With the economy still recovering, schools across the country have been taking steps to trim their budgets. One area that often suffers is athletics.
Middle- and high-school athletic programs are expensive to operate and more times than not, do not recoup those dollars through ticket, merchandise and concession sales.
“These programs are always going to lose money,” said Forrest Hills Central High School (MI) Athletic Director Bill Kennedy. “The budgets are pretty big, and you can't make that money back through ticket sales and concessions.”
To get an idea of the gap that exists between dollars in and dollars out, one only needs to look at a typical school system's annual athletic budget, which can exceed $1.5 million, and compare that to the number of people sitting in the stands on any given Friday night.
“A good gate for us for a football game is about $10,000,” Kennedy said. “For boys' basketball it's $2,500. Of course basketball is much less expensive to run than football.”
Dave Dlugosz, the head football coach at Avon Lake (OH) High School, said he spends in excess of $10,000 a year on his program before anyone takes the field.
“Speaking only of equipment and uniforms, we spend about $10,000 to $15,000 per year,” Dlugosz said. “That includes the entire program which covers grades seven though 12. With that in mind, I purchase good, long-lasting equipment and gear, but not necessarily the 'top of the line.'”
To combat the increasing costs, schools are taking drastic steps to make ends meet. In the early 1990s the Lorain (OH) public school system suspended all interscholastic athletic programs for an entire semester. Other districts have cut individual sports, although Title IX requirements can make that tricky.
“I haven't received any pressure to eliminate programs,” Kennedy, whose 1,300-student high school offers 38 athletic programs. “But I have been put in a position where we cannot start new programs.”
All of the bad economic news has led athletic departments to get creative in terms of fundraising. Booster clubs have been a staple of amateur sports for decades, but now they have to think beyond the bake sale to supplement the budget. In the football hotbed of Northeast Ohio, Dave Dlugosz said his program's boosters go a long way to help out.
“We are fortunate to have a very solid fan base,” Dlugosz said. “Our home side is always sold out by the start of the season. Our boosters usually contribute “1,000 to $5,000 per year to the program.”
Kennedy agreed that boosters are invaluable. Their involvement has dipped recently, however.
“Booster money paid for uniforms, warmups and equipment bags in the past,” Kennedy said. “Now we use the booster money to pay for indoor rental space in times of poor weather, ice time for the hockey team, things like that.”
Tax dollars and booster help, while critical, remain only two pieces of the athletic funding puzzle. Districts have taken the step of soliciting advertisements and requiring students to pay a participation fee to supplement the budget.
“We're looking at new revenue streams,” Kennedy said. “Right now we don't have any facility advertisements. That may be a direction we go, getting some signage on the scoreboards or something like that. We may be selling commemorative bricks to help pay for stadium upgrades. You have to open your mind and get creative.”
“Our pay-to-play policy has been around a long time,” Dlugosz said. “It goes back before the economic downturn. Right now each student pays $200 per sport.”
Although the economic picture looks bleak, those in the schools remain confident that athletics will always have a place.
“We have a policy where we will not deny anyone who can't afford it,” Kennedy said. “Athletics are very important, and we never forget that.”