Booster spending alters high school athletic competition

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2013 - 8:02 AM

Booster clubs, affluent alumni and benefactors, and corporations are creating a world of haves and have-nots in local high school sports.

One evening last fall, dozens of well-dressed boosters of the Minnetonka High School baseball program sipped wine at a lakeshore banquet facility and waited as a chef sliced roast beef at an offseason fundraiser.

A silent auction included a week’s vacation in Hawaii, a pheasant hunt, a cultured pearl necklace and a spa day sponsored by a Lexus dealership. The next day, Cathy Maes, an event organizer, reported that big gains had been made in retiring the $4.4 million debt on the school’s new baseball and softball fields. “I think we did really well,” she said.

That same night across the Twin Cities, the Anoka High School football team, ending another dismal season, gathered for a last supper of sorts in a school cafeteria. The meal, spaghetti on paper plates, was provided by a booster club that worries about getting food to athletes from low-income families. Its budget has finished in the red two of the past four years.

Jeff Buerkle, Anoka’s football coach, said the sophomores on the team still wear the same game pants from 1997. “A lot of stuff is beat up,” he said. “They walk into a place like Eden Prairie … our kids see what they’re up against. And they don’t feel it’s fair.

“Every single year,” he said, “it is harder and harder and harder.”

More than ever, booster clubs, affluent alumni and benefactors, and corporations are creating a world of haves and have-nots in local high school sports, just as they long have done for college athletic programs.

High school programs from affluent public and private schools with significant donors invariably have the best facilities and are increasingly dominating state competition.

It’s all perfectly legal. And for high schools across the metro area, it’s increasingly becoming a stark fact of life.

“When we play a school like Columbia Heights, no — it’s not a level playing field,” Jerry Pettinger, the athletic director at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, said matter-of-factly as he sat in a golf cart looking out over a $4 million renovation of the St. Louis Park private school’s athletic fields.

Coaches and parents on both sides of the issue agree that the gap keeps getting wider, with larger consequences.

Four high schools — Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka and Wayzata — have become increasingly dominant in local prep sports, winning 11 of the 19 state large-school titles in fall and winter competition this year after winning 11 of the 30 boys’ and girls’ state championships for major schools last year.

Over the past five years, the four schools — all in affluent communities — have won 35 percent of the state titles for major schools, up from 23 percent during the previous five-year period. From 1992 through 2002, the four schools won just under 22 percent of the state’s athletic titles.

Large corporate sponsors are becoming commonplace at some schools, but not others.

At Eden Prairie High School, for example, the school’s corporate sponsors include Wal-Mart, Culver’s, Edward Jones Investments and Hazeltine National Golf Club. Meanwhile, at Coon Rapids High School, where the football team recently bought Stillwater High School’s used helmets, the booster club is supported by, among others, the B&K Family Restaurant, Von Hanson’s Meats and the Highway 10 Mobil, a gas station.

The changing financial landscape has left some high schools rich in sports history — Anoka High School has won 22 state titles, but only three since the mid-1990s — having much less success on the field as they grapple with less money and more students from poor families.

Others that have never won a state high school team title may be falling even further behind: At Como Park High School in St. Paul, where members of the badminton team had to return their new shoes at the end of the season, all of the school’s athletic teams last year split $4,600 raised by a booster club held together by just four parents.

Jennifer Lindstrom – Parent of 9th grade basketball player

Some private high schools, which are more likely to attract affluent donors and lure promising athletes, also have flourished. Over the past 14 years, private schools have made particular strides in boys’ hockey — one of the most expensive high school sports — by winning 16 of 28 state titles for small and large schools.

Zach Streff, the center on Coon Rapids’ football team, which did not win a game last year, said he and his teammates feel the impact of how some powerhouse schools have more resources than others. “At first it was tough but then, at the end, you kind of got used to losing,” said Streff, a senior. He remembered arriving at Minnetonka for a game: “We thought it was pretty cool, how the stadium looked.”

It is difficult to say when the gap between schools began to noticeably widen, but Mark Vescio said the difference is now significant. Vescio graduated from Columbia Heights High School in 1985 and played football there as a receiver. “Everywhere was the same,” he said of the schools Columbia Heights played against. “Everybody had the same kind of scoreboard. Everybody had the same kinds of facilities.

“But to see it now, it’s a little — for [me] — disheartening because it’s over the top for high school sports.”

David Flom – Eden Prairie High school head varsity basketball coach

Does the money buy wins? It may be impossible to definitively say. But Denise Thoen sat at Minnetonka High School in late April and watched her son’s Bloomington Jefferson High School team lose 9-3. The game was played on one of the spring’s first warm days, and it was made possible largely because Minnetonka’s artificial turf fields were quickly cleared of the snow that was still rendering most high school fields muddy and unplayable. “These guys have been practicing outside,” she said of Minnetonka. “They’ve been able to see live pitching outdoors, which is a huge advantage.”

David Stead, the executive director of the Minnesota State High School League for the past 25 years, said there’s little chance of altering the disparate tide of spending.

“I don’t know how you would change that, nor do I know how you might even try to level a playing field” to account for a community’s affluence, Stead said. He added that some schools in affluent communities, such as Wayzata and Eden Prairie, also benefit from having only one large high school, which keeps all of its young athletic talent in one place.

State law, Stead said, does require booster clubs to direct their money to a school and not directly to a coach or a team.

The amount of booster club money arriving at some high schools is enormous. In just one year ending in July 2011, for example, the Wayzata Athletic Boosters raised more than $372,000 for high school sports. By comparison, the booster club for South St. Paul High School has touted the fact that it has raised more than $500,000 over the span of 38 years for the high school. In a recent tax filing, it had about $39,000 in assets.

The trend is extending to youth athletic associations, often a pipeline for high school athletics. The Orono Hockey Boosters, for example, had more than $402,000 in revenue in 2012.

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