Feature

Sports at Any Cost?

To fund athletic programs, districts find corporate sponsors and reluctantly expand participation fees by Kimberly Reeves

Sports marketing executive Dave Stephenson has a stadium to sell — your own. As the founder of Dallas-based Titus Sports Marketing, Stephenson specializes in finding the right corporate sponsor to buy the naming rights to the playing field of your high school football team.

Don’t think of this in terms of a token mention of your local bank or soft drink distributor on your scoreboard. As major corporate sponsors enter one the final frontiers of retail marketing — high school sports — the dollars tend to get big. Two years ago, Stephenson secured a 10-year naming rights deal for the Tyler Independent School District. The name Tyler Rose Stadium came down and Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium went up on the 12,000-seat facility, to the tune of $1.9 million.

That money — while only a fraction of the naming rights on the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field or the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Alltel Stadium — was still enough to upgrade the stadium, create an East Texas Football Classic between powerhouse rivals and increase the number of high school playoff games last year to 16. That puts Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium second only to Texas Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys, in terms of playoff games, an impressive feat given that Tyler is in the remote reaches of East Texas.

“It had just gotten to where you couldn’t play in our stadium. We had the turf, we had the seating capacity, but we just didn’t have the restroom and concession facilities. It was the first thing I heard about when I got here,” said Danny Long, the athletic director of the 16,725-student Tyler district. “This sponsorship made all the difference. We hosted the AA and AAA playoffs, and we just hosted the state championship game between Highland Park and Marshall.”

The nonprofit Trinity Mother Frances Hospital System sees the naming rights as a plus for the 395-bed hospital and for the entire Tyler community.

The decision to invest in the improvements at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium has proven beneficial to various parties, including the school district and taxpayers. Since the stadium improvements were completed, numerous football playoff games never previously held in Tyler “have brought in thousands of dollars for local businesses,” said hospital spokesman John Moore.

Economic Impact
Stephenson spent 10 years vetting college sports events — and creating the Alamo Texas Football Classic for Texas high schools — before he decided to launch his high school sports marketing company. The Alamo Texas Football Classic taught Stephenson that all the things businesses do for colleges — putting together travel packages, creating apparel and adding corporate sponsorships — are things they are willing to do to be associated with high school sports programs.

“Coaches know how to coach. I know how to market,” Stephenson said. “You look at a partnership like this and it really is a long-term marriage. You have to come into the marriage with a value, and you have to show your partner that, after one, two, three years, you’re still getting value from that marriage.”

That means that Stephenson’s work doesn’t stop with slapping a name on the stadium. He plans a football classic. He hosts a catered client appreciation night for school district supporters. He looks for new ways to bring value to the school-business partnership.

“A school district can’t do it on their own,” Stephenson said. “They’re working the ticket gate. They’re handling the concessions stand. They’re managing an event. That’s why we’re valuable. We have a different agenda and a different take.”

Stephenson knows that football is big in Texas. On any given weekend during the fall, an estimated 1.2 million people will be sitting or standing on their feet in the bleachers at a high school football game, spending money on tickets and concessions. Economist Ray Perryman, in a study in cooperation with the Dallas Morning News, estimated that the economic impact across the state was approximately $1 billion a year.

“It’s a sizeable amount,” Perryman said in an interview from his office in Waco. “As the sport moves forward, where you see high schools competing for naming rights like professionals and colleges, it’s likely to see that amount grow even larger. Schools obviously are looking for revenue these days, and high school football is often a profit center for revenue for not only football but also all campus extracurricular activities. So I suspect the move to naming rights will be sooner, rather than later.”

That doesn’t mean that corporate sponsors — or those who seek them — consider every high school football project to be a home run. Stephenson recently passed on an opportunity to close on naming rights for the sports facilities in the Houston Independent School District, saying the scope of the project was too complex a task, even for him.

Fresh Paint
The pressure to take on corporate sponsors, like Tyler, is heavy on school districts. Faced with tight budget years and local mandates to maintain level tax rates, school districts are squeezed to find new ways to pay for high school athletics. Naming rights is one of the more exotic measures. Other school districts, strapped for funds, have turned to pay-for-play measures. And some, faced with few alternatives, have cut subvarsity teams and middle school programs, even replacing them with intramural leagues.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, has heard what he calls “heart-breaking stories” of school district budget woes. But it’s still no excuse, Ruskin said, to put kids up for sale to the highest corporate bidder, whether it’s Channel One, the daily TV news program, exclusive soft drink contracts or even naming rights on the local football stadium.

“Not so long ago, we named our buildings for civic names in the name of civic virtue. We should never sever that link,” Ruskin said. “It shows the decline of our values, to name our stadiums not after heroes or history but after corporations with the deepest pockets. Our public buildings shouldn’t be billboards for the highest corporate bidder.”

Others fail to see something so insidious when it provides good to the community. Community High School District 128 is an affluent bedroom community on the north side of Chicago, corporate home to computer retailer CDW and Rustoleum. When it came time to finish out the athletic complex at the district’s second high school, parents thought nothing of securing sponsors and raising private dollars to pay for the scoreboards, the artificial turf, the locker room and the concession stands at the facility.

“It was really a non-issue in our school district. It did attract some attention — media attention — at the time, but it was not a big issue within the district itself,” Superintendent David Clough said. “Parents always have stepped up in our school district.”

The naming rights to Rustoleum Stadium — only $100,000, plus free paint for the life of the stadium — was small in comparison to the total tab parents were willing to foot. Clough estimated parents and supporters have gathered $2 million toward the cost of the stadium in the last five years, a cost the 3,400-student district couldn’t bear.

“Probably the only problem we’ve had — and it’s been a good problem to have — is that we have parents who want to fund raise and contribute items that maybe we don’t want or we were concerned about when it came to long-term maintenance costs,” Clough said. “Nothing has ever come with strings attached in any way. It’s been a good partnership.”

Pay to Play
Four years ago, Oakmont Regional High School in Worcester, Mass., had the infamous distinction of charging students some of the highest fees in the country to participate in high school athletics. Oakmont, part of the Ashburham-Westminster Regional School District just outside of Boston, was faced with limited financing that was made tighter by Massachusetts’ long-standing Proposition 2.5, which caps budget growth.

When the school district’s salaries and utilities began to override the budget limits imposed by the state, Oakmont was forced to start charging participation fees for athletics that actually mirrored program costs: $1,100 for ice hockey, $1,000 for football and $900 for girls’ and boys’ basketball. Principal Jeff Lawrence, who describes his school district has a mix of white- and blue-collar families, said those budget cuts were a death knell to competitive athletics.

“The end point of this was the destruction of a productive and successful athletic program, not to mention the clubs and marching band on the campus,” Lawrence said. “We had very, very successful programs — our basketball program was a state finalist last winter — and we just got killed. We’re crawling back.”

Lawrence estimated that participation went down by 40 percent in the three years Oakmont had its pay-to-play program. Almost all of the freshman sports, and many of the middle school feeder programs, were eliminated. It was difficult to field some junior varsity teams. For two years, the high school gave up on winter track because the coach simply couldn’t find enough students who could afford to participate.

Oakmont’s charges may have been high, but the high school is not alone in asking parents to foot the bill for athletics. Scott Smith, an assistant professor of sports management at Central Michigan University, has tracked the trend and says that charging to participate in high school athletics — often referred to as pay-to-play — is not new, but the number of school districts using the strategy has grown in the last five years.

Smith’s doctoral dissertation studied the growth of pay-to-play fees in Ohio. What Smith found was that participation fees often resulted from failed tax elections, the final threat a superintendent and school board would use to try to get a tax issue passed. (See related story.)

In a comprehensive survey of Ohio school districts, Smith found that the fees were most common in suburban communities. “In the suburbs, it was a no-brainer,” Smith said. “They have the income. They are more used to paying for it. Most of them had spent hundreds, if not thousands, on AAU teams or summer camps, so asking them to pay a fee so their child can participate in sports is not a big deal.”

Parents may have been willing to pay, but the fees affected sports participation with Smith finding a statistically significant relationship. Sports programs that charge fees typically lose athletes, particularly those students who might be trying a sport for the first time or those who don’t expect to get a lot of playing time.

“The kids come up with the money if they are going to play,” Smith said. “Where you lose the kids is the 2nd and 3rd stringers who are thinking, ‘It’s bad enough you’re going to make me bust my butt. Now you’re going to charge me $200 to just sit on the bench?’”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association tracks participation fees, which often get labeled as the trainer’s fee or transportation fee or insurance fee. Communications Director John Johnson says the use of fees is increasing in his state — probably one in three high schools will charge a participation fee — but it’s usually only a fraction of the actual cost of the sport, usually less than $100 per season.

“There is a terrible backlash associated with the fees in some communities,” Johnson said. “Some parents have the misguided notion that participation fees are buying their kids playing time, when all they’re really doing is giving them access to the team.”

In Oakmont, where fees were required for three years, Lawrence called the experience “agonizing” and a major loss to students. A proposed scholarship program for needy students had little effect. After three years, a new superintendent and a better sales campaign finally got the two towns that support the district to provide a $1.5 million override to cover the cost of the athletics program.

“I think that after three years of seeing what had happened in our community, they decided, ‘This is not the right place to be going, especially for the kids in the community,’” Lawrence said. “Getting rid of the fees was the best thing to do.”

Unequal Support
In the 70,000-student Guilford County Public Schools based in Greensboro, N.C., Superintendent Terry Grier put his foot down when a pay-to-play fee was proposed for Page High School. Well-meaning parents wanted to add another sport to the roster — in this case, lacrosse — and couldn’t stretch the campus-based sports budget far enough to make it happen. They needed some help.

“They came up with the idea of pay to play. Those kids who couldn’t afford to participate would get a scholarship,” Grier said. “I basically said no. I felt it would end up meaning fewer kids would be going out for sports because they wouldn’t have the money, and most kids won’t ask for it because they don’t want to be seen as disadvantaged.”

Grier is sensitive to the changing economics of his community. While some families are still affluent, most area residents have been heavily hit by the downturn in the textiles industry. The gap between wealth and poverty, often along racial lines, is growing. Grier said he preferred to go to the school board and ask for another $10,000 in sports funding per campus than to say some kids could play sports and others couldn’t. It’s just not ethical to deny children an equal chance at sports, Grier said.

For other communities, it’s less of an issue. The transition to an activity fee system in the 640-student Tri-Point Community Unit School District in rural eastern Illinois went fairly smoothly for Superintendent Jeff Fritchtnicht. Tri-Point, a pre-K-8 school district in a community where farming still dominates, was one of the last districts in the region to implement a participation fee and the cost is fairly modest, about $25 per activity. Some communities have charged $150 for football. Fritchtnicht knew that was unrealistic for Tri-Point.

“When we took a survey of our community, a good percentage of our parents agreed it was time to add an activity fee,” Fritchtnitch said. “It’s not going to be much. Maybe we offset some of the uniform purchases or some of the equipment purchases. Maybe a fee covers the cost of a football or a basketball for the program.”

Other Options
While a pay-for-play policy is the most popular way to deal with budget shortfalls and sometimes declining participation, it’s not the only way. Many already rely heavily on booster club support to underwrite the costs when gate receipts don’t go far enough. Others districts, lacking sufficient enrollment and hoping to maximize expenditures, consolidate teams. And some school districts decide to cut athletic programs.

Superintendent Craig Bailey is hoping his reliance on booster clubs will be temporary. Ohio’s 2,400-student Buckeye School District, a wealthy suburban district just southwest of Cleveland, has faced repeated failures at the ballot box in Medina County. Bailey’s district has asked, not once or twice, but eight times for a levy increase over the past three years.

Bailey says Buckeye is caught between a state that is under court order to put more money into public education and a strong grassroots anti-tax sentiment in the local community. The success of ballot initiatives for bond levies in Ohio school districts is now one in four. To cope, the Buckeye district has laid off three dozen staff members, closing an elementary school and then, finally, choosing to cut extracurricular activities.

The fact that booster clubs can, and have, stepped forward to raise $200,000 to pay for band and sports activities is both good and bad, Bailey said. It’s raised the issue and pushed funding forward, but it’s also taken away longtime volunteers.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “Now you have people who are going to think we can do this type of fundraising all the time. But, actually, it burns people out. It’s hard to find people who can step up and help us raise the money to run a levy campaign now because a lot of people feel like they’ve done their part.”

Money also is something that can be taken for granted. Retired counselor Al Kirkman led the fight to raise money to maintain high school sports in West Contra Costa Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay area two years ago. When the possibility of school board cuts to high school sports was initially announced, people all over the region stepped forward, including the Oakland As, who offered to share profits off the ticket sales of a game with the district.

Combined fundraising brought in $350,000, followed by the passage of a $500,000 parcel tax, Kirkman said. The problem with that kind of tax effort is that it simply can’t be maintained, Kirkman said. Parcel taxes only last three years. And typical fundraising — candy sales or an annual golf tournament — only brings in $60,000 per year. At some point, the funding sources run out, forcing the district into another crisis situation.

“I can’t say that this money is going to last,” said Kirkman, who subsidizes and coaches the tennis program at one of the district’s high schools. “I hope the school board is savvy enough now to know the importance of a well-funded athletic program and how it can involve all kinds of students in their school.”

Severe Measures
Many school districts do recognize the importance of sports, but it’s taking more effort to maintain a program. The 460-student Franklin Community Unit School District, like many of the rural districts in southern Illinois, is losing enrollment. Superintendent Fred Roberts, whose district has had a pay-for-play fee for 15 years, has been forced to consolidate his sports teams with neighboring districts. It’s not uncommon for two, three or four school districts to combine players, both sending and receiving athletes to make full teams.

“Our parents and kids are very committed to it,” Roberts said. “It’s the only way we can have sports and not have to cut programs.”

For the 49,500-student Anchorage School District in Alaska, the choice was to cut programs. Superintendent Carol Comeau was reached by phone in Juneau, where she was trying to convince lawmakers that it was time to put more money into education, despite dire liabilities in the state’s teacher health care system.

Anchorage has cut the budget for a number of years, including an initial $26 million cut and a $2 million cut last year. One of the casualties of limited funding has been athletics. In the case of Anchorage, fees were added at middle schools and high schools and a number of sports in the middle school were converted to no-cut intramurals.

“There’s been a definite move afoot to reinstate soccer and basketball, but we simply haven’t had the money to do it,” Comeau said. “When you take interscholastic competition and convert to an intramural program with a no-cut policy, your coaches definitely feel like it has a negative effect on the level of competition. Middle school principals really support intramurals because it increases participation, but the coaches and the families of the athletes would prefer to have a competitive program.”

Still, sports is often as much a political football as anything else. A recent legislative study in Arkansas, in the midst of the school funding crisis, found the overall cost of sports was negligible in the bigger funding picture. Instead, the state moved to consolidate school districts, and superintendents have found that sports is a common denominator to make the transition to bigger high schools easier for students.

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer in Austin, Texas. E-mail: klreeves@swbell.net