Schools testing uncharted waters for fundraising


As budgets tighten, high schools are looking for creative new sources of revenue to fund athletics. (Photo by StarNews file photo)


In the Ashley High School cafeteria, two wall-mounted TV monitors look out over the dining tables and entrances.

For every day's lunch periods, Ashley athletic director Roy Turner puts together clips to broadcast; event schedules, athletic pictures and short videos run on a loop, giving students information.

But Turner sees a different potential value: business.

"I'm going to have 1,800 people go by those every day when they go into the cafeteria," Turner said. "And there's a lot of people that would pay a lot of money to get 1,800 15- to 18-year-olds to look at something every day. … It's not ironic that (the TVs are) right there in the serving lines."

Turner's sentiments are no longer radical, now just part of the conversation as schools and administrators try to put a dollar value on high school sports – whether they want to or not.

New avenues

In the past year, state and national athletic associations have opened up the playbook for schools to find new sources of revenue.

In April 2011, NCHSAA commissioner Davis Whitfield issued a rule change at the North Carolina Athletic Directors Association conference in Wilmington: schools could televise regular-season games or stream them online.

The conference even featured a presentation from a company offering live-streaming technology to high schools.

"We think that it could be, not just from an athletic standpoint, but from an overall school perspective it could be a tremendous boon," Whitfield said regarding video streaming. "Any school could have their own website."

In February 2012, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) allowed schools to use corporate sponsorships on their courts and fields.

Many schools in North Carolina already hang company banners around their gyms and fields. But the NFHS ruling set the national standard that state associations, including the NCHSAA, adopted.

"I think there's greater leniency coming about in some of these rulings because of the need to find budget dollars wherever you can," Hoggard athletic director Scott Braswell said.

Any chance to find more revenue is much-needed for high school sports.

In a New Hanover County school system with a budget of $219 million, athletics takes up just more than $1.5 million. Yet New Hanover County Schools trimmed its sports supplies budget for 2011-12 by $188,000 for middle and high schools. To offset the loss, the system allowed schools to keep their gate receipts, estimated at $150,000.

That cut resulted in a 5 percent budget reduction, and the district plans to retain the cut for the 2012-2013 school year as well.

For each public county high school, it means a loss $41,381, offset by anticipated ticket sales of $34,000.

Dead ends?

Despite the decreased funding, most high school athletic departments haven't used the new rulings to alleviate some of the financial pressure.

No local schools developed any game streaming for profit in 2011-12. Even Time Warner Cable's local football Game of the Week doesn't pay dividends. One of those games was New Bern at Hoggard, but Braswell said the Vikings didn't receive any money for the production.

"There weren't a lot of finances involved," Braswell said. "It was more about the exposure our kids got."

Local athletic directors also have met the NFHS rules for on-field corporate sponsorships with reluctance. Putting a corporate logo on the playing surface is a step many are struggling to take.

"I don't know if that's really what we're about here," Turner said. "I don't think educational athletics are about that either. But because we have a product that people want to be involved in, we've got to be able to get that return on investment back."

Even the schools that are considering the new strategies are hesitant. Topsail athletic director B.J. Horne said he and the school's booster club have talked about advertising on the playing surface.

"It'd be cool to say ‘Hey, this is permanent. This is in the wood,'" Horne said.

But Horne said Topsail wasn't likely to take advantage of either on-the-field advertisements or video streaming any time soon.

"I can't speak for other folks, but I don't know if we've reached that level or that realm yet," Horne said. "We're still trying to get by."

Others say they're hesitant to campaign for advertisers, but wouldn't turn them down if offered.

"That's not a conversation we've had," Laney athletic director Fred Lynch said. "But if Nike wants to come put their swoosh on the field, we'll take their money,"

Fork in the road

Instead of actively campaigning for new advertising, many schools stick to the most reliable method they know: booster clubs.

Three of the four high schools in Wilmington have decades-long traditions, and a network of well-established local alumni they can rely on in a pinch.

Both New Hanover and Hoggard rely on golf tournaments to raise substantial amounts of money – Braswell hoped to raise as much as $15,000 from the Hoggard event this weekend.

Even Ashley, which opened in 2001, already has developed a formidable booster club with more than $80,000 cash in hand last year.

But those tested fund-raising strategies are wearing thin as schools seek to fill the gap between what they need and what they get. Continued budget strains and rising costs are forcing schools to look outside the box.

And new suggestions by NCHSAA director Whitfield – he's pushed schools to "make the games fun," and increase halftime and quarter break entertainment for fans – are met with hesitation. Schools are reluctant to jump head-first into the realm of corporate sponsorship, but individual administrators acknowledge they're sliding that way.

"Some of the ideas of ‘Let's not contaminate high school athletics with advertisements,'" Braswell said, "some of that's becoming a quaint idea."