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Volume 23 No. 28
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Foundation of collegiate, pro sports is falling into disrepair

It was another banner year for superstars in 2019, when the sports gods bestowed contracts with a total value of more than $2 billion to seven individuals (baseball players Nolan Arenado, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Stepehn Strasburg and Mike Trout and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers). They will collectively take in $228 million annually. Good for them — I hope they all do great things with their financial reward.

The future looks even brighter. The value proposition of big-time sports, along with the commencing riches, seems to have no end in sight.

Here is something else that happened in 2019, albeit with little fanfare. For the first time in 30 years, in its annual survey, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) reported a decrease in overall athletic participation at the high school level. Of note, football declined for the fifth year in a row to the lowest mark in 20 years. Surprisingly, boys and girls basketball also dropped, with the latter category falling to its lowest number since 1992-93! Numerous studies have tried to explain this decline, but a common theme in all of them is “tough economics.” In other words: there’s not enough money. Let me say that again: not enough money! “Pay to play” has become the norm in more than half the high schools in the U.S. according to Coach and AD Magazine’s 2020 State of the Industry Report, January 2020. Over 80% of high school athletic directors are “concerned with reduced funding,” according to this same report. 

High school athletics in America are the primary foundation for every professional team and league, every college conference and university athletic program. For all the future riches enjoyed at the top level, we can thank the development that took place in high school. Beyond athletic development, the overall good of high school athletic participation is far too important to capture here. Simply put, it is an amazing asset to our society as a whole. Yet it is struggling financially and it needs to be fixed. Sound the alarm!

I’ve been around the sports industry for a long time and seen many marketing messages in which leagues, teams, brands and athletes pour their hearts out in support of youth athletics. However, at the macro level most of it is window dressing. While I realize that there are many individuals at this level who do wonders in their own way, the problem is getting worse.

There are 19,500 high schools within the NFHS; $25,000-$50,000 annually per school would, we believe from high school ADs, nearly eradicate “pay to play” across the nation. To fund this would cost $250-$500 million annually. Chump change for the industry.

Are there leagues, teams and CMOs with some real CHUTZPAH?! Because that is what this will take. Can you imagine the reward if you helped solve this problem for every school and family in the U.S.? That would not be window dressing. Any takers?

Peter Fitzpatrick is president and CEO of DistrictWON.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com