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.

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.’ ”

A first-class upgrade

Terrence Fogarty graduated from St. Paul Johnson in 1978 and, at the school’s ice arena, a painting by him celebrating Johnson’s high school hockey tradition hangs on the wall. A photo of Lou Cotroneo, the old-time Johnson hockey coach, hangs nearby.

Fogarty has forged a career as a Minnesota version of Norman Rockwell, doing sports paintings for the Minnesota Wild, the Minnesota Twins and others.

Last year, he was hired to do another painting — not for Johnson, but for Edina High School. The prints have been selling for $225 to help pay for the $3.2 million addition to the city’s Braemar Ice Arena. Twenty-five canvas paintings, which feature an Edina hockey team being lectured by among others Willard Ikola, the school’s legendary coach, sold for $1,500 each.

Braemar is the newly remodeled home of Edina’s boys’ hockey team, a perennial hockey powerhouse. The addition includes a sporting goods store, a hockey training center and locker rooms with large flat-screen TVs, couches and plug-ins for players’ iPods. Twin Cities Orthopedics also outfitted two trainers’ rooms as “their show of support for the project,” said Susie Miller, Braemar’s general manager.

The campaign to raise $800,000 privately for the project was called the “Drive for the Hive,” because the high school team is known as the Hornets. City officials said prominent benefactor Eric Anderson, a top executive with San Francisco-based City Center Realty Partners, an urban development firm, volunteered to be the project’s construction manager, likely saving the city thousands in costs.

Longtime Minnesota hockey icon Lou Nanne, whose son helped lead the fundraising drive, bristled at any suggestion that Edina was separating itself further from other schools. “It’s an embarrassment it wasn’t fixed before this,” Nanne said of the ice arena. “It has nothing to do with competitive edge. [You] don’t go and play [for a school] because the team’s got a nice locker room.”

Miller said the Edina Hockey Association is helping pay for the project by charging its 1,300 youth skaters a $20 annual fee.

The expansion is one sign of the financial muscle behind high school sports in Edina. Corporate support is another. Microsoft, Cambria, Davanni’s and Whole Foods are among the companies that have purchased “Gold” advertising packages from the Edina Athletic Booster Club, entitling them to among other things digital scoreboard ads, stadium banners and 30 passes to Edina home games.

The booster club recently contributed $7,500 for a new pole vault pit mat, even though club president Kathleen Good acknowledged that relatively few students pole vault. Meanwhile, at Ooh La La, a custom rhinestone apparel boutique in Excelsior, a black T-shirt with “Edina Hornets” in green rhinestones sells for $24.

Fogarty, the artist, said he feels for his alma mater, tucked into the gritty neighborhoods of St. Paul’s East Side, but he added that the financial gap between Edina and Johnson is just the way high school sports are evolving.

“It’s becoming a more affluent sport,” Fogarty said of prep hockey. “It’s not the kids going down to the pond and skating on Saturdays.”

But skating on the pond on Saturdays — or at least the idyllic image of it — still sells.

In the left-hand corner of Fogarty’s painting for Edina there is this scene: a young girl and boy, wearing Edina-green jerseys and stocking caps, lacing up their skates on a neighborhood pond.

“We make over $100 on each print,” said Beth Williamson, who is helping with the fundraiser and whose father-in-law, Murray Williamson, coached both the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey teams.

Hurting for money

The game — and the halftime promotion — were tough to watch for Mike Streff and about 20 others who sat bundled in the visitors’ stands at Maple Grove High School’s football stadium for a matchup late last fall.

Streff was the outgoing president of the Coon Rapids Sideliners, the high school’s booster club. By halftime, Coon Rapids was trailing 20-0.

Under a bright moon, the Sideliners also watched as Maple Grove gave away a flat-screen TV during a halftime promotion.

“The numbers are down, the parents are down,” Pam Duckert, a Sideliner member, said of booster support for the team. Eight years ago, she said, “These stands would have been completely full of people.”

Coon Rapids last won a state football title in 1983. Two weeks before the Maple Grove game — which the team eventually lost, 39-14 — the Sideliners had $8,225.34 in the bank.

Tom Lovik, who had a ninth-grader playing for Coon Rapids last fall, remembered the game against Minnetonka, which Coon Rapids also lost, 49-14. While Coon Rapids and other schools are “scratching to get kids out,” he said, Minnetonka “will have 100 kids on the sidelines, or more.”

A few weeks after the Maple Grove game, the Sideliners gathered to recap the season and tried to keep the session from turning into a wake. In a nearby conference room, an antiques show had 10 times the turnout. One Sideliner urged the group to keep the end-of-the-year team banquet as upbeat as possible — “the boys had a rough year,” she explained.

Making a long season even longer, the Sideliners received news at the meeting that the new end-zone camera, bought to enable the coaches to film football games, had been toppled by the wind at the Maple Grove game and shattered.

As one parent tried to move on by describing the new helmets that Andover’s football team had purchased, Colleen Roloff, another parent, blurted out: “They have more money than we do — everyone has more money than we do.”

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