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Pay to participate fundraising poses challenges for athletic directors

This is an excerpt from NIAAA’s Guide to Interscholastic Athletic Administration from the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA), edited by Michael Blackburn, Eric Forsyth, John Olson, and Bruce Whitehead.


Learn best practices for high school sport administration with
NIAAA’s Guide to Interscholastic Athletic Administration.

Pay to Participate

Pay to play has been around for a long time in our schools. During the budget crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the implementation of paying to play sports in high school was shocking. When school boards across the country began to address the budget gaps, they found themselves in a no-win situation between laying off teachers and continuing to support nonacademic activities.

During that era, voters almost everywhere were reluctant to raise their property taxes—the main source of revenue for K-12 education—at a pace that matched inflation. Also, the changing demographics are partly at fault. As our population ages, the number of American households that have school-age children may continue to shrink. The challenge to school budgets will only intensify.

Since that crisis, school administrators have learned that “pay to participate” is a more user-friendly way to raise funds for the athletic budget. The connotation makes a distinction that student-athletes are not guaranteed to play but will have the privilege of participating in the interscholastic athletic program for a fee.

Today, pay to participate has emerged as an accepted way for school boards to raise funds to offset the cost of sports programs and activities. In these turbulent economic times, the cuts to school district budgets have taken their toll on all facets of the academic and nonacademic offerings. Almost every state budget has been affected by the economic downturn since 2008, and implications are widespread. The new fiscal reality finds that all school revenues are in decline. The federal funds have pretty much disappeared, most state budget funding has been cut dramatically, and the local revenue sources are flat or reduced because of unemployment and property assessment appeals.

As school districts begin to face this new fiscal reality, they are finding that the growth in mandated costs (e.g., pensions and health care) will consume a sizable share of any revenue growth. This will not be offset by any increase in federal or state funding. So the watchword going forward is fiscal discipline.

Almost half of the total number of districts and schools that charge students to participate in interscholastic sports earmark the funds for specific expenditures, including revenue for the athletic budget, facilities improvement, busing, the fitness center, the athletic trainer’s salary, insurance, and the cost of physical exams.

So with this new fiscal reality, is the landscape beginning to change in terms of how interscholastic sports are funded? Are education-based activities endangered? Are they in jeopardy of being replaced by the community-based model that has been gradually gaining traction over the years in towns across the United States? Are the old ways of funding education-based sports in transition to another or new way of funding?

If schools are required to fund-raise to pay for their sports programs, then athletic directors will need the necessary training to learn a little more about sport marketing. Although there are detractors in every community about the affordability of sports programs, high school sport participation continues to grow. According to National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) data, 7.6 million students participated in sports during the 2009-2010 school year (Howard 2011). Interest in high school sports has never been higher, and the benefits of high school sport participation are well documented: better attendance records, lower dropout rates, higher grade point averages, improved self-esteem, and preparation for a successful career. However, a survey of NFHS member state associations in 2009 revealed that participation fees were being charged by schools in 33 states, and it is likely that more states and schools will consider this option going forward beyond 2012 (Gardner 2011).

Athletic directors will have to consider many issues when pay to participate becomes part of the internal strategy to raise funds for the athletic program. Activity fees vary widely across the country. Charges have been reported from as low as $20 per year to as high as $500 per sport. The amount often hinges on whether coaching salaries and transportation fees are covered by the assessments. Here are several issues to consider:

  • Check the legality in your state: Laws and courts have decided on both sides of this issue in a number of states based on the constitutionality of the practice. Most states, however, allow for school boards to impose the fee. Current practices have become creative in terms of identifying a specific fee for a specific expenditure (e.g., transportation, insurance).
  • Examine fee structures in other districts in your state: Athletic directors like to share information about their programs. So brainstorm at your next meeting or conference to find out what works best with your neighboring schools, and put together a list of dos and don’ts to consider or recommend to your administration and school board.
  • Set a maximum yearly fee structure per student and family: Students and families should not be penalized for participating in multiple sports with multiple children each year. They should not be forced to choose a sport because of the fee structure.
  • Establish a schedule of when the fees are to be collected and by whom: If possible, keep the coaches out of collecting the fees. Typically, fees are collected in the athletic director’s or principal’s office. One practice that works well for most schools is to make the fee payable after the first practice but before the first contest. Payment is mandatory for participation in the first contest.
  • Establish criteria for refunds: In this case, use common sense, but refund sparingly. All aspects of athletic participation need to be considered in terms of injuries, quitting the team, or dismissal because of student conduct violation.
  • Establish criteria for those unable to pay the fee: Most school districts use qualifications for free or reduced-cost lunches as means of identifying students and families needing assistance. In this case, maintaining confidentiality is paramount for these students.
  • Establish a specific purpose for the funds: Parents want to know where the money collected is going and how it will be used. It is an individual school’s choice to identify how the funds will be used to offset expenditures, whether it be uniforms, travel, insurance, or something else. One practice that is frowned upon is to use the fees for coaching salaries. This has the potential to create too many problems for coaches and athletic directors.
  • Establish the participation aspect of the fee: The fee does not guarantee playing time, only the privilege to participate in a sport. This should be made clear to the parents and students from the onset. Coaches determine who will play.
  • Include the participation fee in the policies and procedures manual: It is vitally important to communicate this school board-approved policy to all parties before each sport season, including the students, parents, coaches, and community. Some schools have students and parents sign a form acknowledging their awareness of the policy and its rules.
  • Develop consensus with all stakeholders: When developing the guidelines for how a participation fee schedule will be implemented, it is imperative to include all the stakeholders—students, parents, coaches, and administrators—so they have a sense of ownership in the program. If the process is conducted properly from the beginning, all parties will share the importance of maintaining education-based athletic programs and the benefits that young people acquire from participation.

Read more from NIAAA’s Guide to Interscholastic Athletic Administration from the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA), edited by Michael Blackburn, Eric Forsyth, John Olson, and Bruce Whitehead.



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