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High school sports in crisis


Today's USA Today has a series about how the recession is affecting school sports:

At some schools, budget cuts put sports in danger

Instead of gearing up to run cross country for Grove City High School in Ohio, Andy Bennett is training for a marathon.

It will give the 16-year-old some consolation because sports programs and clubs at his school have been shut down. An hour after the last bell each afternoon, it's lights out at the school.

Bennett and his classmates won't have homecoming, prom or a student government — activities that, like sports, are fixtures in American high schools but no longer exist at Grove City because of a financial crisis.

That's the plight of all students who attend South-Western City Schools, which serves part of Columbus and nearby towns and is Ohio's sixth-largest school district. The district has been in dire financial straits for years and is being squeezed further by the economic downturn. By canceling activities, the district cut $2.5 million in expenses, district spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff says.

"I thought it was the worst thing in the world," Bennett says of the school board's decision to cancel activities after a proposed property tax hike was rejected by voters in August, the third time it failed.

They aren't the only ones.  Revenue from sales and property taxes is way down, and it's pretty tough to raise tax rates when the economy is so bad.  The other articles in the series describe how schools are coping.  In California, parents raised money to fund the sports program.  New Mexico   changed the format of state tournaments to save money.  And Shane Victorino has donated money to keep high school sports afloat in his home state of Hawai`i.  (Sports is especially expensive in Hawai`i; even within the state, games may require flying.)

I wonder if we're moving toward a whole different model of school sports - one where students (or their parents) must "pay to play," and perhaps one where driving or flying the kids all over creation for tournaments no longer makes sense.  Some school systems, prompted by last year's high gas prices, have already changed their league organizations, so that teams play only nearby teams, reducing travel.

And it's not just high schools feeling the pinch.  California is taking the budget axe to college sports, eliminating some sports altogether, and even canceling scheduled games for monetary reasons.

San Jose State announced it is backing out of a scheduled football game at rival Stanford in 2010, opting to travel to Alabama instead.

The Spartans risk a big loss on the field, playing a traditional powerhouse on the road, because Southeastern Conference schools are known to pay visiting teams in the neighborhood of $1 million. Stanford wasn't going to pay nearly that much.

Even the pros are not immune.  NFL ticket sales are slow; 10-12 teams may have their games blacked out.  Some fans are asking that they suspend the blackout rules until the recession is over.

And what about Major League Baseball?  The Cleveland Indians are expecting to lose $16 million this year, and according to Mr. Redlegs, the Reds are in a similar situation.  Even the "rich" teams are feeling it.  The Yankees, rather than jacking up prices for postseason tickets as usual, actually lowered the price, at least for some of them, likely for fear of fan backlash.  The Mets' owners lost $700 million dollars to the Madoff ponzi scheme, and may be forced to sell the team.  And the Red Sox?  One of their owners is the New York Times group, which had to take out a mortgage on their building and forced the staff of the Boston Globe to take paycuts just to keep the papers in business.

What does this mean for us fans?  It could be good news.  Teams are likely to offer lower ticket prices and other deals.  OTOH...we probably can't expect Bob C. to open up his wallet and buy a bunch of expensive free agents.  The hairdos on CNBC are proclaiming the end of the recession.  I suspect they may be wrong about that.  But even if they aren't, it's going to take awhile for the economy to rebound, and I think the Reds will be cautious.  Like Bronson Arroyo said: "People don't own teams to lose money. If you ask any owner whether they would rather make $20 million and come in last place or lose $20 million and win a World Series, there's only one guy who honestly would take that championship: George Steinbrenner. Nobody else."

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