OHSAA keeping state football championships in Canton because of the ‘wow factor’

Games have been played mostly in northeast Ohio for decades

Columbus is no longer the center of the Ohio high school sports universe.

The boys and girls basketball championships will be held at UD Arena in Dayton through 2024. The baseball and softball championships take place in Akron and the tennis championships in Cincinnati. The swimming championships have been held in Canton for years.

While a number of championships are held in the state capital — field hockey, wrestling, lacrosse, soccer, and cross country — the biggest championship of all will maintain a foothold in northeast Ohio thanks to a new three-year deal. The Ohio High School Athletic Association and Pro Football Hall of Fame announced Wednesday the seven state championship football games will take place at Tom Benson Stadium in Canton from 2021-23.

“We talked to some folks in Columbus,” said Doug Ute, executive director of the OHSAA, “and everybody was a serious contender, but when you look at our 26 sports and where our championships are at, they don’t all have to be in Columbus and centrally located. Being a former coach, we know how this goes. It’s ‘Hey, just tell me where to play. We’re going.’ We just want a great experience for kids in our communities. It’s kind of nice to spread it around the state a little bit.”

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The championship games were played in Massillon and Canton from 1990-2013, moved to Ohio Stadium in Columbus for three years and then returned to Tom Benson Stadium from 2017-2019. They were scheduled to be played there again in 2020, but the games were moved to smaller venues because of the pandemic. The Division I championship was held at Obetz Stadium on the south side of Columbus, and Massillon hosted the other six finals.

Tom Benson Stadium used to be called Fawcett Stadium. It was rededicated in 2017 and named after the New Orleans Saints owner who donated $11 million to a $200 million project that involved the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the stadium and a surrounding area called Hall of Fame Village. Benson Stadium can seat 23,000 fans.

Alter coach Ed Domsitz has experienced state championship games in three stadiums. His team lost a final at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon in 2006, won championships in 2008 and 2009 at Fawcett Stadium, lost a title in 2014 at Ohio Stadium and lost at Benson Stadium in 2018.

Domsitz said Benson Stadium is a great venue and a good place to play.

“They are always well organized up there,” he said. “As coaches, we appreciate that. The distance is a factor, depending on what time of day you play. Certainly when we played in Ohio Stadium, that was a great thrill for the kids. It was a shorter distance and more centrally located. I’ve love to see it move around the state. If we were able to play in different stadiums, based on what the NCAA allows and what’s available, there are great places to play in southwest Ohio, central Ohio, northwest Ohio and certainly northeast Ohio.”

The decision to return to Canton came in part, Ute said, because of the “wow factor” associated with playing next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and in a stadium that has hosted many NFL preseason games over the years.

“Coming up on 77 North,” Ute said, “and looking over and seeing our logo on the scoreboard, I told my wife, ‘The hair on my arm is standing up.’ I’m that excited for our student-athletes to get in a professional environment. We want our kids when they get off a bus to say, ‘Wow, this is something special,’ and not just for kids but for our coaches and our communities. This place certainly gives us that.”

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