The COVID-19 pandemic may have long-term effects on many facets of everyday life for Americans. It changed numerous operational procedures of schools around the country and wreaked havoc on high school athletics. In particular, the funding of cocurricular activities was impacted.
When the spring season came to a halt in March of 2020, athletic administrators were challenged with a different set of ground rules in order to ensure that sports seasons and events could continue to be funded. In Michigan, uncertainty over the 2020-21 fiscal year’s funding left many with tough decisions on budget cuts and the possibility of new strategies for fundraising. Both needed to be done to help keep athletic departments operating, since the gate produced little or no revenue.
For many schools, Friday night football typically represents the largest revenue source. In mid-September 2020 after multiple delays, the football season started but with limited crowds. This left huge financial voids in athletic department coffers. In the Southwest Michigan-based Wolverine Conference, the athletic directors agreed to eliminate admission fees for the limited crowds. As a result of the smaller crowds, booster clubs struggled to generate the revenues they were accustomed to due to limited or no concessions and spirit wear sales.
To help offset this lost revenue during the 2020-21 school year, many Edwardsburg (Michigan) High School athletic programs, in conjunction with the booster club, used an online service to raise extra funds for their respective programs. It is a relatively simple procedure. Each team produces a video explaining the purpose of its fundraising initiative, and then each team member is asked to provide 20 email addresses. Once the video is distributed, it can be shared on social media and people wishing to donate can simply go online to make payment with a credit card. There was a lot of positive feedback by the donors that they preferred a direct donation as opposed to purchasing fundraising items that often go unused. An additional benefit was the ability to donate without exchanging cash or items, which was a major concern due to the spread of the virus.
Due to fears of transmitting COVID by cash sales at the ticket booth, many Michigan schools, and the MHSAA, started using digital ticketing companies. With the ability to capture an email address and phone number, online ticket purchasing helped with contact tracing in the event there was an outbreak during an athletic contest. As a result of the ease of these transactions, several schools in the Wolverine Conference have continued to only offer online tickets for all athletic events, and the MHSAA also plans to use online ticketing at all future tournament events.
At Niles (Michigan) High School, Jeff Upton, the athletic administrator, asked all coaches to get his approval before ordering even the basic supplies for the upcoming season, and Upton put a hold on uniform purchases. Typically, this is done on a four-to-five-year rotation to ensure that each program in the athletic department is treated fairly and has uniforms in a good condition. In addition, Upton reported there have been complications with purchasing uniforms, since vendors have faced issues getting their supplies and maintaining a workforce to keep up with demand.
Another aspect that caused athletic directors to devise new strategies was that safety and cleaning items needed to be specifically purchased due to the new COVID protocols. With daily health screening, athletic directors had to purchase thermometers, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes among other health-related items. For East Lansing High School athletic director Nicole Norris, many of these supplies were able to be charged to COVID funds provided by the state of Michigan.
To start the 2020 season, Kevin Bartz, Edwardsburg High School football coach, had a unique solution to ensure that each player had the additional supplies necessitated by the pandemic. He purchased each player a five-gallon bucket with a padded lid to ensure that each player had a place to sit during half-time talks at away games as many schools prohibited use of locker rooms. This also allowed players to carry individual supplies so they weren’t sharing with teammates. Included in these buckets were items such as hand sanitizer, additional towels and cleansing wipes. The players continue to use these buckets even as the 2021 season begins and the protocols become less restrictive.
As the new year starts, the need for many of these cleaning and health items still exists. The funds will have to come, however, from the athletic budget. As materials and a labor shortage have continued, this will remain a challenge for athletic directors to ensure that their programs are equipped with everything they need.
Transporting student-athletes to away contests has become another challenge for athletic directors. Many districts struggle to find enough drivers for school runs and the various athletic trips each week adds to the strain. For Mike Thayer, athletic director at Bay City Western High School, this means, at times, having buses leave much earlier than normal so that drivers can return to run their after-school routes and to pick up athletes later.
For weekend trips, the hourly rate for drivers can double. This can affect the budgeted funds and fundraising accounts to help cover these trips. Several school districts have been creative by sharing rides with neighboring school districts that may be going to the same competition, or eliminating weekend buses, thus relying on parents to transport their children to athletic events.
Many involved in athletics are optimistic that the normal routine resumes in the 2021-22 school year, although there are still some unknowns when it comes to athletic department budgets. The ability to have unlimited numbers of spectators at events, including the large Friday night football crowds, to provide revenue to athletic departments, booster clubs and other industries associated with high school athletics is a positive sign in the right direction. Hopefully, a great athletic experience which supplements the education of students is on the horizon.
Kevin Dean, CMAA, is the athletic director at Edwardsburg (Michigan) High School.