Coping with Cuts

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

If you're a high school athletic director, you're probably spending this year trying to make ends meet with a reduced budget. You're not alone. Here's a quick look at what some schools across the nation are doing to survive:

Creswell (Ore.) High School may be typical of small programs. Like many schools that charge pay-to-play fees, it raised the amount, from $80 to $125. It was the second time in as many years that the fee went up. "We've really tried to keep our ears open for kids who can't afford the participation fee and help them out the best we can," says Athletic Director Pete Apo. "But our numbers are down a little bit, and I'm sure part of that is due to the fee increase."

On the cost-cutting side, the school eliminated a couple of assistant coaching positions and reduced equipment spending as much as possible. "We've bought only things deemed necessities," says Apo. "The criteria we used were safety issues and what the student-athletes needed to compete. The uniforms are getting a little old-looking, but it's just not in the budget right now."

On the revenue side, Creswell stepped up its fund-raising. Located near Eugene, the town is growing as a bedroom community, and the athletics program landed a $50,000 donation from a home building company. A golf tournament raised $2,500, a football tailgate party garnered about $1,100, and a dinner and auction of locally donated goods and services raised $20,000.

Creswell was careful about how it distributed its fund-raised dollars. "The teams don't go out and fund-raise for their own sport," Apo says. "We thought that might have left a couple behind, not being able to raise the funds they needed. So all fund-raising money goes into a general fund."

At Otis High School in north-central Colorado, buttons and gambling trips for adults are bringing in a little extra money. In the Adopt-a-Bulldog program--named for the school's mascot--supporters can "adopt" a player for $10 and get a button, made by a local business, bearing a student-athlete's picture. Donors could choose any player, but coaches made sure no player was left out, says Athletic Director Bonnie Wallin-Kuntz.

"We did it for volleyball, football, and basketball," she says. "The proceeds from football went to pay for the kids' state runner-up patches. The proceeds from basketball will go toward sending those kids to camps."

To help send the football team to camp, Otis High's booster club organized a trip to casinos in Black Hawk and Central, two tiny Colorado towns where gambling is legal. "As long as you promise to fill them up, the casinos send buses out for free," Wallin-Kuntz says. "It costs people $20 to ride, and they each get a $10 coupon for the casino. The $20 per person goes directly to the football program. However, the school doesn't have anything to do with it because it is a form of gambling. It is a booster activity."

Not far away, Peetz High School, a school of 68 students near the Nebraska state line, has avoided charging pay-to-play fees through the help of various fund-raisers. Many of its efforts are typical of schools across the country--candy and fruit sales, long-shot contests during basketball games, class dinners at games--but it also stages a used-jersey sale and a pick-up basketball tournament for the vertically challenged.

Peetz ran out of room for storing old jerseys, some dating back to the 1960s, so it sold them to alumni. Then it began offering football players the jerseys they were wearing during their high school careers--both road and home versions--as keepsakes. When a student joins the team, he picks a jersey number (ordered fresh if it's not in stock) and upon graduation, may buy the home and road jerseys for $25 each. The money helps defray the cost of new uniforms.

Another attention-getting fund-raiser is a spring basketball tournament with the goals lowered a foot from regulation height. "We have two gyms here and in our smaller gym we lower the baskets to nine feet and we charge each team about $150 to $200 to get in the tournament," Head Football Coach Scott Sorensen says. "We have eight or nine teams in there and we buy T-shirts for the champions and second-place teams."

Dunking for non-dunkers is the attraction. "You'd be amazed at how many people in the world can dunk at nine feet but can't dunk 10. It's just one of those plateaus that short five-foot-five guys can never reach," Sorensen says. "Some of it is very funny--guys 35 years old, a little bit overweight and still thinking they can pin the ball up there against the rim--it about kills 'em."

Near the other end of the enrollment spectrum, the school district of Hillsborough County, Fla., which comprises much of the Tampa metropolitan area and is the nation's 10th largest public school system, has been coping with a 16 percent reduction in district funding. It has survived through a combination of cost-saving measures, says Vernon Korhn, who directs the centralized athletics administration for the high schools and middle schools.

These include: having one police officer at games instead of the customary two; reducing security at football games when smaller crowds are expected; having teams make do with old uniforms for at least another year; and cutting out meal money for student-athletes on extended trips, an expense many booster clubs picked up.

But the biggest item was rearranging schedules so that many contests started an hour or two later. This, Korhn says, meant that schools could use district buses to transport student-athletes to away games rather than hiring private buses, with the exception of long trips out of the area for playoffs. The savings far offset the extra hourly pay needed for district-employed drivers.

"Because our school buses were involved in transporting kids after school, they weren't generally available until about 5 o'clock," Korhn explains. "When we used commercial buses, it got expensive. But district drivers get a flat rate for overtime and per mile, so it's considerably less than a commercial bus." Korhn adds that all but one of the district's 23 high schools have lighted outdoor facilities, so later starts did not result in more games called due to darkness.

"Right now we're anticipating holding our own, and I just hope that things get better economically, not only in Florida, but nationwide," says Korhn. "That has a direct impact on what happens to our athletic program here in Hillsborough County."