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Budget Crisis Special: Forget pay to play, consider pay to watch (and not just HS football)

May 7, 2009 – 9:59 AM

By Laura Pappano

School districts are sweating. Budgets are tight and they are cutting in the same old places, including middle and high school sports. (A recent American Association of School Administrators survey shows the proportion of school districts cutting extracurricular activities, including sports, will triple from 10 to 28 percent from this academic year to next.)

There is also recycled talk about “pay to play” – not in the political-access- Rod-Blagojevich sense of the phrase, of course – but in the fee to participate. The downside: If the fee is too high some kids get left out. It does cost money to play sports and there may be a place for a nominal charge (say you buy your own uniform…or provide your own equipment). But one budget balancing option to consider: Pay to watch. And not just football.

Of course folks are used to paying $8 or $10 to attend high school football and, as a result, there is obvious focus these days on those revenues. The question is: Why do we pay this and what does it mean now, when budgets are tight – and later when this fiscal calamity has passed?

There is obvious attention these days on high school football revenues. The Tennessee Secondary School Association is fretting because dollars from post-season football play have been falling steadily since 2005, from $830,667 to $610,090 this past season. The Board of Control’s solution? They raised ticket prices for next year’s playoffs from $10 to $12.

They are leaning on the fact that people are used to paying to see high school football. At Gainesville High School in Florida, for example, the football team brought in $83,589 of the school’s $132,667 in sports ticket sales – plus about $105,000 through a booster’s club (including $60,000 for ads in the football program).

The high school’s athletic director, Wayne Vickery, told the Gainesville Times that football money is key: “Other coaches don’t want to hear it, but I’m sorry, football is a driving force,” Vickery said. “But that’s the way it is in the South. … Whether people like it or not, football pays the bills.”

The problem with this reality is the underlying presumption: Football (and maybe men’s basketball) are the only sports “worth” paying to see (or buy programs for, or support through booster fundraising).  It’s part of a familiar hierarchy in which football games are scheduled as Friday night community entertainment (or say Thanksgiving).

This budget crisis is an opportunity to insert some equity into the revenue-respect equation. It’s time to re-evaluate the paternalistic attention-sucking power structure that is high school football and share some of the wealth – and responsibility – with other athletic teams. Yes, I said, “responsibility.” It’s time for supporters of other teams to realize that athletics cost money and that it’s also worth dollars to watch soccer, cross country, gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, swimming…

What would happen if a school district took turns featuring key athletic match-ups on Friday nights (and promoting and charging for them)? Track under the lights? Field hockey? Softball? Lacrosse? In the process, maybe school districts could expand their base of support beyond the football boosters to an audience (and pool of funders) that is largely untapped.

Sure, officials in Tennessee attributed their falling football playoff revenues on things beyond their control: poor weather and unexciting match-ups. But maybe we’re giving too much to and expecting too much from high school football.

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