After two school years requiring limited tournament attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021-22 school year saw a total of 1,327,633 fans attend Michigan High School Athletic Association postseason competitions for which attendance is recorded.
That total is 4.2 percent less than attendance during 2018-19 – the last school year before COVID-19 resulted in either the cancelation of championship events or lower spectator numbers due to restrictions in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Still, the 2021-22 spectator totals showed higher turnouts than their most recent restriction-free postseason in four sports, including records at two levels and overall for the MHSAA Baseball Tournament.
The MHSAA annually tracks attendance for all sports except golf, skiing and tennis – for which admission typically is not charged. The 2021-22 attendance totals included 889,155 fans for boys tournament events and 438,478 for girls postseasons. The girls spectatorship nearly reached its pre-COVID total, coming up just 2.3 percent short of 2018-19, while boys spectatorship was down 5.1 percent from that most recent restriction-free school year.
Baseball set a District attendance record this past spring with 35,649 fans, besting the record set just the season before, in 2021, of 34,484 spectators. Baseball also set a Quarterfinals record of 7,203 fans, with the previous record set during the 2013 season. The spectator total for the entire baseball postseason was 59,941 fans, which also bested a record set in 2021, this one by 5.3 percent.
Three more boys sports drew larger overall postseason crowds during 2021-22 than in their most recent restriction-free postseason. Ice Hockey drew 47,293 fans across its three playoff rounds, an increase of 12 percent from the 2019 playoffs, the most recent to be played to their completion before COVID-19. The hockey total was the highest since the 2017 postseason.
Boys soccer set a District record of 18,024 fans in Fall 2021, besting the previous record for that round set during the 1999 season. Soccer’s overall postseason attendance of 40,546 was its highest since setting a record of nearly 43,000 during the 2005 season.
The Individual Wrestling Tournament also saw an improvement from its most recent restriction-free postseason, drawing a total of 41,925 across its three tournament weekends – an increase of 2.7 percent from the 2020 season before crowd restrictions were put in place for 2021.
Football drew the most fans of any MHSAA postseason with 297,425. Boys basketball was the next most-attended sport with 279,255 fans at postseason games. Basketball was the most attended girls sport for postseason play with 141,448 spectators, with volleyball also reaching six figures at 113,572.
Joining baseball, four more spring tournaments returned from COVID-canceled 2020 to set overall attendance records in 2021 – girls soccer, girls lacrosse, boys lacrosse and girls and boys track & field (which is competed simultaneously). During the 2022 season, girls soccer was only 294 fans off its previous year’s record pace with 35,143 spectators. Girls and boys track & field drew 37,810 spectators this past spring – 4.8 percent off its 2021 record pace, but still its second-highest attendance since the MHSAA began tracking spectators with the 1990-91 school year. This spring’s boys lacrosse attendance of 15,743 was the second-highest since that sport began with MHSAA sponsorship in 2004-05.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.
First impressions can be significant, as many a saying goes. And Karen Brown unknowingly provided one in 1978 that helped affect the course of athletics in this state over the next 40-plus years.
A Michigan State University student named Karen Leinaar had shown up at the Michigan High School Athletic Association for a meeting about a 5K road race she was planning that was unrelated to the MHSAA except that the building provided a good meeting place – and Brown, just a year out of high school, was the first person to greet her at the old Trowbridge Road headquarters.
Seeing someone her age immediately made Leinaar more comfortable. She ended up returning to that office several times over the years, registering as an MHSAA game official while still an MSU student and then starting a career in 1982 that has included nearly 40 years as a high school athletic director and two decades of shaping policy as part of the MHSAA Representative Council.
That’s the kind of impact that’s emanated from Karen Jackson, formerly Brown, and over the last 45 years as assistant to four of the five executive directors during the MHSAA’s 98-year history. Jackson finished that run with her retirement Friday.
“She was always one that would welcome you, and whether you walked into the office or called on the phone, she always had an answer that would calm you down or provide you with the information you needed,” said Leinaar, who currently is serving as interim athletic director at Frankfort High School in addition to her duties as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
“I remember initially calling and needing something from Mr. Norris – it was always Mr. Norris – and she could answer the question,” Leinaar added, referring to retired MHSAA executive director Vern Norris, who served in that role from 1978-86. “You didn’t want to talk to scary Mr. Norris – Vern was a wonderful man, but he was like the superintendent or principal. Karen always had the answer. … It was always that smile that made you feel like you were more than welcomed, wanted in the office, and everything is going to be OK.”
Jackson began at the MHSAA in June 1977, two days before her graduation from long ago-closed Harry Hill High School in Lansing.
Her high school sports career amounted to about half a season on the Hill varsity volleyball team as a sophomore before she had to switch gears to begin working for the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce as part of a school co-op program.
Jackson graduated as a co-valedictorian of Hill’s Class of 1977. Despite her academic standing, she hadn’t received much guidance at school on the possibility of college. But she had a job offer from the Chamber – and also had heard from grade-school friend Deborah Norris (Vern’s daughter) about an opening at the MHSAA.
The MHSAA was offering more money, and Jackson was hoping to buy a car – and so at 18, she became the secretary for executive director Allen W. Bush.
The title has changed over the years, from secretary to the executive director, to executive assistant, to senior executive assistant. The MHSAA’s administrative processes obviously have changed, mostly because of technology, from everything done on paper and through the mail to just about everything conducted digitally over the internet.
But many of Jackson’s most important duties at the end of her tenure resembled those she was hired to carry out nearly half a century ago.
Setting Exemplary Expectations
Bush retired a year after Jackson began, and she then assisted Norris for his eight as executive director. She served with Jack Roberts through his 32 years as executive director from 1986-2018 and then for these first 3½ under current director Mark Uyl.
She was considered the “baby” of the MHSAA staff during her first 12 years, until she turned 30 and her support staff teammates declared she wasn’t the baby anymore during a Christmas party serenade. Just about 33 years later, she’s leaving as one of two people left who worked in the old offices before the MHSAA moved to another East Lansing headquarters at Ramblewood Drive in 1996.
School sports happen thanks to a Karen Jackson or two in every community -- people who provide the unseen support that makes these programs possible every day.
For the last 45 years, she’s provided a consistent anchor for service to 1,500 schools and millions of student-athletes across Michigan.
“She’s shaped so much of what we’ve done,” said MHSAA assistant director Kathy Vruggink Westdorp, who joined the staff during the 2003-04 school year after more than two decades working for Grand Rapids-area schools. “Her service to schools was imperative to what she was doing, and it was a valuable part for our membership. Hers was such a dedicated service, such an exemplary service – finding solutions, to do what’s needed.”
There are file cabinets and libraries and hard drives at the MHSAA office, the contents of which are known by only a handful of people on Earth – and Jackson perhaps the most as she did most of the sorting and maintaining of those files over the years.
For a 1996 Lansing State Journal feature on the MHSAA’s support staff, Jackson (then Yonkers) explained “there are always new challenges, new issues and controversies. It never gets boring. In the past 19 years, we’ve slowly shifted from dealing with athletic administrators, principals and superintendents to dealing with legislators, attorneys and courts.”
The last 25 years has seen much of the work swing back to providing service directly to schools. And Jackson’s mind has become part MHSAA library and part card catalog of where to find those few snippets she might not recall immediately from the last half century.
“I guess what I’m proud of is being able to find things, to know where to find things and how to find things that other people don’t,” Jackson said. “Yes, the technology has changed everything. … We used to have more schools – they used to have 40-some Detroit public schools – and there was a whole era of (litigation), but it’s calmed down now.
“I liked what I did, and it kept me on my toes – that’s for sure.”
The MHSAA is rooted in its responsibilities as a championship and eligibility rules maker, and Jackson was involved in just about every communication in those areas during her time. Tournament changes are made at Representative Council meetings, and she’s reported the minutes for at least 150 of those, including piles of special sessions as the MHSAA managed sports through the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligibility waivers are requested at Executive Committee meetings, and she’s prepared somewhere north of 505 sets of minutes for those monthly sessions even as those agendas have grown in content substantially over the years.
Then there’s all of the correspondence from those four executive directors – all with the initials “kb” or “kj” to go with “AWB” or “VLN” or “JER” and “MU.” She also was in charge of MHSAA election ballots for 35 years, served as the lead organizer of cooperative programs, helped with football tickets for a time and briefly was part of the program-selling crew at early Football Finals at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“I think I’m pretty lucky, being on the Council and Executive Committee, that I’ve been able to work with her a lot. And most athletic directors, they may not even know who she is because they may not have contact with her or do anything with her – but she’s obviously been the unsung hero of that office,” said Vic Michaels, who serves as director of physical education & athletics for the Archdiocese of Detroit and has served on the Representative Council since 2003.
“She just does so much that you don’t really know about, especially with the Council. Whenever I need anything, Karen’s the one I call. She is the history, really. She’s the keeper of that.”
Unprecedented & 'Never to be Replicated'
A longtime co-worker of Jackson, Shirley Hytinen, retired in 1998 after just a few months more than 43 years. She too had worked for four executive directors, as she began in 1955 during the Charles E. Forsythe era.
Jackson surpassed Hytinen’s tenure a few years into Uyl’s, and can readily recall some of what stood out from all four directors she’s assisted.
Bush was “really stern” – he had served in the U.S. Marines – and she said he didn’t smile much until the day he announced his retirement, when it was “like a switch turned. He was smiling and happy and joking around.”
Norris was “the sweetest guy in the world.” Jackson had bought her first house in her mid-20s and was preparing to move in with only her dad and his motor home to assist, when Norris showed up to help at 7:30 a.m. that morning to provide another set of hands.
Roberts is known by Michigan administrators and national colleagues for his writing, and Jackson said jokingly she still “cringes” when she sees a yellow legal pad. She was an important proofreader and spent the majority of her career serving with her desk just a few paces away from that of the recent National Federation Hall of Fame selection, and she attended his induction this past summer and San Antonio.
Roberts pointed out that during the 1980s, the MHSAA would conduct nine Executive Committee meetings, each averaging fewer than 10 requests for waivers. By the end of his 32 years, there were 11 Executive Committee meetings annually – with approximately 50 waiver requests presented on average. Still, he and Jackson were able to process the meeting minutes and continue to distribute those decisions within 24 hours.
“Over the more than three decades that Karen and I worked together at the MHSAA, the work became increasingly more voluminous and complicated – and Karen kept finding ways to increase our efficiency and maximize our output,” Roberts said.
Like Norris when Bush was executive director, Uyl had been part of the MHSAA staff under Roberts since 2004 before eventually moving into the corner office. After those first 15 years together, Uyl knew what a valuable person he had just a few yards away to assist in his transition, and “he just says to do this” and allows his staff to run with it, which Jackson enjoyed.
Her duties have been shifted confidently, mostly to Jamie VanDerMoere, another longtime administrative assistant who is best-known to Michigan school sports people for her leadership with the annual wrestling championship tournaments.
Jackson recently was married to Jim Jackson, and they have plans as they close in on their first anniversary – they’re hoping to travel to Italy at some point and also The Masters in Augusta, Ga., next spring. “I’m not going to miss coming to work every day, but the people,” Karen Jackson said.
And many in school sports across Michigan, although they may not realize it, will miss the contributions Jackson has made to their community over the decades including the context she’s provided as thousands of decisions have been made.
“Not only her understanding of our regulations and the processes of our regulations, but understanding why we have those things in place – when someone does something 45 years, you get a lot of historical context,” Uyl said. “What’s made her so effective is understanding the why – and that to me is something that’s almost impossible to replace.
“When an organization has been around 98 years with only five directors, it says something to have worked for four out of the five. That will never be replicated again.”
PHOTOS (Top) From top left, Karen Jackson has been a mainstay of the MHSAA for decades – serving membership, working with administrators like Randy Allen and Gina Mazzolini or serving as assistant to executive directors like Jack Roberts (right) and Vern Norris. (Middle) Jackson, sitting fourth from left, was the “baby” of the MHSAA staff after joining when she was 18. (Below) Jackson and husband Jim have plans to travel in retirement. (MHSAA archives.)