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For some teams, wins mean budget deficits

12/10/2008

Fort Meade (Fla.) Middle-Senior High School has a problem:

Its football team keeps winning.

Sure, it's a good problem to have in the small central Florida mining community -- a town that hardly is flush with money, according to athletic director Archie Gale, but loves its storied football team.

But every win, every extra playoff game, every trip -- and even every new player on the team -- comes at a cost.

Literally.

"A lot of people think that just because we go to the playoffs every year, that football is loaded with money," Gale said. "But it's not."

Another game, another fee

For Fort Meade's Class 1A state semifinal game Friday at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Fla., the Miners traveled more than 175 miles each way, and paid about $800 in meal money. Estimated total cost: About $2,000.

Amos P. Godby High School, meanwhile, bused more than 400 total miles from Tallahassee, Fla., for its Class 3A semifinal at St. Augustine, with its bill estimated by athletic director Reggie Davis to be around $2,500 for the trip.

And when Olathe (Colo.) Middle/High School qualified for the Class 2A state title game, the team trekked more than 300 miles each direction to the Denver suburb of Aurora (activities director Brent Wareham wasn't sure of the total bill for his team's title-winning venture, but guessed it to be near Godby's figure).

That's all part of the cost of winning, which leaves some budget-strapped schools scrambling to afford the extra games. Some count on regular-season gate receipts. But if those dollars are down -- because of bad weather, poor-traveling opponents, the recent economic downturn or myriad other reasons -- it can increase the burden.

Others create football accounts based on preseason and midseason fundraisers, but those also pay for extra equipment and other football-related expenses that teams incur each year, with or without a postseason run.

State athletic associations, meanwhile, have differing policies regarding reimbursement for playoff travel and game hosting. In Florida, the gate is divided among the host school, the visiting team and the Florida High School Athletic Association. Ditto in Colorado, although the Colorado High School Activities Association offers meal allowances, mileage money and, on trips of 200 miles or more (one way), lodging guarantees.

The Indiana High School Athletic Association, meanwhile, gave lodging stipends and travel reimbursement to recent participants in the state championship game, and offered $1 for each ticket presold by the school.

That -- according Frank Montgomery, athletic director at Bellmont High School in Decatur, Ind., which won the Class 3A title over Evansville's Reitz Memorial High School in both schools' first championship-game appearance -- should come close to accounting for the estimated $3,000 to $5,000 bill he's facing (which included a midweek trip to Indianapolis for practice at Lucas Oil Stadium).

Close to covering it, but not quite.

"Most of the ADs that I've talked to [that] have done it," Montgomery said, "they lose a little money."

More players, more expenses

At schools such as Fort Meade -- which has reached eight state-title games, has won one championship, and entered 2008 tied for eighth among Florida schools in all-time playoff games and playoff wins -- participation in football is generally a constant, with the number of players on each team rarely varying from year to year.

Other places, though, see stretches of success that cause numbers to soar. At Indianapolis' Cardinal Ritter High School, which won this year's Class A championship, an estimated 35 students played football in the early 2000s. But back-to-back title-game appearances in 2003 and 2004 helped that number more than double -- to about 75, according to athletic director Jim Martin.

This, too, can take its toll on an athletic budget, especially with the rising cost of equipping and protecting players for the game.

"It gets more and more difficult as [costs] get higher and higher," said Davis, the Godby athletic director, pointing in part to the fact that Leon County -- unlike some other counties or school districts nationally -- does not provide funding for football. "It is a burden, but our team has been able to keep up.

"They're not necessarily moving ahead, [but] we're getting by."

They "get by" -- some through public and/or district money, others with those aforementioned fundraisers -- but often without luxury items or extras, such as team T-shirts or top-level video editing equipment.

That's especially true for the schools that want their players to keep playing come postseason time.

The value of winning

Make money, lose money or break even, athletic directors predictably aren't in any hurry to stop their teams' seasons before the playoffs.

Not in small communities such as Fort Meade, Fla., or Decatur, Ind., or Olathe, Colo., where activities director Wareham called football an "only-show-in-town kind of thing."

Not at private schools like Reitz Memorial, whose loyal fan base finally was rewarded with a finals trip and whose enrollment -- maybe, just maybe -- could see a slight increase after the football team's successful season, according to athletic director Bruce Dockery.

Even in Tallahassee, where there are plenty of shows in town aside from Godby's -- proven by some smaller gates this year, even during home playoff games -- athletic director Davis refused to place a dollar amount on the importance of winning.

"It's important for every school, for any athletic program, to be successful -- just for morale, motivation, etcetera," Davis said. "And football, at most schools, is the sport that people identify the school with.

"If your football team is good, that's how people identify your school."

Patrick Dorsey is a high school sports reporter for The Indianapolis Star.