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Boosted up: Money matters for today’s prep athletic programs

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next three days, the Courier sports staff will examine the growing role booster clubs are playing in today’s world of high school athletics. In fact, many athletic programs couldn’t survive these days without the assistance of their booster clubs.

First in a series

High school athletic booster clubs were once the cherry on top of the sundae.

Volunteers helped run the concession stand, sold a few spirit items or raised funds for equipment that’s nice to have, but wasn’t exactly needed.

Today, it isn’t a stretch to say that high school athletic departments wouldn’t survive without booster clubs.

“(When I was an athletic director), I always thought my booster club was the gravy on top of the mashed potatoes. Now the expectation is that they have to be more of the meat,” said Todd Tharp, the Assistant Executive Director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association.

“Instead of the warm-ups, now they might have to buy the actual jerseys. It is changing toward that.”

Tharp has been at the IHSAA for nine years and was a high school athletic director for nine years previous to that.

Gary Koenen has seen it unfold locally at Cedar Falls.

“Twenty years ago, athletic departments could’ve survived. Now it’s almost essential to have a good booster club to help you out,” Koenen said. “School funding gets tighter and tighter. Costs keep going up. State funding for schools is not as strong as it used to be.”

Actually, Koenen considers himself fortunate at Cedar Falls because his department brings in higher-than-average funds through gate receipts and donations. While creativity and technology has played a part in the funding race — online ordering of t-shirts, hats and other gear is one example — the goal has remained mostly the same.

“Basically, over the years it’s the same thing… interested parents and others trying to promote and enhance athletic programs. The mission has been the same,” Koenen said. “For the most part, numbers have stayed the same. Maybe there aren’t quite as many parents involved now as you’ve had in the past.”

However, smaller school districts have seen a big jump in participation — mostly because they were starting at zero.

“To be honest, 20 years ago I don’t think we even had a booster club,” said Wapsie Valley Athletic Director Marty McKowen.

Because the Warriors were self-sufficient without the extra funds more recently, the impact the booster club has now isn’t as great as it might be. But surviving on its own is a problem no athletic department wants to tackle.

“It would be tougher,” McKowen said. “We would figure out ways to get things we need, but as an A.D., to know it’s not a thing I need to worry about is a huge load off the athletic department.

“The booster club pays for all our uniforms and also jumps in on major projects like scoreboards.”

Ultimately, like many other things, the entire system varies from school to school and team to team.

Tharp noted that sometimes a check is cut to the athletic director and he or she is entrusted to spend it wisely. Other times, coaches come in to make a pitch and hope funds come their way.

How much money is available and where it comes from is another can of worms. While there are very few regulations on what a school can and cannot do to raise funds, some schools police themselves.

Scrolling advertisements and signage on gym and outfield walls have become somewhat commonplace, but Koenen noted that it is Cedar Falls’ policy to not have any kind of advertising on the playing field. And for now, his programs don’t need that extra revenue.

Other schools do, so they sell advertisements, although they must operate under the state’s regulation of not having anything offensive or alcohol- or tobacco-related.

“Basically, no Marlboro Man on the foul pole,” Tharp said.

How far new revenue streams are explored remains to be seen. On the current trend, there will be a point when booster clubs cannot keep up. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen some of the effects of that.

“Schools are cutting JV programs, some are cutting coaches. We do see that,” said Tharp. “Some try to cut back on competition dates and are experimenting with, say, round-robin basketball tournaments on a Saturday to cut down on transportation costs.”

Every athletic department wants the best for its coaches and student-athletes.

However, not everyone is playing on a level field when it comes to sources of funding.

Monday: From equipment and uniforms to facilities, many high school booster clubs are providing more of their athletic programs’ funding than ever. What kind of money are they raising, and are they providing their teams with a competitive advantage?

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