Sunday, August 17, 2003

Boosters do big-bucks work for high school teams

Back to school

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Indian Hill High School students (from left) Chris Lancaster, 17, Clarke Brinn, 17, and David Rhodenbaugh, 16, in the school's broadcasting van, which was converted with booster money for airing Indian Hill sporting events.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
As thousands of fans around Greater Cincinnati begin to crowd into public high school sporting events this week, few will notice the financial paradox that surrounds them.

Football and soccer fans will buy tickets from a volunteer who is a member of the school's private athletic booster club. Likewise, their soft-drink purchases will be handled by another booster volunteer, who works in a concession stand built with booster money.

Fans will take their seats in new stadium stands (funded by boosters) and check out the new, high-tech scoreboard (again, funded by boosters). They'll settle in to watch their sons or daughters sprint out onto new playing fields in new uniforms, courtesy of - you guessed it - boosters.

The games may be at taxpayer-supported public schools, but in many cases, they would never be played without the money raised by private athletic booster clubs.

Today, as taxpayers grow increasingly sour on new school taxes, state aid declines and America's economy remains sluggish, educators around Greater Cincinnati say the role of booster clubs has never been more critical to the success - and in some cases, the very existence - of boys and girls sports and other extracurricular activities.

"I don't think there would be public school sports without boosters," says Lebanon Schools Superintendent Bill Sears.

The Lebanon Athletic Boosters, explains Sears, provide an average of nearly $30,000 annually in private funding for boys and girls athletics in grades 7-12. District officials use ticket and concession sales profits to pay the balance.

Two years ago, a separate fund-raiser involving local businesses helped Lebanon boosters raised more than $300,000 for a new football field house, which included locker rooms and coaches' offices.

Counting the ways booster clubs help:

• Milford Schools' boosters donated $50,000 for a new $300,000 high school track last year. Boosters also helped solicit advertisers to pay for a $230,000 football scoreboard that features video replays.

• Mason Schools athletic boosters used $33,000 of the proceeds from a 1998 house raffle to buy an electronic event sign that was erected in 1999 at the former high school site on Mason-Montgomery and Tylersville roads.

• Glen Este High School boosters helped pay for a $2,500 football scoreboard.

• Harrison High School boosters donated a third of the cost for a new $21,000 football scoreboard. Boosters also helped pay for new lights and a new press box at the school's soccer field.

• North College Hill Schools bought 18 baseball uniforms after boosters covered the $1,800 bill.

• Walnut Hills High School boosters pay as much as $10,000 for sports uniforms.

Years ago, booster clubs typically concerned themselves with decorations at the annual sports banquet. Today it's not unusual for these clubs to raise thousands of dollars with sophisticated marketing plans, hosting $100--a-ticket hors d'oeuvres fund-raisers and golf tournaments, selling lifetime booster memberships for $400 or more and raffling off new cars.

Proceeds cover everything from state-of-the-art turf at football stadiums to new uniforms for upward of 40 teams at the average high school.

Non-athletic public school activities are also funded. Often, student clubs are financed from the private boosters.

It's a far cry from the days when schools offered about 12 sports for both boys and girls combined and every last roll of tape came directly out of the annual school budget, says Mike Shoemaker, an Anderson High School parent and booster official.

The Anderson Athletic Boosters are raising more than $600,000 for an artificial playing surface and track for the school's Brown Stadium.behind Anderson High School..

"No tax dollars are going into this project," Shoemaker says of the turf that will replace the stadium's natural grass in time for Anderson's football home opener Sept. 12.

Over the past two years, the Anderson club's 300-plus members hosted barbecues and home gatherings, which helped raise $300,000 toward the bill.

Local businesses were solicited by booster members to kick in most of the new football field's cost, says Shoemaker. But an annual booster banquet at $50 per person helped raise money, as did athletic club raffles and other fund-raising drives and events.

Cash for exposure

Many area businesses are eager to donate money and equipment in exchange for advertising in school programs, athletic field scoreboard signs or other visible marketing avenues.

Tim Gill, president of the Loveland Athletic Boosters, describes business partners as invaluable to school sports and clubs.

"We have a lot of companies that do a lot of different things. We have an annual mulch sale in the spring that in one day we raise more than $25,000," Gill says. "We get about 400 volunteers at the high school and about 20 local companies provide their trucks to deliver the mulch all around the area."

Shoemaker says, "You have to remember that our whole school campus was designed 50 years ago, when there were only 12 sports teams. Now there are more than 40 boys and girls teams."

Anderson boosters plan to continue soliciting business and individual donors over the next two years to pay off the balance of the loan for the field.

Ohio law fuels growth of clubs

The number and influence of booster clubs are rising, says Duane Warns, assistant commissioner for the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA).

"The trend nationally is for schools to lean more and more on boosters' money," says Warns, a veteran OHSAA official who helps oversee the state's prep sports programs from the group's Columbus-based headquarters.

While there are no surveys on the prevalence of sports booster clubs, Warns says nearly every Ohio high school has a booster club.

In Ohio, this is due in part to a decades-old state law that limits each school district's annual operating budget for extracurricular activities to one half of one percent of a school district's annual budget.

Kentucky public school districts have no such spending restrictions.

Warns, who is also a former Ohio high school principal, athletic director and coach, says school officials have turned to private fund-raising and donations by boosters to pay for things "as fundamental as uniforms."

Football players at Lakota West High School are reminded of this every time they suit up for a game, says coach Larry Cox. The school's boosters raised more than $10,000 two years ago to pay for the uniforms for the team's 75 football players.

Since 2001, Lakota West's boosters have raised more than $190,000. Principal Richard Hamilton attributes the boosters' generosity as a key reason why the school has maintained both its high academic standing (excellent on the most recent state report card) while also winning the coveted Greater Miami Conference All Sports Trophy three consecutive years.

Gregg Darbyshire, former athletic director at Kings Local Schools and now executive director of the Cincinnati-based Anthony Munoz Foundation, recognized years ago that athletic boosters had to become more creative to compensate for declining tax revenues.

Darbyshire, who left Kings in 2002, helped form the Kings Athletic Network of boosters in 1995. The club was the "backbone of our fund-raising organization," he says, for the Warren County school system.

"I can't stress enough how important an athletic booster club is now to all sports. That's how our baseball team funded their Florida trip and that's how the football team was able to buy some of their bigger equipment like a blocking sled," he said.

Getting help for new turf

Fred Bassett, superintendent of Beechwood Independent Schools in Northern Kentucky's Fort Mitchell, hopes to unveil a $600,000 artificial turf and track at Beechwood High School by Aug. 29.

He gratefully credits the school's athletic boosters, who helped solicit thousands of dollars from local businesses, with helping his district focus taxpayers' money on academics rather than sports. "We're couldn't dream of doing this on our own without hurting academics,'' Bassett says.

Lakota coach Cox, and other area public school athletic officials, say that despite the growing fund-raising involvement of private booster clubs, school officials are vigilant about assuring they don't try to unduly influence coaching or other sport decisions.

"I've never seen that here. Our boosters are great that way. They let the coaches coach," says Cox, who is a former president of the Southwest Ohio Football Coaches Association.

'It's about loyalty'

Bonnie Zellen has sent five children through Beechwood and despite the last child graduating in 2002 she remains active in the Beechwood Athletic Booster Club.

Zellen helps run the high school's spirit shop, which helps the small school's athletic programs. She estimates the shop raised about $11,000 last year, "with all the money going to students including college scholarships."

"It's about loyalty," she says, explaining her continued involvement in the boosters. She added that many other members no longer have children in the school system.

"My heart is at Beechwood. What's really neat is that now I'm seeing some of the older, grown kids come back with their own families and start to get involved in the school booster clubs."

When it comes to nontraditional fund-raising, Indian Hill High School's boosters provide a particular spin that only the well-heeled Hamilton County suburban district can.

While many schools conduct raffles and bake sales, the Indian Hill boosters hold an antique auction each July. Booster officials decline to say how much money is raised, but they say it is their single-largest moneymaker each year.

"I'm thrilled with our booster membership," says Indian Hill Booster President Nancy Schreiner. The club has more than 500 member families, many of whom are alumni or parents whose children graduated from the high school years ago.

Jill Bruder, in her first year as athletic director at Indian Hill, was struck by the novelty and success of Indian Hill's antique auction.

Boosters also paid for converting a donated van from Busken Bakery into a station for broadcasting Indian Hill sporting events on local cable access TV. A new soccer stadium concession stand, stadium sound system and artificial turf for the football field are all the result of booster donations.

Schreiner, however, points out that Indian Hill boosters, as in many public schools, also raise money for nonathletic extracurricular activities, including the yearbook, newspaper, academic clubs, student theater and singing groups, computer, Latin and science clubs and other activities.

"Our mission is all extracurricular activities. We are very equal in our distribution of funds," she says.

That goal to help all students, whether on the playing field or off, was one of the main reasons Bruder pursued the athletic director's job at Indian Hill.

"When everyone is working toward the same goal, as they (boosters) are here, it strengthens all the programs for all the kids," she says.


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