High school programs feeling the pinch of economic turmoil

It was the most often used phrase of 2008 and not by choice for almost anyone. With "tough economic times"
Mark Hazelwood
May 24, 2010

It was the most often used phrase of 2008 and not by choice for almost anyone.

With "tough economic times" ravaging U.S. banks, the auto industry and just about every other industry in the country, it seems as though nobody has been spared from financial woes ... including high school athletics.

"I'm a little nervous," Perkins Athletic Director Mike Strohl said. "We are trying to work on some projects and renovations here, and as long as the economy continues to worsen and slump, it makes it that much harder to ask for people to help.

"I know people want to help here -- and we have a very strong and supporting booster club -- but now it is a matter of whether or not they have the means. People now are more likely to hold tight on some things, press forward and get through this and see what happens."

As schools push forward into the great unknown of the economy, here is a look at three vital areas for athletic budgets:

Cost of diesel fuel

As the cost of unleaded gasoline prices skyrocketed across the country in 2008 before sharply declining in the past couple months, those who used diesel fuel felt the pain at the pumps even more as the average price of diesel fuel, which is used to bus almost all athletes to sporting events, reached $4.75 per gallon during the summer months.

"The biggest thing that affected us this past year was the price of gasoline with transportation costs," St. Paul Athletic Director John Livengood said. "And now the cost of equipment, anything that is petroleum-based like plastics, nylons or things like that ... that's really forced a significant increase of costs to buy those things."

It may not seem like much on the surface, but with the price of fuel almost breaking $5 per gallon, it put the hurt on schools like Sandusky, which faces road trips in the Greater Buckeye Conference to places such as Napoleon, Lima, Marion and Findlay.

"We don't have an option. We have to travel to those destinations," Sandusky High School Athletic Director Sue Sackett said. "But it does affect how we schedule other games.

"We try not to pick up anything that's too far. When we travel to places like Napoleon or Lima for football, we don't take our band because it involves more buses and that obviously affects our budget quite a bit."

At Perkins, Strohl is constantly thinking about the cost of fuel when scheduling games.

"Our district pays for busing out of the general fund, but they certainly feel the pinch," Strohl said. "We're asked to cut down times on our trips so we don't waste manpower.

"Even before the economy worsened we tried to schedule as many non-conference games close by as we could. I'm very aware of the fuel prices. It has a trickle down effect on things we do, so we try and use a 25-mile radius to schedule opponents."

Ticket revenue

One key area that will determine an athletic director's budget is the revenue brought in from attendance of sporting events, with the two key sports being football and basketball.

As of right now, many athletic directors in the area have not seen a significant dent in their respective gate receipts.

"We have fewer home events, but the actual individual gate receipts have been comparable to past years and a couple of them have even been better," Sackett said. "Without question, our budget is affected by gate receipts, and if people don't have money to go to a game, they won't go. Therefore, my budget the following year is adjusted to how much we brought in."

Livengood said St. Paul did OK with fall sports and is on normal pace so far in the winter season. But he is cautious of ticket revenues as more job layoffs continue to engulf the area.

"Our gate receipts, like any athletic department, are a big part of what we do. And people losing jobs, they may not be able to go out and do things as much," Livengood said. "People might start holding back a little bit. But everything costs more, and our revenue really isn't increasing.

"It's not really falling off at this point, but it isn't increasing and the only way to do that is to raise ticket prices, but you can't really do that because you'll drive people away."

Fundraising efforts

The biggest concern for Strohl's financial flexibility at Perkins is receiving donations from the private sector of the community.

"We've trimmed fat and appropriated money to different things, and we're pretty much right where we need to be," Strohl said. "But where we may feel the effect is in fundraising because people many not be willing to give as much as they were at one time.

"It used to be that you did projects through the general fund -- and that is how school districts made their improvements -- but that isn't how it works anymore. Now you have to go out into the private sector to get assistance, and while we have been fortunate to have giving and generous people who support us, I think everyone is tightening their budgets."

Being a private school, Livengood hasn't seen fundraising issues yet, but there are bigger concerns than that as the economy continues to worsen.

"We haven't seen the ripple effects of that, but if anything it will affect every area of the school," he said. "One thing you have to be concerned of with a private school is people have to pay tuition to send their kids here. They have to have a job to pay tuition, so there are a lot of things that we're very conscious of as we move forward in these times."