Does PAY-TO-PLAY work?

By Joe Scalzo

Tony Ross is a big man with a big heart, particularly when it comes to his twin boys, Canfield High School seniors Anthony and Michael.

Fortunately for him, the district had a plan to make him a little lighter this school year.

Unfortunately for him, it was targeting his wallet.

Still, when he found out it would cost $800 for his sons to play football and baseball their senior seasons, he didn’t blink.

“Even thought it’s a high-end price, it was something we wanted to do,” said Ross, the former head coach of both sports at Canfield. “For the experiences you get, it’s worth the money you’re paying.”

And if they had been freshmen?

“I wouldn’t have batted an eye,” said Ross, who also teaches at the school. “I would have done it in a heartbeat.”

In a few months, administrators at Poland High School are about to find out how many of their parents feel the same way.

The first thing you need to know about pay-to-play is this: The name is wrong. It’s actually pay-to-participate.

Canfield’s $200 fee — per sport, per player, with no multi-sport or family discount — only gets you on the team.

It doesn’t get you on the field.

“We don’t want to seem to be infringing on coaching staff decisions and/or encourage anyone to feel entitled to playing time by virtue of having put money down on the barrel head,” said Cardinals athletic director Greg Cooper.

Canfield, which implemented pay-to-participate for the first time this school year, is one of a handful of schools in the Mahoning Valley with the program. Last month, The Vindicator surveyed the 48 athletic directors about PTP. Twenty-seven schools responded. Of those, just five had PTP, with fees ranging from a high of $300 at Southington to $50 at Lordstown and Boardman (which calls it an “athletic fee,” with a maximum of $100 per athlete).

Statewide, about 42 percent of schools have some sort of PTP program, according to a 2010 survey by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The fees ranged from $10 to $800 per sport. The average fee was $140.

While most schools charge a flat fee, some schools charge different amounts for different sports. At Painesville Riverside, for instance, middle school track and field costs $172 per player, while varsity tennis is $933. High school football (freshman, JV and varsity) is $783 and baseball (all high school levels) is $684.

“We’ve got some big numbers,” said George Bellios, Riverside’s athletic director.

Like most districts, Riverside’s decision to add pay-to-participate came after a levy failed (in this case, last November), prompting the school to make $5.2 million in cuts. Riverside held a community meeting and “the sentiment swayed toward letting each team take care of itself,” Belio said.

Participation has held steady but this is just the first year.

“We don’t know where it’s going to go,” Bellios said. “This is new water.”

Most schools shy away from the tiered pay structure. Football, for instance, is an expensive sport but it almost always brings in the most money. Athletic directors need that money to pay for the department.

“If I don’t have a football program, I don’t have an athletic department because I won’t have any revenue,” said Medina AD Jeff Harrison, whose school charges $660 per sport with no cap, one of the highest rates in the country. “If I don’t have any revenue, I can’t have a cross country team.”

Harrison’s cross country team, by the way, won a Division I state title in 2007. But since the school implemented pay-to-participate in November 2009, participation dropped from 60-plus to 37. Boys track has gone from 94 to 48.

The school, which has 22 varsity programs with more than 800 athletes, saw a 10 percent drop in its first year with PTP. It increased to 21 percent in the second year, with “no-cut” sports such as track, wrestling, swimming and cross country absorbing the biggest hit.

“I kept warning people, the effects of pay-to-participate are sometimes not immediate,” said Harrison who spoke on the topic at a national conference for athletic directors in Indianapolis. “If Johnny or Susie is a junior or a senior, it doesn’t matter if it’s $100 or $600 or $1600, mom and dad are going to find a way to pay for one or two sports.

“But you end up eroding from within. Your freshmen and sophomores decide maybe to play basketball but not run track. You concentrate on one sport. It’s three years down the road before you really feel the effects.”

Canfield has already felt some effects, though. Middle school track numbers are down significantly. The school barely had a freshman girls basketball team and, a few weeks, ago, it canceled the rest of the freshman baseball season when a couple players failed to qualify academically.

“In a normal year, we would have 17-20 come out [for freshman baseball],” said Canfield varsity baseball coach Matt Koenig. “This year, we had 12 come out.

“Our numbers are down mostly on the lower levels. If they make it to their sophomore or junior year and they see that they’re going to be able to play, I don’t think it affects them. If they’re on the fence and they don’t know if they’re going to be a varsity guy or a JV guy, that [$200 fee] may play a role, especially if they’re a multi-sport kid.”

For a school like Canfield, which relies on multi-sport athletes, that’s a concern.

“We have good student-athletes here at Canfield but the talent pool isn’t unlimited,” said Cooper. “We’re a mile wide but only a foot deep. We offer a large number of varsity sports and so we survive on our best athletes playing more than one.”

Like Canfield, Poland is dealing with the effects of levy failures. The high school will begin charging $200 per sport ($100 at the middle school level) for the 2012-13 school year to help close a budget deficit projected to reach $2 million beginning in 2014.

PTP won’t be a magic bullet.

Last year, Poland had 543 athletes in the high school and 435 in the middle school. Assuming a 20 percent drop in participation (a fairly common amount) Poland would generate about $111,000 in extra revenue, according to athletic director Brian Banfield.

That’s not likely to make much of a dent in the budget. Most of that money will go toward transportation and supplemental contracts (i.e. coaching salaries), which cost Poland about $280,000 last year.

Poland’s school board covers most of that figure, with all other expenses (security, gate workers, scorekeepers, etc.) covered by the athletic department. Because the Bulldogs’ athletic teams are successful — particularly in the two major revenue-producing sports, football and boys basketball — the department generates between $145,000 and $190,000 each year. That comes from a combination of gate receipts, donations and advertisements.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been fortunate because we haven’t had to go to the school board to offset everyday costs other than transportation and supplementals,” Banfield said.

Pay-to-participate will help cover the latter costs but Cooper has one warning: prepare for more work.

“It’s an administrative nightmare to oversee,” he said. “Although those who are forking out the money are unlikely to feel sorry for the fee collectors, the collection and bookkeeping effort required is significant and those chores fall on people who already have full-time jobs.

“Plus you have to have a nuanced program to discreetly aid those who need assistance. Our school board treasurer, Pattie Kesner, God bless her soul, has worked triple overtime tracking all the payments.”

Bottom line? Pay-to-participate is a bandage, not a cure. While it solves some financial problems — and, in theory, gives voters a reason to approve levies — it also lowers morale and can even make it more difficult to pass a levy.

One administrator, who asked not to be named, is worried parents may vote against a levy on the grounds that athletic fees are temporary, but levies last forever.

“Pay-to-play is not the answer to school funding,” Ross said. “If you’re looking to sway votes to pass a levy, I’ve got news for you: The people who vote no don’t care one way or the other. And it puts a lot of added pressure on the coaches, who might have to deal with a parent who paid $200 and wants to know why their kid’s not playing.

“In the long run, it’s the kid that loses out in the situation.”

That said, there’s a reason sports are called extracurriculars. They’re optional, not part of the core curriculum.

Left with a choice of cutting academics or sports, sports will always go first.

Koenig understands this. While he’s hopeful Canfield can OK a levy “and get back to at least a little bit of normalcy,” he knows baseball is a small part of the bigger picture.

“I certainly don’t blame people for saying athletics has to go first [in the cuts],” he said. “Even pretty good athletic clubs like Canfield and Poland, we don’t produce professional athletes. We produce doctors and lawyers and business owners and things like that.

“When it comes to cuts, athletics has to come first.”

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