball tournament last year.
"It's a great event for the city and a great event for us," Tesone said of the wrestling tournament. "It's certainly nice to have a full building for three days. The tournament has definitely been one of our most popular sports events."
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