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May 3, 2012 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Establishing pay-to-play in your high school

One athletic director provides keen insight into how his school’s fee went from $150 total per athlete to $660 per sport

In November 2009, just after the fall sports season of his first year on the job as athletic director at Medina High School (Ohio), a tax levy failed on the ballot in this community situated 34 miles southwest of Cleveland. Needing the taxpayers in this cash-strapped section of the country to say “yes” to a tax increase didn’t pan out and an expensive pay-to-play (PTP) program was instituted to offset some athletic-department costs.

Prior to the failure of the levy, Medina City Schools did have PTP in their athletic department. Students paid $100 for their first sport and $50 for their second sport in a school year with a $150 total cap (meaning if they played a third or fourth sport, it essentially was free). If a student received free lunch, then he or she didn’t have to pay the fee. If the student received reduced-price lunch, then the fee was half.

After the levy failed, Medina instituted a plan calling for $660 to be paid per sport, per athlete, every season with no exceptions.

The Magic Number

Harrison was the person who calculated the $660 number based off a detailed analysis of the athletic department. At Medina, the board of education only paid for transportation and coaches with the remainder of athletic needs coming from gate receipts, fundraising, donations and the booster club. Harrison says just buses and coaching salaries totaled roughly $550,000 (see chart below with fall sports numbers). This was based on the distance traveled per team, the number of buses required, coaching salaries and coaching benefits.

Establishing Pay-To-Play In Your School

A parent group in Medina raised the money for the inflatable tunnel shown in the background. Members were hesitant to buy it, however, due to pay-to-play. Harrison says he came to the conclusion that it costs $4.06 for every mile traveled for the athletic department. Coaching benefits were estimated at 18 percent of salary and added to the total. Adding the total cost to travel plus the total cost to pay coaches, then dividing that number by the participants in the sport provides what it costs per player to participate (the approximate fee). When you add up all the approximate fees for sports in a single season and divide it by the number of sports in that season, you end up with the average fee for a Medina athlete in that season.

The fall ($601.35 average fee), winter ($792.61) and spring ($677.27) numbers were totaled and averaged, providing the final per-student fee of $660 per sport per athlete.

Harrison says there was a reason to combine all sports into one pot rather than have varying fees based on the sport played.

“We could not pit our teams against each other,” Harrison says. As shown by the chart, to run on the boys cross country team only costs $333.59 whereas a golf player costs $1,005.01. Instead of having golf possibly fall by the wayside, Harrison opted to have a single fee for all students … even if it was flawed slightly.

Establishing Pay-To-Play In Your School

Track and field took a major hit at Medina High School when officials implemented the pay-to-play system. “Our biggest flaw was factoring in the number of participants because we weren’t going to have the same numbers pre- and post-fee,” Harrison explains. “But, that’s hard to factor. How do you determine how many players aren’t coming back to teams?” Harrison adds that by estimating a loss of participants it then increases the average fee, which would have made the $660 number look painless in comparison.

The Ringing Phone

As expected, when Medina moved to the much higher PTP fee, parents flooded Harrison’s phone line for the remainder of the 2009-10 athletics year. But, Harrison admits, he was surprised at the complaints of the parents as the focus was not on playing time.

“I was floored. When the phone calls came in after going to $660, they focused on the athletic department not doing ‘more.’ The parents wanted more open gym time, more off-season conditioning and to play the maximum games allowed,” Harrison explains. “A lot of the fringe players didn’t come back to the teams at $660, so playing time was’nt the issue. But, in April of 2010, I had to cancel 65 events as we had the wettest spring on record in Ohio. A lot of parents were upset.

“The problem is the schools without PTP aren’t worried about make-up games as the season wears on. They are worrying about playoffs whereas we are trying to reschedule games even after teams are eliminated just to reach our max.”

Eroding From Within

Harrison admits in some areas of Ohio, PTP simply isn’t an option. Medina isn’t an affluent community but its population is better equipped to handle paying for athletics than poorer areas. Even so, Harrison sees the $660 fee as causing the athletic department to “erode from within.”

“A lot of parents are making the decision to pay for athletics when their children reach junior and senior year. They’ll suck it up for a year or two when they perceive their child getting the most out of it,” Harrison says. “The problem is that knocks out a lot of freshmen and sophomores.” The concern is that those freshmen and sophomores then find something else to do and never return to athletics.

Harrison says athletic participation dropped 10 percent in the first year of the $660 PTP program. Since 2009, participation has fallen 21 percent. Some of the hardest hit sports are the “no-cut” sports, such as cross country, wrestling, swimming and track. It’s difficult to convince parents to pay $660 for their child to run in the eighth heat of the 100-yard dash.

“Our ‘participation’ sports have seen numbers drop by almost 50 percent,” Harrison explains while providing the following numbers:

  • Boys Cross Country: 63 runners in 2009; 37 in 2011
  • Girls Cross Country: 58 runners in 2009; 31 in 2011
  • Wrestling: 35 participants in 2009; 17 in 2011
  • Boys/Girls Swimming: 60 swimmers in 2009; 37 in 2011
  • Boys Track: 94 athletes in 2009; 43 in 2011
  • Girls Track: 72 athletes in 2009; 40 in 2011

Collecting Money & Other Concerns

Harrison warns other athletic directors going to a PTP system to stay away from handling any of the money. Encourage your coaches to do the same and utilize the technology available to keep the system transparent (for tax purposes and so participants clearly see what has been paid and is owed). There are companies working with high schools and colleges to make “cash-free campuses” meaning everything (lunches, dances, PTP fees, etc.) all are paid online.

“From my standpoint as an athletic director, we don’t see the money, we don’t touch the money and we don’t want to. It goes either directly to the financial secretary in our main office or is paid online,” Harrison explains.

At Medina, all PTP fees must be paid one week prior to the first game of the season. Harrison says 90 percent of the time there is no problem with this system. The issue comes into play when a payment is not made on time, as well as when there is a player who quits the team, disputes playing time or becomes academically ineligible. In all cases, refunds are not made and payments are not pro-rated.

Harrison says last year a senior starter and captain of the volleyball team was ruled ineligible prior to the season. Students must pass five classes and eligibility is based on the last nine weeks, not the end-of-year grades. This player failed two classes and thought she had time to make it up in her end-of-year grades. Unfortunately for her, that was not the case.

Determined, this player remained with the team as a manager (managers are not required to pay the fee). She attended practices, took statistics and fulfilled an off-the-court role with the team. The squad made the regional semifinals and by this point in the season, the player had gained her eligibility. Being a senior, her parents wanted her to finish her career on the court. They paid $660 for her to play one game (Medina lost the regional semifinal).

“They weren’t happy to pay but they did. I was embarrassed to collect but we don’t pro-rate, otherwise, you have bench players who didn’t get into games wanting partial refunds,” Harrison says.

If You Raise It, Spend It

Harrison says a major obstacle to overcome when PTP is instituted is convincing your athletic department still to spend money. With PTP in Medina City Schools just covering buses and coaches, any extra money should be spent, according to Harrison, as it has nothing to do with PTP.

“You can’t give up on everything just because you have pay-to-play,” Harrison explains. “We had a parent football group that hosted a Super Bowl party, did a fundraiser and came up with around $20,000.

“Parents like to do things they can see, touch and feel, so they wanted to buy a tunnel, one of those with an inflatable helmet, for the players to run through to get onto the field. It was going to look great but they were reluctant to buy it because of the pay-to-play program.”

Fee Backlash

After two years, there was enough of an outcry over the cost of the PTP fee in Medina that changes were made. Harrison points to the senior citizen population, which is not the one you might figure, as the leaders in trimming back the PTP fee. Typically, senior citizens are stereotyped as a group not wanting new taxes to pay for anything related to the schools … this isn’t the case in Medina.

“The senior citizens in our community were outraged. They couldn’t believe we would take away opportunities from teenagers,” Harrison explains. “On Nov. 7, 2011, the Medina City Schools Board of Education cut our pay-to-play fee in half. It’s now $330 per sport (there is no new income in the athletic department—this is a reallocation from within the school district). Of course, this is just like gas prices. They get jacked up, then brought back down to a level still higher than you were paying and everyone gets excited.”

With the slashing of the fee, Harrison expects participation numbers to start climbing again but says it’s going to take a couple of years to bounce back.

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