The shutdown of spring athletics and activities has led to a deluge of regret and frustration over what has been lost, but not all news coming from metro high school athletic departments has been bad.
Many schools are reporting significant savings as a result of not having to pay traditional costs related to administering and playing interscholastic sports.
“Right now, we’re saving about $112,000 in expenses,” Prior Lake activities director Russ Reetz said. “Things like fees for golf, transportation costs, officials, workers at events. And we have a lot of coaches that teach and they get excused early in the spring. So we’ve saved money on substitute teachers, too.”
Antony Fisher, director of athletics for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said the athletic department has roughly one-third of its 2019-20 budget left, a larger percentage than anticipated when it was developed last year.
“We normally spend about right around a fifth, a fourth, of our budget on spring sports,” Fisher said. “Most of our expenditures come during winter season.”
The largest share of the expenditures for schools so far this spring has gone to pay coaches. Most school districts have assured their spring sports coaches that they will be paid despite the lack of games or practices. For some districts, the cumulative cost of paying coaches per school can reach six figures. Districts have asked that coaches remain engaged with their players and use resources such as online training and video conferencing to reach them.
“Because of the investment our coaches have already put into their team members, the preparatory work they’ve done for the season, and the way those coaches continue to connect with their athletes … we felt it was important to pay them for the season, regardless of whether any athletic competitions are able to be held,” Concordia Academy Superintendent Tim Berner wrote in an e-mail.
Hopkins activities director Dan Johnson justified his district’s decision to fully compensate coaches by asserting that their value is far greater than their ability to put together a team.
“We’re doing distance learning and online coaching,” Johnson said. “It’s important that the students get together, be around friends and teammates.”
Said Reetz: “What kind of valuable experiences can we still have? We can still provide some of those same lessons. Each coach is coming up with unique challenges, teaching things like perseverance, grit, gratitude. Regardless of winning or losing, they still have value.”
Fisher added that while Minneapolis has more than $500,000 left in its budget for this season, that money is mostly untouchable, having been reallocated by the district to help offset costs associated with distance learning.
Minneapolis has already committed about $400,000 to its spring coaches, part of Fisher’s long-term plan to develop and maintain coaches. “We made the decision to keep coaches under retention that we want for the long-term,” he said.
Without spring sports, school athletic departments are losing, or have lost, their primary source of revenue in student-athlete participation fees. For most, a prorated portion of the fee will be refunded to the student if a partial season is salvaged. If not, those funds are mostly lost.
“In a regular spring, we do about $110,000, $115,00 in participation fees,” Johnson said. “This year, if we get a season going, it’s going to be half that. It’s going to be zero if we don’t have a season.”
With spring sports on hold until May 4 at the earliest, many schools are taking a wait-and-see approach on fiscal matters.
“If there is a spring season, we will be paying the coaches their full stipend,’’ Bloomington Kennedy activities director Jon Anderson wrote in an e-mail. “If the spring season is canceled, we plan to pay our coaches half of their normal stipend.”
The absence of spring sports also has allowed some athletic directors freedom to work on other things often put off because of time limitations.
Fisher said he and his staff have gotten a head start on developing the athletic department’s 2020-2025 strategic plan, which is expected to be unveiled before the 2020-21 school year.
“We’ve been able to give a more concentrated effort and focus to the plan,” he said. “Normally, we might put it off until the season is over, but right now we’re already into the third stage of its development.”
Some school sports leaders are already looking past spring. “I certainly have my eyes on fall,” Blake activities director Nick Rathmann said. “Will we have a fall season? If we do, will it start on time? If it does start and we have games, will there be restrictions on crowds?”
At New Life Academy in Woodbury, activities director Jed Moseman said he fears smaller schools like his, which mostly use public facilities in the spring, will face added costs as those facilities attempt to make up for lost revenue by hiking fees.
“I assume at some point they will need to pass on their costs to the customer,” Moseman said. “The savings we are seeing right now may be quickly eaten up by increased rental fees in the fall or next spring.”
To many, however, the biggest expense is seen not in dollar signs but the diminished educational experience for their student-athletes.
“I start each day with a sense of loss,” Reetz said. “I’m saddened by what we’ve already lost, and every day that goes by is one less experience we can create for our athletes.”