What’s the Catch?

March 18, 2015

Some high schools are starting new sports without expanding their budgets. What’s their secret? In this multi-part article, three administrators explain how they handle self-funded programs.

The following article appears in the March 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Mark Swasey

Mark Swasey became Athletic Director at ConVal High School, in Peterborough, N.H., in the fall of 2013. A former high school and college basketball coach, he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. He can be reached at: [email protected].

At ConVal High School, in Peterborough, N.H., one of our objectives is to personalize learning for every student. We try to accomplish this by providing as many unique opportunities as possible.

Another school goal is a 100-percent participation rate in afterschool activities among our population, which totals 833 in grades 9-12. That may be unrealistic, but we are committed to helping students connect with their passions and interests. We believe these connections help in every aspect of learning.

So when a local resident approached ConVal two years ago about starting a bass fishing team, administrators were intrigued. Our athletics program offers a full array of traditional opportunities, from football to wrestling to softball. But we thought bass fishing might appeal to a different type of student, and allow more of our population to get involved in athletics.

It would also let us tap into a growing trend—our state association, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA), sponsored its first bass fishing tournament in 2013. And here in Southwest New Hampshire, we live in a region that is full of passionate fishermen as well as beautiful lakes, rivers, and ponds that allow for convenient access to the sport.

In initiating the request to start a fishing squad at ConVal, a respected local business owner, Phil Mathewson, offered his boat and relayed interest in coaching the team. A few parents and students firmly backed his proposal, and the group made a formal presentation to the school board in the spring of 2014.

But, like most schools, adding a budget line for a new activity is no easy feat. Our school board watches district dollars closely and wants to make sure a program will be worth its cost before handing out funds.

Therefore, ConVal granted the team varsity status, but determined it would have to be self-funded. That meant the school would offer oversight of the program and the students would be recognized as athletes while the coach and parents would be responsible for all costs associated with the team. If after a three-year period, the team proves itself a positive activity with enough student interest, the school board would consider funding it.

This course followed a precedent set by our girls’ ice hockey program. Three years ago, the board accepted a proposal to allow this team to form and represent the school. It was given access to school district transportation and administrative oversight, but received no athletic department funding. A booster club was formed and the team completed what was termed a “learn to play” year before competing against varsity opponents the next two seasons. In 2014-15, it became a district-funded program.

This past fall, the ConVal bass fishing team entered into a similar probationary process. Despite its self-funded status, I serve as the squad’s athletic director, handling eligibility, declaration of sport, submitting rosters, and finalizing the season calendar.

Coach Mathewson is a volunteer, but I treat him like all my other coaches. I’ve ensured he has all the required certifications and I communicate with him almost daily. At the end of the season, we meet to discuss what went well, what we could improve, and how we can work together to make those improvements.

Surprisingly, covering the costs for the team has been a smaller hurdle than one might expect. One key is that Coach Mathewson provides his own boat for practices and competitions. He also transports team members to all events. Each student-athlete is required to cover the costs of a state fishing license (required for those over the age of 16) and tournament fees. These expenses generally add up to about $50 a season. The program has not done any outside fundraising because the cost to families is minimal.

While the team has experienced relatively calm waters so far, there are several items the school board wants resolved before the three-year probationary status concludes. One is, what happens if Coach Mathewson decides to no longer lead the program after bass fishing becomes a school-funded program? The cost of a boat, and the potential maintenance involved, is still an unresolved topic. And if the team grows large enough to require a second boat, we will most likely need a fundraising solution.

The work involved in creating a self-funded team can be challenging and time consuming, but it is ultimately worthwhile. In our district, adding sports like girls’ ice hockey and bass fishing has required significant commitment from dedicated individuals who all share a common vision and communicate well. With an ultimate goal of providing unique opportunities for students to participate in activities they are passionate about, these groups are helping our athletic department achieve success.


Sticks & Skis

By Kevin Flegner

Kevin Flegner, CAA, has been Activities Director at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis., since 2008. He previously served as Athletic Director/Associate Principal at Fort Atkinson (Wis.) High School and Head Boys’ Basketball Coach and Assistant Football Coach at Montello (Wis.) High School. He can be reached at: [email protected]


Here at Arrowhead High School, in Hartland, Wis., we educate a lot of students (2,250), and we offer a lot of athletic opportunities (29 varsity sports teams). But that doesn’t mean our budgets are without constraints. Our boys’ lacrosse and boys’ alpine ski teams are self-funded, and they have been so for many years.

It is far from an ideal scenario. I am the first to argue that there should be consistency among sports, including how they are funded. At the same time, however, self-funded teams allow us to offer sports to our students that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

At Arrowhead, we refer to our sports as WIAA programs (those sponsored by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association) and non-WIAA programs. Our non-WIAA programs include boys’ and girls’ alpine ski, boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, and girls’ field hockey. While the non-WIAA teams are not sanctioned by our state association, they do compete in conferences and have a statewide tournament to conclude each season.

Most schools in our state do not fund their lacrosse and alpine ski programs but our district has been covering the costs of these sports for girls since an Office for Civil Rights audit required us to put both programs on the school athletic budget by the 2012-13 season. We also fund our girls’ field hockey team.

The boys’ alpine ski team started in 1975, boys’ lacrosse began in 2006, and neither have ever received athletic department funding. I struggle every day knowing that these two programs are not on the same financial footing as our other teams. I am an advocate for uniformity, and this situation creates differences. The student-athletes involved in these sports have higher participation fees and their parents spend more time fundraising than those on other teams, which can lead to people having different perceptions about how our school prioritizes the sports.

While I can’t solve the first problem, I work hard to remedy the second by treating each program the same. Arrowhead has always prided itself on recognizing the achievements of every student-athlete. We honor all our teams through end-of-season banquets, awards, and varsity letters. Student-athletes all follow the same code of conduct and out-of-season regulations.

As with all of our programs, I oversee anything that pertains to these teams. Most important, that means hiring and mentoring coaches. I meet with the coach before, during, and after the season to outline expectations and provide an evaluation. If parents of athletes on these two teams have complaints about a coach, they must go through the same process and channels as any other sport.

Some schools have parent-run boards for self-funded sports, but I believe this can be a recipe for disaster. Parents might have hidden agendas or not want to fully comply with the school’s rules. Finally, with a constant flux of leadership, the ever-important education-based focus of high school athletics can quickly get lost.

At Arrowhead, we did away with parent-run boards for our self-funded teams and replaced them with a parent liaison who works directly with the head coach. He or she is typically groomed by the previous parent liaison and is in charge of only very specific areas: fundraising, team pictures, spirit packs, banquets, and team dinners. The coach must approve each year’s parent liaison as the two work closely throughout the season.

Our two non-funded programs need to each raise about $22,000 to meet their annual needs. This is mainly done through student-athletes paying a higher user fee to be part of the team, finding their own corporate sponsors, selling program ads, and traditional fundraising programs like selling products. The athletic department pitches in by including these teams in our program-wide fundraising initiatives such as our golf outing and overall corporate sponsorships.

In raising the necessary dollars, our self-funded teams follow our athletic department fundraising policies, which is important to prevent overlap. We have a master calendar to make sure teams aren’t competing against each other for community dollars.

In my experiences as an athletic director, I have found that uniformity, compliance, and following the same rules and regulations is always the best practice. It keeps things simple and doesn’t confuse coaches, athletes, and parents. It also sends a message that every program matters. I hope that one day our boys’ lacrosse and alpine ski programs can be fully funded. Until then, we will continue to model the right ways to work with and recognize our non-funded teams so our student-athletes benefit from these athletic opportunities.


Smooth Skating

By Greg Cooper

Greg Cooper, RAA, has been Athletic Director at Canfield (Ohio) High School for the past nine years. A retired Captain in the U.S. Navy, as well as the former Deputy Director of Athletics and Head of the Physical Education Department at the United States Naval Academy, he can be reached at: [email protected]

There are many benefits from starting a high school ice hockey team. The sport’s popularity is blossoming, it allows for a large number of participants, and it provides another option for the winter season. But there’s one big roadblock: cost. From expensive equipment to paying for ice time, hockey can be a budget buster.

At Canfield (Ohio) High School, we’ve avoided this obstacle by offering boys’ ice hockey as a self-funded sport. Ideally, our school budget could cover the program’s costs, but because it can’t, we’ve found a hybrid solution. The squad is recognized as a varsity sport with athletic department oversight, and the athletes’ parents take care of the bills. We’ve been doing this for 15 years with a lot of success.

Prior to 2000, the Canfield ice hockey program was a community club activity, not unlike a youth baseball or soccer organization. It operated entirely outside the auspices of the school system, and there were several other local club teams that serviced the area.

But the Canfield hockey program founders felt that to establish a lasting program, it would be necessary to join forces with the school system. As it’s turned out, they were correct. Every high school-age club team in the area has since disbanded.

To their credit, Canfield’s hockey supporters also believed tying into the school system would better link the program with an educational component. They wanted coaches who would be vetted and evaluated through our process, to create more emphasis on sportsmanship, and to improve the overall athletics experience for their kids. They were hoping the participants could earn varsity letters and get more community recognition.

Canfield’s school board, on the other hand, had a number of issues to consider before it could sign off on adding hockey as a varsity sport. One was whether there was sufficient interest in the sport to ensure enough players would come out year after year. Another was the cost of fielding a team.

To prove that interest wouldn’t wane, parents presented the program’s 10-year participation totals, which had been strong and were indicative of future numbers. The parents also touted the newly-created developmental team for younger players.

The second issue was thornier. Already offering a wide and diverse number of varsity sports, the school board was reluctant to add another, particularly one that was expensive to operate and had little potential to generate any significant income. As an added disincentive, the nearest competition was 60 to 70 miles away in the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League, meaning the cost of fuel, wear-and-tear on buses, and drivers’ fees would add up quickly.

Despite facing initial reluctance, all parties sought to consider any and all possible solutions. Canfield ultimately decided that ice hockey would be recognized as a school varsity sport in all ways except the budget.

The athletic department would handle the team’s scheduling, oversee the hiring and qualifications of the coaches, represent the team to the Ohio High School Athletic Association, and allow team members to earn school athletic awards for their participation. In exchange for ice hockey receiving full school recognition, the program assumed responsibility for all costs. This arrangement meant that the players and their families would pay for equipment, officials, ice rink practice and game time, and any other team activities. It would also reimburse the school for the costs of transportation, game security, and coaches’ salaries.

Under our operating agreement, it’s particularly important that our hockey boosters are well-organized and forward-looking since they are so critical to maintaining the team’s viability. In addition to regularly-scheduled meetings during the season, they work in the off-season to maintain a year-round focus on fundraising and promoting their sport. They also take care to remain in close contact with me.

The financial burden Canfield’s ice hockey boosters agreed to assume is significant. For example, this year the team’s costs were approximately $27,000. Covering that type of expense starts with an annual participation fee of $850 for each of the 15 to 20 players. In addition, the boosters hold as many fundraisers as possible, including a pancake breakfast, a local sports memorabilia auction, a golf outing, and a yearly lottery. They work closely with me to avoid any territorial infringement or conflict with our other booster groups’ fundraising initiatives.

The ice hockey group does receive some assistance—as do all of our individual sports booster groups—from our main athletic booster group. That donation primarily covers the cost of ice time. And in recognition of the program’s demonstrated staying power, the school board recently agreed to pay for transportation to away events.

Despite the unique funding scheme under which the hockey team operates, the program is handled administratively in the same manner as the school’s other teams. I select the coaching staff, with ultimate approval coming from the school board. I also oversee student-athlete eligibility and conduct as well as scheduling of games. Although parents have “more skin in the game” as they are directly paying most of the program’s bills, they understand that for the team to be included in the school’s overall sports program, they need to cede primary operational control to our athletic department.

With 15 years of ice hockey under our belt, we feel the compromise has worked well. Whether the team wins or loses on the ice, everyone at Canfield believes that yet another educationally based athletic opportunity for our children is a victory on all fronts.

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