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For sale: Prep sports

Posted: August 12, 2009 9:53 p.m.
Updated: August 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The change

When the Jumpman logo first hit Nike shoes in 1988, the sale was on.

It was a simple label that was emblazoned on the Air Jordan III sneaker, with Michael Jordan’s hanging silhouette about to dunk a basketball.

It turned out to be a slam dunk for the company, and by the end of his career, it was Jordan’s profitability as much as his play that made him transcendent.

Sports was ushered into an era of commercialism, where marketability was as important as making it to the playoffs, and image as important as amassing victories.

Sports became big business.

The trickle-down effect eventually reached high school athletics.

And why wouldn’t it?

Professional athletes, by and large, come from the college ranks. College athletes come from the high school ranks.

If the stakes were considerably higher in pro sports, they were bound to rise in college sports. That meant high school sports were bound for the same fate.

People want to know about the stars of tomorrow.

So why wouldn’t there be more people showing up? More attention paid to the athletes? More media coverage? More showcase events?

More money at stake?

“It’s become a business, and people profit off the kids,” says Golden Valley co-athletic director Chris Printz. “That’s unfortunate.”

It may be unfortunate, but it’s also a reality.

Community events, like football Friday nights or afternoons at the baseball diamond, were always passionate and well-attended. That hasn’t changed.

They’ve just been given a brighter spotlight and a louder voice.

Offseason camps and tournaments have existed for a couple decades.

It’s just there are more of them now.

“There are more year-round opportunities for coverage,” says Mark Tennis, executive editor of ESPN’s “Some of that is fueled by the interest in high school sports in general, and some is fueled by the interest of advertisers trying to reach all the kids.”

High school sports are as big as they’ve ever been, and their popularity will likely continue to grow.

For fans, that means it’s time to pony up.

The gate

Only two sports charge a gate in the Foothill League – football and basketball.

That can place a big strain on the rest of an athletic program.

“Those are the only two revenue-generating sports,” Printz says, “and they have to fund the other 16 sports. They cover everything, and the cost of high school sports is astronomical.”

The costs include game officials, security personnel, transportation and non-district coaches. Unless people volunteer, the schools might also have to pay for people who work the concessions stands or run the clock.

All told, Golden Valley spent about $167,000 on its athletic program in 2008-09, and figures like that are a huge burden in today’s economy.

“The problem is that schools are struggling like every other entity in America right now,” Printz says.

Last year, Printz says Golden Valley brought in around $9,000 from basketball and around $24,000 from football.

Saugus athletic director Kevin Miner says the money brought in by the Centurions is poured into the Associated Student Body budget, where it is used to help fund other sports and student activities.

The Centurions were blessed with league champions in football and girls basketball last year, and the overall success of the athletic program provided some extra playoff revenue.

“If you’re winning, more people are going to want to see you,” Miner says. “You’re going to bring in more students, more members of the community, more fans in general. When teams are winning, they’re exciting.”

But schools can’t just assume that their teams will be successful, no matter what the sport.

Therefore, they adjust their approach to the athletic budget every year.

Printz says that given the economy, Golden Valley’s plan for this year is completely different than the past.

“We’re actually going in a completely uncharted territory in our approach to funding athletics this year,” he says. “We were finding at our school that athletes were not participating in multiple sports because of the rising cost.”

The solution includes eliminating excessive costs.

For instance, in the past, athletes would receive warm-ups with the school name and sport on them.

This year, Golden Valley is using its Nike sponsorship to provide universal apparel for the school, without including the separate sports.

That means an athlete can buy one set of apparel and use it for every sport.

The deal helps create an overall identity for the school and the sports program.

When trying to sell high school sports, identity can be very important, too.

The identity

Some high school sports programs are household names.

In Southern California, it could be Westchester boys basketball or Long Beach Poly football.

In the Foothill League, it could be Hart football or Valencia softball.

Regardless of the sport, success benefits a school by creating a positive reputation.

“I just think it boosts everybody’s morale, as well as the kids in other sports who want to perform at that level,” Miner says.

And you can darn sure market it.

Before last year, Golden Valley had trouble drawing people to its sporting events.

The teams weren’t doing well, and casual fans simply weren’t interested.

Then, the boys basketball team won the school’s first Foothill League title in any sport and advanced to the CIF-Southern Section Division IIIA semifinals.

Curiously enough, people began to show up.

“(Winning) benefits tremendously, and it’s a psychological thing,” says Printz, who is also head coach of the boys basketball team. “Financially, it’s huge because it brings in a lot of money, and the more money you have, the more you can do for students on your campus.”

Golden Valley boys basketball may one day be a household name in the Foothill League.

Saugus girls cross country already is.

Though cross country doesn’t charge money in the regular season, Saugus’ regular appearances at the CIF state championships and Nike Cross Nationals have helped the school generate revenue.

On another level, the success promotes the school.

“It brings notoriety to our athletic programs,” Miner says. “It gets the Saugus name out there in the surrounding areas, in the state and nationally.”

These days, schools have more ways to get their name out nationally.

The media helps them do it.

Part II of commercialization will run in Thursday’s edition of The Signal.


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