SBJ/February 11 - 17, 2002/Opinion

This sponsor banks on youth sports

Most of us had our first experience with sports sponsorship as kids, when, with our friends, we trooped down to the neighborhood business strip to solicit Ace Cleaners or Gino's Pizzeria to buy jerseys for our baseball team. We'd bypass the corner bank on our foray. Banks were too high and mighty for that sort of thing.

But when a group of six high schools of similar size and disposition in suburban Phoenix and the nearby city of Prescott, Ariz., decided to form an athletic conference, they went to the bank and came away grinning. The Central Arizona branch of Wells Fargo bank, based in Prescott, committed itself to paying $12,000 over two years to launch their association.

The grant isn't exactly charity, because the league, which is off and running, is called the Wells Fargo Region, and the bank's name appears in its published standings and on the trophies its champions take home. It isn't exactly business, either.

"It comes under the heading of community goodwill, along with the other contributions we make," says Mike Kinnison, the branch's president. "When we see a need in our market area, and we think we can make a difference, we try to do it."

The point of this piece is that there are various ways companies can play their sponsorship cards, and youth sports at the local level well might be included in the mix. Wells Fargo is as good an example as any that the choice doesn't have to be either-or; the banking and financial services concern, based in San Francisco, also affixes its name to such big-splash entities as the annual college football Sun Bowl game and the basketball arena at Arizona State University.

Whatever the needs of those last two institutions, they probably don't match those of our elementary and high schools. With an economic recession on, and in an era of taxpayer frugality, interscholastic sports are getting short shrift in many parts of the country, as are such other, and equally worthy, extracurricular activities tied to music or drama. Too often, whether a school can field a soccer team or glee club depends less on the desires and talents of its student body than on its ability to raise money for them in the community at large.

Such certainly has been the case for sports at Prescott High School, a Wells Fargo Region member. Several years ago, the school's governing board eliminated coaches' salaries from its budget, and while it later restored them, it still makes no provision to fund things like athletic equipment and supplies and game officials' fees. Its teams get by largely from the gate receipts that football and boys' basketball generate, the $98-a-player participation fees it charges members of its freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams, and public donations.

"We've passed the hat in various ways, with some results, but doing that gets old fast," says Wayne Howell, Prescott High's athletic director. "Getting money in a chunk, like Wells Fargo provides, is a huge help."

Gary Chaney, the AD at Peoria Centennial High School, another league member, agrees. "We took some heat from people who said we were 'selling the kids,' but I never bought that argument," he says. "Even if a school can pretty much fund its own teams, grants like Wells Fargo's can free up money for its other programs. It's a win-win situation as far as I can see."

We thought so, too, back in the old days. We always were well disposed toward the merchants that popped for our jerseys and spent our change with them when we could. We were too young to open checking accounts, but banks and other big-time enterprises tend to outlive pizza parlors, so they can wait for their rewards.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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