Paying to Play
Athletic participation fees present a potential game changer in middle and high school sports
In many ways, John Ashley is a typical sports dad. One of his sons plays football for York High School’s varsity squad, another for Yorktown Middle School. And, like other York County parents, Ashley must stroke a couple checks each year so that his sons have the privilege of taking the field. The difference between Ashley and the rest of the throng of shouting parents is that he helped decide precisely how much those checks would be made out for.
When the York County School Division implemented athletic participation fees beginning in the 2012–2013 school year, the district was following a national trend of requiring student-athletes to pay-to-play. York County’s neighbor, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, likewise started collecting athletic participation fees in 2012. Each of Coastal Virginia’s nearly 20 public school divisions has different a different policy: some charge pay-to-play fees, others do not. But all schools, in a day and age of higher costs and lower incomes, have one thing in common: tight budgets. That means pay-to-play, for most school administrators, remains an option, despite the fact that critics of athletic participation fees cry foul.
Ashley is not only a parent of a couple of York County student-athletes; he is also the athletic director at York High School. He served on the committee that wrote the division’s athletic participation fee policy. Students who make a team must pay $60 per season to play high school sports and $50 per season at the middle school level. For Ashley, that’s $110. “I think that’s fair,” he says. “When you look at independent youth leagues, you’re paying something like $50 to $75 per child, so this fee is on par with that.”
Ashley acknowledges that pay-to-play is not something that is easy for families to swallow, especially when you consider that parents often buy into all the additional clothing and gear that help athletes improve performance. But he says that athletic participation fees were inevitable. “This is something that’s happening across the nation,” he explains.
Indeed, some distant school districts are charging well into the hundreds of dollars per athlete, per sport. The fees charged locally are a fraction of the true cost of high school sports, and York County and Williamsburg-James City County had few other choices to help recoup the amount they spend on student-athletes.
“This was a purely budgetary decision,” says Betsy Overkamp-Smith, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, which maintains a fee structure similar to York County’s: $60 for each high school season and $50 for middle school. “Our families understand that this wasn’t a decision that we wanted to make, but if we wanted to keep offering the same type of athletics, [it was] one that we had to [make].”
Staging interscholastic athletic competition is an expensive endeavor. Most people might consider that all the balls, coolers and uniforms cost money, but those necessities only begin to touch what divisions pay for sports. Coaches are compensated for the long hours they spend on the field (often after teaching full-time). Officials cost money, too. Transportation is a significant outlay, especially considering how much fuel is required to get a team of students to distant fields (school buses average seven miles per gallon). And most divisions annually pay $700 per school plus $30 per sport to be members of the Virginia High School League, which organizes district, regional and state tournaments and maintains rulebooks for 27 varsity sports.
School budgets are simply a matter of money in versus money out. That requires the powers that be to ask some tough questions when the time comes to plan next year’s spending.
Some divisions have seriously toyed with the idea of reducing the amount of money spent on athletics. Two years ago, Virginia Beach Public Schools officials proposed eliminating middle school sports and high school junior varsity teams, but quickly scuttled that idea when citizens expressed strong support for those programs.
Other districts will not even consider initiatives that might hinder access to extracurricular activities. Administrators and school board members of Newport News Public Schools, for example, have pushed for all high school students to be involved in at least one sport or after-school activity as a way to be involved and committed to their school. More than half of the students in Newport News get free or reduced-price lunch, which they receive because of their family’s low income level, and educators fear athletic fees would handicap their efforts to foster that personal connection to school. Norfolk Public Schools has never implemented athletic fees for the same reason.
Nevertheless, athletic fees remain an easy, attractive way to generate much-needed funds when so many other revenue streams have run dry. Last year, York County schools brought in roughly $126,000 from high school athletic participation fees (and an additional $24,400 from middle school sports). Williamsburg-James City County’s pay-to-play fees took in $110,000.
Both divisions are confident they have found a way around concerns that they are asking too much of cash-strapped residents. In York County, for example, students will not be asked for the per-season fee more than twice in a school year, even if they play three sports, so a high school athlete will pay, at most, $120 annually. What’s more, both divisions reduce or waive the fee for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Still, critics point out that that safety net cannot account for every circumstance that may arise. Left out might be the students who do not even bother to try out to avoid having to affirm their free lunch status, not to mention those who are on the cusp, whose family might not qualify for nutritional assistance but nevertheless cannot swing the $60 on top of all the gear they would require just to play the sport.
Ashley has not noticed much of a decrease in athletic participation since York County implemented fees. If anything, he explains, the fee is having a secondary effect on the number of spectator season passes and booster club memberships being sold. Parents and other fans are now only buying about half the number of passes that they were pre-fee. When it comes to York County School Division’s core mission of offering a safe and comprehensive education to all children, he says, the athletic participation fee is a necessary if uncomfortable step to make that possible.