When Hermantown played St. Paul Johnson in the boys' Class 3A basketball state tournament last week, Dwight Cadwell of WKLK-Cloquet described the tense action inside Williams Arena.

What his listeners could not see was Cadwell, sitting virtually alone in the upper level, looking at a sea of empty seats in the lower level of the 14,600-seat arena.

Every year, he said, "you see fewer and fewer" fans.

Putting Minnesota's major state high school tournaments in the state's largest and best arenas is becoming a problem that the highlight reels do not capture.

Venue expenses have surged 55 percent in the past 10 years to about $2 million in 2013-14, according to the Minnesota State High School League. During that same span, ticket sales for all tournaments with paid admission rose about 5.2 percent.

For every exciting moment of girls' hockey, there is the reality that just a few thousand fans watched Hill-Murray and Edina — two of the sport's top programs — play in the 18,500-seat Xcel Energy Center. The league paid $185,000 in venue-related expenses for the tournament last year and generated ticket sales of about 13,600, down 8.6 percent from 2003-04.

For every heart-stopping boys' state tournament hockey game, there is the fact that facility fees and rent climbed from $350,000 in 2004 to $515,000 in 2014. Attendance from the tournament — the league's largest money-maker — was about 118,000 last year, down 1.5 percent from 10 years earlier.

Things took a turn for the better this year for the boys' tournament. Two weeks ago, the league announced a new boys' hockey total four-day attendance record of 135,618 fans. Nearly 19,500 watched the final games on a Saturday night, which ended with a first-ever title for Lakeville North.

But on the heels of worse-than-projected attendance at outdoor football games last fall, the overall picture remains daunting.

After years of reimbursing schools that participate in state tournaments, the league says its projections this year suggest that checks for 2014-2015 participants are unlikely. Checks that averaged nearly $1,700 to almost $2,400 per school for nearly a decade shrank to an average of $650 last August.

A growing problem for the league, mindful of keeping ticket prices down, has been arena-rental expenses.

"About 10 or 12 years ago, the venues began to say, 'Here's what the expenses are and, in addition to that, we're going to charge a facility fee,' " said Dave Stead, the league's executive director. The fees, he said, started at 50 cents per ticket and now in some cases have risen to $2.50.

Facility fees for boys' basketball, not including expenses, have jumped from $89,375 in 2004 to $149,955 a year ago.

Stead said the league is considering corporate sponsorships to help on the revenue side. One idea is to approach the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves and Wild about designating a couple of games each year for which a dollar per ticket would go to supporting high school tournaments held at their venues.

The league also stands to benefit when the new Vikings stadium opens. Legislation stipulated seven rent-free dates that will be used for football and soccer state tournaments. The league previously paid to use the Metrodome.

Arenas make impression

For many fans at games, the memories are worth the price.

Deb Skok said money cannot buy the feeling her son, Graydon, a goalie for New Prague, had when he first played in the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center last year. "He got to sit in that spot where the Wild sat," she said. "There's no word to describe" it.

The big arena and bright lights, even with all the empty seats, also made an impression last week on 12-year-old Eric Langen. Sitting with his father, Langen watched Hermantown's basketball team warm up with hopes of one day playing for the team on a big stage. "Cool," said the sixth-grader of his first visit to Williams Arena.

Not everyone sees the arenas as a good fit for most of the games.

Willie Braziel, the boys' basketball coach at Bloomington Kennedy, said that — for monetary reasons — only the state championship games should be played in places like Target Center and Xcel Energy Center. Earlier rounds, he said, could be played in smaller, cheaper venues at Hamline University or Concordia University in St. Paul.

"The smaller teams deserve to come down for a state tournament, but that's not going to fill up Williams Arena," he said.

"It is a high for a student athlete to play on the ultimate floor that the [Minnesota] Timberwolves are on," said Braziel, who played on the Marshall-University boys' basketball championship team in the 1970s. "But, again, that should be [for] one thing — the championship."

In hockey circles, even some coaches make a similar argument about moving the girls' tournament to smaller Mariucci or Ridder arenas, where it could generate more energy than in a mostly empty Xcel. The tournament moved to Xcel after a Title IX lawsuit was filed that sought equal treatment with the boys' tournament.

Others said that for all of the TV coverage and anticipation, something is lost when the biggest games of a team's season move to a big arena. Games played to qualify for the state tournament, which usually take place in smaller, crowded high school gyms and ice arenas, are at least as intense and noisy, if not more so.

Steve Lyons, co-director of the Champlin Park band, thought about that after his high school won its first tournament game at Target Center, and would go on to play last Saturday in the boys' basketball state championship game. Lyons said that, a week before, Champlin Park played a sectional finals game in Rogers in front of 4,500 people — and another 500 had to be turned away.

"That was electric," said Lyons. "So, trying to create that kind of a energy level in a facility five times that big is challenging."

Jeff Whisler sees both sides. A former state high school league president, Whisler is now Roseville's activities director.

But standing in Target Center, with Roseville's band loudly playing as the school took the court, Whisler said the trade-off is worth it. "You gain more than you give up," he said. As he looked out at the crowd, he added, "The bottom bowl's going to be full."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388 David La Vaque • 612-673-7574