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Continued: Booster spending alters high school athletic competition

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

Different worlds

The lights flickered inside the gym from an electrical problem earlier this year when Eden Prairie’s basketball team came to St. Paul Johnson High School and swept to three victories.

It was the first of several problems. “Somebody stole the damn uniforms!” Johnson’s junior varsity coach suddenly announced. So as the freshmen came off the court following their loss, they stripped off their sweaty uniforms and handed them to the junior varsity players.

Eden Prairie, which has nine basketball courts at its high school, returned to Johnson a few weeks later for a tournament, and Eden Prairie head coach David Flom recalled how the gym had to be evacuated that time because smoke starting coming out of the concession stand. “The facilities are fine,” he said, “but they’re older.”

Flom, who can break down game film by projecting it onto a classroom smart board that’s linked to a software program on his laptop computer, has four high school coaches paid for by the Eden Prairie School District. Fundraising — a golf tournament netted $10,000 last year — was indirectly funneled to pay for three others.

At Johnson, the varsity head coach is Vern Simmons, a St. Paul police officer assigned to patrol the school. Before the Eden Prairie game, he walked through the hall in his police uniform carrying a 9mm handgun before changing into street clothes for the game.

Simmons insisted his team can compete against Eden Prairie on the court, but not when it comes to booster clubs and money. “We’re not in the same ballpark,” he said.

Much of Johnson’s athletic budget revenue comes from ticket sales — football ticket sales last year, for example, totaled just $3,077 — plus a $20 equipment fee and a $25 participation fee per player. With most students coming from low-income families, said Gerald Keenan, the St. Paul school district’s lead athletic director, “we don’t have a lot of kids paying that $25.”

Eighteen schools in the district split a $100,000 annual travel budget, and any team wanting to play a game farther than 35 miles away must pay its own travel.

Jeff Plaschko – Co-athletic director, St.Paul Johnson

And boosters? At Johnson, that would be Arlene Hubbard, the assistant girls’ basketball coach and a Ramsey County social worker. “I’m the booster of everything,” she joked. In past years, she has cooked the food for the year-end team banquet. This year, she said, things were looking up — the team had enough money to go to Old Country Buffet.

At one game — senior night for the girls’ basketball team — Hubbard coached the girls’ freshman game, sold tacos-in-a-bag for $2.50 apiece out of the concession stand during the junior varsity game and then assembled gift bags for the seniors before the varsity game. “You want jalapeños on this?” she called out, her hands wrapped in plastic gloves.

Arlene Hubbard – Assistant girls basketball coach, St.Paul Johnson

“They got money, and we don’t,” said Hubbard, nodding to the more affluent schools.

Sign of the times

Even for Wayzata High School, which offers a whopping 30 varsity sports, the new $320,000 digital football scoreboard with video replay was impressive.

When Wayzata scored its first touchdown against Hopkins on a Friday night last fall, the towering scoreboard dazzled the crowd and an announcer called out: “Scoring drive presented by Village Chevrolet.” The scoreboard’s top corporate sponsors, such as Polaris, the snowmobile maker, paid $10,000 to be “Anchor” donors for the project.

Thirty minutes before kickoff, Culver’s name and corporate logo appeared on the scoreboard while an announcer told the crowd that “Culver’s is a proud supporter of Wayzata High School.” Culver’s was also the official corporate sponsor of “Cheer on Cheerleaders” — with the scoreboard prominently showing the company’s name while the school’s cheerleaders did pushups after each scoring drive to match the team’s total points. Allstate Insurance, another “Anchor” donor, sponsored the official “Fan of the Game.”

Said Cathy Roth, the chair of Project Score, the fundraising drive to finance the new scoreboard: “Can other schools do it? Yes. Absolutely.”

For Wayzata’s scoreboard, Rob Jacob wrote a check for $60,000, and his two businesses — Jake’s, a nearby restaurant, and his Allstate Insurance firm — have their names prominently on the scoreboard. Jacob also met with school boosters, including the parents of the team captains, and told them that in exchange for the money, “We want you to come give us the business.

“We didn’t expect anything,” Jacob said, but he was told: “You help us with his, and we are going to steer business your way.”

“This was a good opportunity for us to expose our [insurance] agency,” Jacob said. “What attracted us is the 5,000 to 6,000 people that show up to the games. It’s been a wonder for us for [business] retention.”

The scoreboard was one more sign that booster support at Wayzata High School reaches a level many other local high schools can only imagine.

Private donors paid about $281,000, or more than 88 percent, of the scoreboard’s cost. Donors also paid $4,000 so that the school’s terrazzo logo could be put in the floor at the front entrance to the school’s athletic offices. In addition, boosters raise all of the money — about $55,000 a year — that is spent “on any uniform an athlete wears at Wayzata in a game,” said Jaime Sherwood, the school’s athletic director.

From the visiting sideline, Hopkins student activities director Dan Johnson said Wayzata’s new scoreboard made sense. “To continue to advance your program,” said Johnson, “[you] try and look for what the next best thing is and, right now, this seems to be kind of a hot button.”

Jaime Sherwood – Director of athletics/activities for Wayzata High

Sherwood agreed. He predicted that another school will probably soon outdo Wayzata’s scoreboard. “This is what happens in the arms race of athletics,” he said. “I’m sure someone will say, ‘Make [ours] just a little bit bigger than Wayzata’s.’ ”

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