Crowdfunding, pay for play, and broadcasting offer new opportunities, but are they the answer?

Secondary school principals are often stuck in the middle—sandwiched between students and teachers or between teachers and parents, for example. Some of the most difficult conflicts, however, occur when principals are stuck between district budget limitations and their schools’ needs, particularly with regard to one very visible and traditional part of school life—sports. 

It may have been different when students and parents were happy to field a few teams and have 30 of the same kids participate, supported by some general fund money and hot dog sales by a booster club.

Today, however, principals at various-sized schools note that there is an array of new pressures, including a wider variety of sports activists—with parents and participants who feel strongly about the rights of that niche—and students, parents, and coaches who want the latest, most sophisticated, and most expensive equipment.

Hefty Expenses Continue to Climb

“Sports funding has just gotten expensive and complicated,” says Jeff Smith, assistant principal at West Henderson High School in Hendersonville, NC, which has about 1,000 students from an area in the state’s west corner. Smith was assigned the additional duties of athletic director recently when the school decided it needed to have better management of a sports budget that has doubled in 10 years to about $200,000 (not including costs for staff or facilities). “There’s much more to it, and we need to be very creative with raising money,” he says.

Smith uses a full array of traditional means of funding—fundraisers, sports tournaments, increased advertising, drawings, and creative and dramatically expanded involvement by booster clubs. “It’s just enough,” he says, “as long as something unexpected doesn’t happen.”

Football, as opposed to other sports, raises significant funds, though it often doesn’t pay for itself, says Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. According to Georgetown University researcher Marguerite Roza, author of the book Educational Economics, high school football costs $1,300 annually per participant, while a math class costs about half as much per pupil. Other sports may cost less (e.g., track, $390 per pupil, Roza estimates), but they bring in very little revenue. The Mechanicsburg (PA) Area Senior High School lacrosse booster club, for instance, has estimated its costs totaled about $15,000–$20,000 annually, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-​News, but revenue is limited. 

It is difficult to get firm estimates about costs for sports, and that is because their funds can come from a wide variety of different budgets and sources, Roza says, which probably means they are underestimated.

Budget Battles

With costs going up and budgets tight, some districts have had to trim sports funding as one solution.

Up2Us Sports, a coalition of some 1,000 scholastic sports programs that support sports as a way to improve the physical and emotional health of young people and their performance in school, says that sports budgets have been trimmed every year ($35 million overall from 2009–2011). The group predicts that nearly one-quarter of high schools will not offer sports by 2020. Perry LaBounty, principal for about 700 students at Talmadge Middle School in Independence, OR, made headlines and national coverage by ESPN when he was forced to cancel sports at his school in 2009 as Oregon fully felt the impact of the recession.

“Our district, like every other district in the state, had to make difficult decisions. Many good teachers and programs were lost during that time, including the middle school sports program,” LaBounty says, noting that the school saved about $120,000 annually by dropping sports—enough to rescue two teaching positions. For two years now, the sports program has been back in place, offering boys’ and girls’ volleyball, soccer, cross-country, track and field, wrestling, and football.

Roger Dearing, executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association, says that things are improving, but that fully funding sports will be an ongoing struggle, especially since the majority of students may not be directly involved.

“It is important to remember that interscholastic athletics is a supplement to the educational programs,” Dearing says. “In Florida, about 38 percent of high school students participate. The cost of facilities, uniforms, transportation, officials, and coaches are all financial burdens that take dollars away from the classroom. We have to remember to keep it in perspective.”

Dearing raises an age-old issue about the value of sports. LaBounty notes that student athletes have better grades, attendance, and behavior than students who don’t participate in sports. Plus, kids in sports are often school leaders and have an opportunity to get scholarship funds for college. He and other advocates say it improves school culture and community involvement in the schools, and gives students a chance to connect with an adult mentor. Meanwhile, others feel that schools place too much emphasis on sports without a big enough payoff.

Pay for Play

One way to raise funds for sports programs is to ask participants to pay fees. “Pay for play” structures are being widely used, says Dearing.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association reported recently that fees ranged from a minimal $25 to $625 per sport, and the group noted that the number of schools charging them was doubling. For example, Saline Area Schools, a district in Saline, MI, recently announced that this year it will charge families of high school athletes $325 and middle school athletes $235 to participate. 

A University of Michigan study found that 61 percent of schools charged fees for sports, and the average fee nationally was $93. However, the study noted that, along with other costs, parents were paying on average nearly $400 for their students’ involvement in sports, making it prohibitive for some families.

“As pay to play becomes the norm, nearly 1 in 5 lower-income parents reported their kids decreased their sports participation, and that’s significant,” says Sarah Clark, associate director of child health evaluation and research at the University of Michigan.

In Ohio, there is an effort in the state legislature to ban such fees, and in California, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union caused the state to strictly limit their use.

Giving Sports a Boost

Other schools supplement tight budgets in less dramatic ways. Booster clubs now exist for every sport, and Smith notes that his school’s programs would not survive without them. They get parents involved in the school, relieve staff members of some responsibility, and in many cases, can pay a large chunk of a sport’s costs.

The National Booster Club Training Council says that clubs must have the appropriate bookkeeping and oversight, follow rules for tax-​exempt organizations, and be aware of district and school polices. They require school involvement, experts say. Critics note that too often, money raised by booster clubs does not make it to the sports teams, and they complain that sometimes teams in more affluent school districts get an edge for this sort of funding. 

One club supporting high school baseball in a Minneapolis suburb offered incentives such as a trip to Hawaii, a pheasant hunt, and a pearl necklace at an upscale fundraiser. Meanwhile, across town, a different school booster club raises money simply to make sure players have a hot meal some days (and typically ends up in debt), according to an investigative report by The Minneapolis Star Tribune. The report concluded that booster clubs reinforce inequities that often already exist in school funding and affect student morale. “

A lot of stuff is beat up,” one coach at a low-income school told the newspaper, noting that his players wear 20-year-old uniforms but play against teams with newer uniforms (most teams get them every three years), much better equipment, and elaborate facilities. “They walk into a place like that … our kids see what they’re up against. And they don’t feel it’s fair.” 

Booster clubs can also take the lead on special projects. For example, a booster club in Wayzata, MN, has spearheaded the effort to buy a new scoreboard to replace the aging one at Wayzata High School by raising $350,000, according to Matt White, a booster club president. 

Business Backing

Sponsors can sign up for standing signage on the elaborate scoreboard or brief video clips for $1,500 to $10,000 per year. “Sponsorships are almost sold out, and our private donation campaign will run through the school year,” White says. 

Such advertising and promotional opportunities are a growing source of revenue, Dearing says. For instance, in Rock Hill, SC, Rock Hill Schools’ sponsorship program expects $3,500 for “founding” partnerships and $1,500 for a “premier” partnership that can include advertising on the scoreboard and elsewhere, announcements, priority involvement in games, participation in other school activities, and a mention during the pregame coin toss.

Smaller school districts can make as much as $75,000 from such corporate involvement, according to Jeff Bertoni, president of sales for Market Street Sports Group, which sets up sponsorships and advertising opportunities for districts and takes a percentage of the profit. He says in some cases, school systems have made as much as $150,000. It can involve advertising on everything from the walls of a stadium or a seat cushion to a mention in the game program or on admission tickets.

Some schools have avoided elaborate advertising opportunities, fearing that legally they won’t be able to prohibit an advertiser from promoting a product that would be unpopular (though school legal advisers say agreements can be worded to protect schools).

High schools have also begun following the lead of professional sports stadiums by offering naming rights. Josh Boyd, a Purdue University professor specializing in sports financing, says that such arrangements boomed in professional sports in the late 1990s and in colleges around 2005, and have become popular in high schools in the last five years. But, he says, it has a long tradition. “Ironically, sponsorship is probably most widespread and accepted at the lowest level of amateur sports—Little League and recreational league sports, where each team is sponsored by a local insurance agent, orthodontist, gas station, and other businesses, and fields were often named for local companies or benefactors.”

One of the most publicized and early high school deals was the Gloucester, MA, stadium, which added the New Balance name to its field in 2011 for $50,000 over 10 years, according to the Boston Globe. Since that time, such agreements have come up in New England, Indiana, Texas, and Washington.

For $60,000 for five years, a local car dealer got his firm’s name on a new $20 million stadium in New Caney, TX. The nonprofit Penn-Harris-Madison Education Foundation has signed naming rights agreements that will bring the district more than $600,000, including $400,000 for the lone high school in the suburban South Bend, IN, district it supports. A suburban Indianapolis district is getting $1.5 million over 10 years from a health care provider to have the company’s name on Westfield High School’s stadium.

While such sponsorships were gaining in popularity, a 2011 study from The Sports Management International Journal ‘Choregia’ showed that 80 percent of the time they accounted for less than 10 percent of revenue.

Broadcasting Boosts Revenues

Broadcast of sporting events is also a growing source of funds, with some school systems making arrangements locally and others working with regional or national firms such as PlayOn Sports—a sports media company that broadcasts high school games—which this year will cover 30,000 events, including 20,000 live games.

“There are 16 million students in high school, 8 million of whom play high school sports or other activities,” says David Rudolph, president of the firm, which spun off from Turner Broadcasting. “Annual attendance for high school sports is a little more than 450 million. Audience growth was 35 percent last year. That’s a big market.” Rudolph says his firm deals with state athletic associations, but schools that go “on air” also gain revenue, as much as $8,000 per year, with very little expense. 

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.


Asking for money via online donations is another fundraising avenue for sports. There are several options for crowdfunding, where booster clubs typically seek donations online for a sports-related cause and rely on social media to do the rest. Schools can work with SportsMatter and DonorsChoose to raise money and have it matched by Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example. Piggybackr, an online site that does fundraising exclusively for teams, claims it takes only five minutes to set up a high school basketball fundraiser online.

“Instead of going door to door selling candy bars or getting your feet wet washing cars, just set up your page and send out emails, and the donations will roll in while you’re at practice working on your defense,” the company says on its website. “The average donor on Piggybackr donates $86. Think of the time saved compared to having to sell 86 candy bars.”

The biggest crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, has more than 2,500 sports-related projects looking for donors on its site. The John R. Rogers High School baseball team in Spokane, WA, has raised about $1,500 on GoFundMe, nearly meeting its goal for equipment. The new South Philadelphia High School wrestling team raised $1,500 in two weeks for warmup suits to match with suburban competitors. However, the St. Joseph’s Catholic High School football team in Bryan, TX, after more than a year, had raised only $500 toward its $20,000 goal of replacing worn helmets.