April 4, 2017

Funding High School Athletics Programs

By Dr. Doug Kuhlmann, Part-Time M.S.A.A. Program Director | Athletics Administration

Across the United States, interscholastic (high school) athletics are an “undeniable part of the fabric of many communities. While that fabric remains untorn, it’s often stretched to the very limit by the challenges it faces today. Front and center among those challenges is keeping interscholastic athletics up and running.” No one wants to deal with financial problems, but like every industry, the sports industry is not immune from financial troubles.

Two of the biggest concerns associated with high school sports are revenue and expenses. When revenues are squeezed and expenses increase, as has been the trend, high school programs suffer a double whammy. Revenues are falling from lower allocations from government coffers, reduced sponsorships, and declining gate receipts. Athletic administrators are struggling to come up with alternative funding models.

Due to the enormous pressures that society places upon sports at all levels from amateur to professional, it is imperative that all organizations, especially high schools, have a complete understanding of the challenges that they face, or will face in the future. Every economic downturn is different, and the signs can be either highly visible or extremely subtle.

As budgets shrink, what can athletic administrators do to continue funding programs?  

According to Schneider and Stier, the Athletics Director (AD) position in our nation’s schools is so important because interscholastic programs play such a major role in the educational scheme of things in this country. With the significant growth of competitive sports in our high schools, it has become obvious that competent administrators are needed to oversee the growth and the day-to-day fiscal operation of these programs. Rather than chopping sports, schools are finding ways to either trim the athletic budget through pay-to-play, sponsorships, and fundraising options.

  1. Pay-to-Play: Last Ditch Effort
    In an economic climate where school districts are forced to cut back funding of athletic departments, students and parents are dipping into their own pocketbooks to help pay for the operation of sports programs. To address revenue concerns, high schools across the US are adopting pay-to-play requirements. Many schools that have adopted the system start with a disclaimer that pay-to-play is a last-ditch effort to try to save athletic programs. The biggest challenge to this model is that pay-to-play is moving from a temporary stopgap to a permanent part of school financing. Yes, it may be controversial, but it has become a necessity due to recent budget crunches and the dire economy causing them to grow. Bottom line, participation in high school athletics continues to climb year after year, despite most of the nation’s schools implementing a fee structure.
  2. Sponsorships: Foster the Right Relationships
    Because of severe budget cuts for interscholastic sports nationwide, high school administrators have now turned to sponsorships to help balance their budgets and keep their departments operational. High school athletic programs provide their potential sponsors with a customized list of needs, including signage, advertising, media, premium seating, corporate hospitality, naming rights, and experiential marketing opportunities. While the AD may lack the experience or expertise needed to solicit a sponsor, the key lies in developing a relationship—something any well-trained AD can do.
  3. Fundraising: Ask for Donations Face-to-Face
    While not as easy as the pay-to-play model or sponsorships, fundraising or gift development has become a powerful tool for athletic administrators. It is necessary to first create a fundraising strategy. Ideas must spark interest in people’s hearts and minds so they want to give. While fundraisers are still plausible, the greater impact will be with planned gifts and asking people face-to-face for contributions. They need to see how their dollars will impact a school’s programs directly.

How Can Athletic Directors Find Effective Budgeting Tactics?

Will the pay-to-play model, the increased reliance on sponsorships, and fundraising help fill the void left by the shrinking budgets? Perhaps the largest challenge remains the responsibility for accomplishing the various tasks. According to author David C. Watt, athletic administrators should be qualified in sports management, sports development, facility management and operations, and coaching, while placing an increased emphasis on leadership to direct a successful program. How can an AD effectively govern a pay-to-play model, fundraise, and generate sponsorships? The AD position in our nation’s high schools is too important and too complicated to be assumed by someone who lacks formal education of fiscal responsibility, budget administration, and supervision of a competitive sports programs.

At Concordia University, Nebraska, our online Masters of Science in Athletic Administration program will properly train future athletic administrators. From administrative skills like developing schedules and managing a budget, to fundraising and evaluating staff, the responsibilities can be mind-boggling. Our 100% online curriculum, coupled with our leading experts and professors, will equip our students with the skills for this dynamic profession.

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