The message was direct.
Citing attendance declines for high school championship events and stagnant revenue, the California Interscholastic Federation had no choice. It had to raise fees for its member schools for the next two years.
“We could no longer ignore the significant decline in attendance at our championships that we have experienced over the past four years,” wrote CIF Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod.
New Jersey has experienced a decline in ticket revenue for high school athletic events as well. Numbers provided by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association show that, in almost every sport, attendance has dropped significantly for championship events. Locally, athletic directors have seen it too.
So what should the NJSIAA do to recoup that lost revenue? It’s an issue that will be discussed at future meetings, perhaps as early as this Wednesday.
Following the CIF’s lead and raising ticket prices for NJSIAA-run state finals may seem like a easy way to bring in more revenue. Of course, nothing is easy in New Jersey.
Legislation brought forth by State Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) and enacted in January 2010 limited the amount of money the NJSIAA can charge for membership fees and tickets for state tournament events.
Want to watch Saddle River Day guard Michelle Sidor play in the Tournament of Champions? Adults can pay $5. Same to see Ranney basketball stars Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine. Of course, on the AAU circuit, you might pay $20, $30 or $50 dollars for the same seat to see the same players.
Privately, the NJSIAA is working with Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet to amend the statute, but they remain wary of the public relations hit. High schools sports represent a last bastion of Americana, they’re not supposed to cost that much to sit in a wooden bleacher and buy a hot dog from a player’s mom at the snack stand.
People still love a bargain. So what’s the fair price?
First, let’s look at the NJSIAA’s current financial model. All of the schools in the NJSIAA pay a yearly membership fee of $2,150.
There are also fees for playing in different leagues. For example, it costs $4,290 to compete in the Big North, and $335 to compete in the Super Football Conference.
Then it gets more detailed. The NJSIAA used to have a system where only teams that were .500 or better made its state tournaments. Now, enough teams get into the tournaments to fill out a 16-team first-round bracket. The fee is usually $80 to participate. For some sports, it’s little more.
While it may look frivolous to have a 4-16 softball team in the state tournament, it was what New Jersey’s athletic directors wanted. The fact that it was another revenue bump for the NJSIAA helped as well.
“We’re nine years in now to these fixed-revenue sources,” NJSIAA finance director Colleen Maguire said. “Now, I’m starting to look at ways we can solicit some increases to the other championships, the annual dues and entry fees. The entry fees definitely need to start increasing. We lose a lot of money there.”
Maguire said the NJSIAA has eight sports that annually lose money. For six of them, there is no admission charged. How do you charge for someone to watch a high school golf tournament?
Winter is when the NJSIAA grosses the most income, but also pays out the most with its big events at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for wrestling and RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River for basketball. Winter is also the season that produces the most revenue based on participation fees (almost every school has a girls and boys basketball team).
The Burzichelli legislation is great for school budgets – they always know what it costs to play – but it limits the NJSIAA.
“It’s definitely a concern of mine,” Maguire said. “Because I don’t see the [attendance] trend reversing. The fact that our ticket prices are fixed by law … that is what it is. There’s no changing that and that’s not a concern of mine anymore. Now my concern is shifting toward finding other ways to increase our revenue to keep up with increasing costs.”
Bill Vacca is a member of the NJSIAA’s Executive Committee and secretary of the Passaic County Coaches Association. He runs most of the big events in Passaic County.
Vacca said this past girls basketball tournament saw a steep drop-off in attendance for the semifinals. He said the finals still drew about the usual crowd.
But he fears that some changes will have to be made.
The coaches associations in Bergen and Passaic counties and the NJSIAA are in a bind. They can’t just wake up next year and say they won’t be holding a county basketball tournament anymore. Plus, they have an All-County dinner to fund and scholarships to hand out.
“Somebody has to pay,” Vacca said. “So we may have to raise entry fees and then charge more money, but the state can’t charge more.”
What tournament organizers can and will do is shift the hosting responsibilities. In other words, no more neutral sites. Mike Weaver, the director of the Bergen County girls basketball tournament, believes the semifinals will move next year from Ramapo College back to a high school site. Attendance at the semifinals was down from in years past.
Vacca thinks maybe next year’s Passaic County semifinals will be held at the site of the higher seeds. Last year, the NJSIAA brought the sectional finals for football back to local schools. This was well-received because of the energy and size of the crowd, but also tips the playing field slightly. Maybe it’s a small price to pay to stay in business.
There’s also been some suggestion that the NJSIAA may find a way to broaden its ability to stream events. It’s clear there is an audience for high school sports, but the way to keep an audience in 2019 is to go to them, not the other way around. Giving fans the option to see games on their portable devices, and charge them for the ability, would seem to make sense.
High school sports have always been a rich part of American culture. From California to New Jersey, people love a bargain. But the price of high school sports may have to change.