Photo credit: Erick Gibson

There’s a story line on the NBC-TV show Friday Night Lights that perfectly illustrates the obsession with high school football in the small, fictional town of Dillon, Texas.

The school doesn’t have enough textbooks for its students, and it’s hoping the community will step in to help. Instead, the school’s biggest booster buys a Jumbotron for the football field—a luxury item that uses enough wattage to power a small city.

Rockville is no Dillon, Texas. Still, when the Athletic Booster Club at Richard Montgomery High School raised $50,000 during the last school year, contributors and sports fans might have wondered what new innovation or improvement they’d see.

State-of-the-art helmets perhaps? Specialty camps for all the players?

Not quite.

“We raised $40,000 to grow grass” on the school’s auxiliary fields, club President Bill Burchett says. An additional $7,000 went to help maintain the artificial turf at its stadium.

At Winston Churchill High School in affluent Potomac, the booster club routinely raises $100,000 or so, much of which is spent on the school’s Bermuda grass fields, which “are some of the best in the county,” Athletic Director David Kelley says. “You’ve got to spend money to maintain good fields.”

Welcome to the real and costly world of public high school sports—where parents pay so the students can play and booster clubs at the wealthier schools help cover the basics. For decades, booster clubs have helped fulfill the wish lists of school athletic departments. But in hard economic times, they’ve been asked to dig deeper, says Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

As for schools in less affluent areas: Not surprisingly, they make do with less.

“We don’t pull in a lot of money,” says James Fernandez, principal of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. “…If we need something, we manage to get it. And guess what: If we can’t afford it, we ain’t getting it.”

On average, each high school receives about $65,000 a year from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). That can cover as little as 47 percent of a school’s athletic expenses, which averaged $137,000 in 2010, says William “Duke” Beattie, MCPS director of systemwide athletics.

The MCPS allocation is “a basic skeleton of a budget to afford our needs,” Kelley says.

The school system uses a sliding scale to determine how much individual schools receive. For the most part, it awards more to schools in less affluent parts of the county. In 2009-10, Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School received $55,000 in athletic funding from the county. Its athletic expenses that year were $238,000, with $45,000 going to field preparation and the rest to uniforms, officials, transportation, equipment and other costs.

By contrast, similarly sized Wheaton High School in Silver Spring got $80,000 from the county, but spent just $119,000 on athletics, with $7,400 of it on field preparation.

Spending on middle school and high school athletics has been cut for the first time in at least a decade in Montgomery County. The proposed $7.8 million athletics budget for fiscal 2012 was cut by $750,000, mostly by reducing coaching stipends. Practices for high school varsity sports were reduced by three per season. And each junior varsity sports season was shortened by one to three games and three practices per game.

The high school athletics program consists of 21 varsity and 10 junior varsity teams competing in 16 sports per school, in addition to cheerleading and pompons, which provide entertainment during half-time shows. Of the district’s 144,000 students, 21,500 participate annually in school sports. At Richard Montgomery, about 900—nearly half of the school’s roughly 2,000 students—play sports each year, according to Athletic Director Jon Freda.

There are no rules on how school districts fund their athletics, and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association doesn’t keep statistics on whether Montgomery County spends more or less than others, Sparks says. “It’s really a mixed bag across the state,” he says. “Everybody does it differently.”

MCPS relies on a formula that considers several factors in determining how much a school gets in athletic funding: enrollment; the amount the school receives in gate receipts averaged over a three-year period; how many of its students are eligible for subsidized meals; whether it has artificial turf, which requires less maintenance; and how much it generates in parking fees. When all of that is taken into consideration, there may be as much as a $35,000 difference in what individual schools receive.

“The greater the number of students that a school has, the greater its ability to generate funds,” MCPS’s Beattie says. And just behind that, he says, “Gate receipts become the second largest source of income for high schools.”

Churchill’s gate receipts averaged almost $61,000 a year over the three-year period ending in 2009-10. At the same time, less than 4 percent of its students were eligible for subsidized meals during the last school year. That puts the school toward the bottom of the list for getting money—receiving just $50,000 in 2009-10. Compare that with Wheaton, which generated roughly $17,000 in gate receipts a year over that same period and had nearly 62 percent of its students eligible for subsidized meals. It got $30,000 more than Churchill.

Richard Montgomery, Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring—the three county schools with artificial turf—all receive less than comparable schools because of lower field maintenance costs. Sue Amos, athletic director at Walter Johnson, says MCPS “took $12,000 right off the top” of that school’s allocation last year. And like Richard Montgomery, which needed that $40,000 to grow grass for baseball, softball and practice areas, “we still have other fields to pay for,” Amos says. “So we were miffed at that.”

Of the four county school districts in the state that assess fees for students to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, Montgomery County charges the least at $30 per student per year, regardless of how many sports or activities a student participates in. Carroll County is the most expensive at $100 per student per season, so a kid who plays football, basketball and baseball pays $300.

But the activity fee is only a fraction of what parents spend for sports. Most equipment is provided for football players, but they’re still asked to purchase “spirit packs,” which can cost as much as $150 and may include a T-shirt, shorts and other items. Lacrosse players often buy their own sticks, shoulder pads and gloves—as well as a better helmet than the school provides. That can run as much as $500, depending on the quality of the equipment, parents say.

Swimmers need goggles, which can cost $80; cross-country runners need running and racing shoes.

And for the parent of a kid playing a club sport—sanctioned by, but not financially supported by the school—the costs can be even greater: transportation to and from practices and events, the full cost of equipment, and individual costs associated with the particular sport, such as ice time in the case of ice hockey.

In fact, ice hockey can cost parents $2,500 for a first-year player. Kally Panagos, who manages the club team at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School, figures she’ll have spent at least $15,000 on her three hockey-playing sons by the time the youngest graduates in 2015. “Hockey is an expensive sport,” she says.

But “every sport has its costs,” says Tom Giblin, booster club vice president at Einstein. “Probably football has its greatest cost on the school. The rest is borne by the parents.”

In Sports Illustrated last March, columnist Frank Deford noted the trend of school systems cutting athletics to offset funding reductions and argued that high school football, with its exorbitant costs, should go.  

There’s no denying that football takes the biggest chunk of the athletic pie in Montgomery County, especially at high school powerhouses like Sherwood in Sandy Spring and Damascus. Because more kids play and more coaches and equipment are required, the cost can be triple that of baseball, basketball or lacrosse.

Individual schools spend a minimum of $26,000 on football coaches alone. Varsity football teams typically have five coaches or more, with head coaches earning about $5,700, and assistants about $5,000. A team’s football ticket manager gets about $1,000. A varsity basketball coach makes about $4,700 and a varsity baseball coach gets about $4,300. Junior varsity coaches are paid less.

Add the cost of referees, equipment, transportation to games and maintaining the uniform inventory—reconditioning helmets, for instance, costs $4,000 to $10,000—and you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars more for football. In 2010, Whitman spent about $58,000 on the sport, well over the MCPS average of $47,000.

Compare those costs to gymnastics, which averaged $2,200 per school in 2009-10.

Those involved in athletics say football is well worth the cost. They say no other school sport serves as many students—from 60 to 100 per team—or draws as many people for games. “The sense of community it creates is probably its No. 1 value to a school,” says Kelley, who notes that as many as 5,000 attend Churchill’s varsity games.

Football also attracts boys from all demographics and helps keep them academically motivated since they can’t play if they don’t maintain a 2.0 grade point average (an MCPS requirement for participation in all school sports). “Not many other sports reach the socioeconomic levels that we do,” says Richard Noland, head football coach at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda.

Plus, football keeps those teens busy after school, says Walter Johnson’s Amos. “I would hate to see those kids not doing anything. You start taking that away from teenagers and they get bored pretty quick.”
Football also generates more income than any other sport: The $17,000 it averaged in gate receipts district wide was more than five times the revenue from boys’ basketball and 17 times the revenue from boys’ soccer in 2009-10.

Even as commentator Deford advocated axing football, he made a strong case for school sports in general. “Children need a little dessert with their academic vegetables,” he wrote.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at