JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If the Friday night lights go dark, what happens next?
A fall without high school football as fans are accustomed to was unfathomable months ago. But the reality of football without stands full of fans and cheering sections is no longer just a cruel, far-off projection.
Three weeks before the 2020 season was originally scheduled to kick off in Florida, the uncertainty spans from Pensacola to the edge of the Florida Keys due to a pandemic that just isn’t ready to end.
If there are games in 2020 — the COVID-19 pandemic controls that schedule — the revenue that football creates and the opportunities that it provides to other athletic teams are going to be significantly affected. The only question is just how much financial carnage will the coronavirus leave in its wake for school districts in the area?
Will games be played in front of fans? If so, how much will attendance be limited due to social distancing guidelines and caps on public gatherings? If multiple coronavirus outbreaks occur in certain districts, which is bound to happen — schools don’t actually test athletes for COVID-19 — will that shut things down for the rest of the year?
If the football revenue that helps fund the bulk of athletic departments shrinks as much as expected, could other sports that depend on that money go away entirely like they have at an alarming pace on the college level?
Those involved in high school sports have wondered silently that if this was just about safety alone, then it wouldn’t be a question on whether or not sports would be played in the fall.
But football is so financially vital to the survival of athletic departments and the governing associations themselves that there is a significant pressure to push the boundaries and make it work somehow, at least until COVID-19 dictates otherwise.
“This is 100% about football. They [Florida High School Athletic Association] said it’s a meeting about fall sports. It’s not,” said one area athletic director who asked not to be identified. “This whole rush back is 100% driven by football. Period.”
For athletic directors and district athletic offices, the concerns go beyond just the Friday night lights. The financial ramifications of no spring sports, coupled with playing football with limits on fans, presents a set of problems that will take painful account balancing to smooth out.
Students want to return to the field and compete. Schools — from high school to the very top of college football — need football to return to the field and the fans in the stands.
Through public record requests and data provided by county athletic offices that focused solely on ticket revenue and not variables such as concessions or fundraisers, pay to play or booster club contributions, News4Jax took a look at just how integral football programs are at area public high schools in Camden, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Glynn, Nassau and St. Johns counties.
The pandemic has the potential to radically alter high school sports for seasons beyond 2020.
Football pays the bills
If the games go on with reduced numbers of fans in the stands due to fears about coronavirus transmission, how much would schools stand to lose? In gross ticket revenue alone from the counties that News4Jax looked at, that is in excess of more than $1.5 million across 38 football programs. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like an alarming number. But consider how far that revenue stretches. Football covers its bills and fills the gap in the internal school account for the bulk of the other sports programs that can’t support themselves.
Would some athletic teams disappear entirely like we’ve seen at the collegiate level? The area deals with hurricanes on what seems like an annual basis, but those typically have a beginning and an end. A game, maybe two, get scratched. The remainder of the season goes on.
A pandemic is a moving target that no one can see.
Clay County district athletic director John Sgromolo said that athletic budgets during normal times are already difficult due to the rising costs associated with sports that few going to a game even know about. This year alone sees the financial burdens increase with the implementation of the Zachary Martin Act meant to prevent heat illness, as well as the cost of officials for games whose paychecks will nearly double after staying the same since the 2014-15 school year.
Not playing football would save on expenses, sure. On the extreme low end for a team in Florida, that’s roughly $45,000 a year when factoring in coach supplements, transportation, equipment and officials. Football is the most expensive sport by far for schools to play.
In Duval County, every time that a team took the field for a home game last year, it cost no less than $3,105, which covered the big three basics: security, game officials and medical personnel. Multiply that by five home games and that’s a bare minimum of $15,525 for a basic, no-frills Gateway Conference home season.
That doesn’t include coaching supplement pay (which is picked up by the county), travel costs, lighting or field expenses, anything related to uniforms or helmet reconditioning.
But playing football with a limited number of fans in the stands would set off a chain reaction of damage because it helps offset financial losses across the spectrum of sports that don’t generate revenue. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force has kept a large portion of the state in phase two. Under that protocol, it says, “Large spectator sporting events should limit occupancy of venues to 50 percent of building capacity and use strict social distancing.” Individual counties can tighten those restrictions even further.
The worry is having to shoulder the full financial brunt of football with only the potential to recoup a fraction of what programs are accustomed to.
“You have to have football to have other sports,” said Glynn County district athletic director Steve Waters. “Really, football and basketball are revenue-producing sports and there really aren’t any others. I don’t see how we can have baseball, volleyball, cross country unless we have a football season. And when we have a football season, we have to make sure we are making money so we can provide for all these other teams.”
Whatever money is left over after football pays for its expenses goes to help cover shortages elsewhere in the athletic department as a whole. It might not fund everything athletically, but a solid football program covers quite a bit elsewhere. Several athletic directors estimate that roughly five varsity sports can actually support themselves and not lose money.
“The loss of income during the spring from the cancellation of spring sports, multiple schools weren’t able to hold baseball, softball, spring football, track meets, etcetera,” Sgromolo said. “While those things were paused, the everyday fixed-cost expenses did not go away. So then you get to a point where you have no revenue coming in and expenses going out, which is a bad situation.”
Football under the current conditions is in a similar spot. Expenses are still going out and revenue for 2020 is nowhere a sure thing.
Using the median income for football programs in Clay, Camden, Duval, Glynn, Nassau and St. Johns counties, as well as tradition-rich Columbia High School in Lake City, this gives an idea of what these programs bring in and just how much COVID-19 would impact the bottom lines of these schools.
- At Camden County in Kingsland, Georgia, one of the best Friday night experiences in southern Georgia, the Wildcats had $84,823.57 in ticket revenue in 2019. That number was lower than expected due to the loss of a home game due to a hurricane cancellation. Athletic director Welton Coffey said the loss of revenue from that home game and the additional loss of revenue from when sports in Georgia were wiped out in spring forced the program to cut the budget for each athletic team at the school for 2020-21.
- In Clay County, the median ticket revenue for the county’s seven teams — Clay, Fleming Island, Keystone Heights, Middleburg, Oakleaf, Orange Park and Ridgeview — was $51,201 for both varsity and junior varsity football in 2019, according to former county athletic director Mike Wingate.
- At Columbia, the Tigers had $52,831.60 in varsity ticket revenue in 2019.
- In Duval County and the 17 programs of the Gateway Conference, the median revenue in 2019 for regular-season varsity and junior varsity programs was right at $35,000, according to county athletic director Tammie Talley.
- In Glynn County, which includes Brunswick and Glynn Academy, the total football revenue for 2019 was $236,274. That total does include a portion of fundraising revenue from all sports passes and season tickets that are distributed to businesses, said Waters, the district athletic director.
- In Nassau County, the median among Fernandina Beach, Hilliard, West Nassau and Yulee was $28,708.
- In St. Johns County, the median among the six public school programs — Bartram Trail, Creekside, Menendez, Nease, Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine — was $85,967.11 for varsity and junior varsity games in the 2018 season, the last year for which data was available.
Those numbers vary significantly from county to county and school to school. Naturally, larger schools with successful programs bring in the highest football revenue.
In Clay County, those are Fleming Island and Oakleaf, which brought in in excess of $60,000 through varsity and junior varsity games in 2019. St. Johns County programs Nease ($104,557) and Creekside ($94,708) brought in a substantial amount of revenue during their 2018 seasons.
Those numbers will look different from year to year based on who hosts rivalry games. Nease’s and Creekside’s totals are significantly higher for the 2018 season because they served as host to their biggest rivals, Ponte Vedra and Bartram Trail, respectively.
Football funds other sports
What sports actually make money after expenses at the high school level? Fewer than many people realize.
There are 22 sanctioned sports offered by the Florida High School Athletic Association and 21 were offered by programs in the region last year, ranging from basketball to weightlifting. Water polo is not played by area schools.
The 22 will grow to 24 sanctioned sports for the 2021-22 school year when girls wrestling and girls sand volleyball are implemented by the state. Expenses across high school sports were already on the rise, and budgets are already facing cuts due to the pandemic, which is partially why the FHSAA agreed to push the start of the new sports off a year.
Sports like bowling and golf will always be in the red because schools have to rent time on lanes or at golf courses. Schools without on-campus swimming pools have to rent pools, say at a YMCA.
While it varies from school to school, responses from athletic directors in counties mentioned above put the number at roughly five sports that do not lose money when expenses are added in.
On the low end, one athletic director said that only football and boys basketball made money at their school. On the high end, another athletic director said that six sports at their school finished out of the red in the last full year of high school sports (2018-19) and were able to fully support themselves.
At a school that fields varsity teams in the maximum 21 sports in the area, that means an exceptional year at the ticket booth includes just 15 sports teams failing to break even. Individual teams do fundraising that helps, but even in the best of years there aren’t enough car washes or bake sales or discount coupon books to be sold that will help pull a non-revenue sport like golf or tennis out of the negative.
Football revenue shores up those financial losses.
In Glynn County, revenue from every sport at Brunswick and Glynn Academy totaled $68,671. Football alone brought in nearly 3½ times that amount. Expenses for all sports in Glynn County were right at $300,000, Glynn County’s Waters said.
Across the board, boys basketball is behind football in providing schools with consistent revenue. Columbia, for instance, had a very good financial year in boys basketball. With preseason, district and playoff games, the Tigers had 20 home dates in 2019-20 and showed $29,831.30 in revenue.
Baseball and softball are two sports that can also finish in the black. On a good year, soccer would be fifth. At certain schools like Fleming Island and Clay, sports like lacrosse and wrestling, respectively, can often support themselves and produce revenue.
“On the average, your boys basketball, baseball and softball make money, and sometimes soccer. Then again, that’s just the key games. Rest of your sports, you don’t make money,” said First Coast High football coach and athletic director Marty Lee. “No ticket revenue for tennis, golf, swimming. Let’s just say you don’t make $500 [at an event]. You’re losing money. People don’t realize the operating costs. They really don’t.”
Costs are rising
Those operating costs are substantial and ticking up every year.
In Duval County, the lowest expense incurred for a night of varsity football by a Gateway Conference program was $3,105 in 2019. And there are programs in Duval County that don’t reach that number in ticket sales when they host a game on Friday night.
What makes up that total? The three largest visible expenses right off the bat on Friday nights are security, officials and medical personnel services.
In Duval and St. Johns counties, having an ambulance on site for games ranges from $350 to $460. Ambulance services for high school games in Clay County are donated, said Wingate, the former county athletic director. Officials, either five or six of them, earned no lower than $65 apiece, plus pay for travel.
A clock operator earned $34 per game. Ticket takers and game managers earn hourly pay. Security totals vary by the officer who is working the game but ranged from a low of $105 to a high of $222 in records that News4Jax obtained.
For a school like Creekside in St. Johns County, just those three categories alone meant a tab of $20,007.50 in 2018.
Of course, that was in the past and those costs are rising, too, which presents new challenges during a time where athletic budgets will be strained.
The FHSAA voted to raise officials’ pay beginning this year, boosting game officials’ pay to $111 apiece for those who travel less than 50 miles to work a game and to $121 each for those who travel 50 miles or more. Clock operators will earn $70 per game. For a five-man crew and clock operator from within the 50-mile radius, that base rate jumps from $359 (plus mileage) under last year’s criteria to $625 for the same crew this year. It is the first pay raise for officials in six years.
The biggest parts of the expense pie that schools have to cover themselves are security and officials. While officials tend to be a fixed number (five officials, play clock and game clock operators), security totals can balloon depending on the opponent.
Duval County never has fewer than six police officers and that number can multiply quickly for a major game. For an intense rivalry game like Raines-Ribault, voted by players annually as the best on the First Coast, security bills are in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Those are just three of the top expenses for teams hosting games.
The not-so-obvious expenses come from things like replacing or updating uniforms or equipment. Helmet reconditioning is a major expense for programs. The National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association recommends reconditioning and recertification annually, although certain helmet manufacturers say it can happen every other year. Those bills number in the thousands of dollars depending on how many helmets go through the reconditioning process during one calendar cycle.
Uniforms and equipment costs can climb about as high as a program wants to take them. If an average-size Class 5A program elected to update its helmet and uniform combination, replace its broken or worn-down gear and replenish basic equipment, it could easily see a bill in excess of $30,000 in one year.
This year, the addition of face coverings or face shields as a way to guard against potential coronavirus transmission is on the discussion table. One face covering that attaches to a helmet, Schutt’s Splash, retails for $24.99 for a set. Even buying one shield per player on a 75-person team at a discount would equate to more than $1,500. And not every player or their family would be in a financial position to spend extra money on equipment.
If schools had to pay their true football costs, even the most successful public schools in the area would finish in the red. Absorbing coaching supplements alone would push teams into the negative.
In Duval County, the football coaching supplements for the head coach and seven assistant positions is $21,233. In St. Johns County, total football supplemental pay is not to exceed $27,863, according to the last district supplemental contract. In Nassau County, the coaching supplement for a 60-player roster (head coach and one assistant coach per 10 players) would come in at $22,742. In Clay County, a head coach and four paid assistant supplements come to $22,538. Those numbers can fluctuate depending on the school and higher or lower numbers of assistant coaches.
What does less revenue mean?
It’s not a scare tactic to bring up the possibility of canceled football games or those without a traditional-sized audience for a portion or all of the year.
In fact, that’s the reality of what districts are preparing for as COVID-19 protocols keep large gatherings restricted. And without those fans in the stands buying tickets and making trips to the concession stand, it’s a sobering thought.
Mark Rosenbalm, the director of athletics for Collier County Public Schools, said during an FHSAA Fall Sports Task Force meeting last month that the potential for limited crowds at football games is a significant concern for school districts.
“You brought up the financial aspects. That’s a major concern, I think, for everybody right now because if we can’t have large group outings and we’re going to bear the expense of football, but we’re not going to get the money coming in for football, we’re not going to afford any sport in our schools,” he said.
“… Every district is different, but financially, has the FHSAA thought of how we’re going to pay for our programs -- because football usually pays for all of our programs -- if fans are limited to 250, 500, whatever the governor puts out there?”
Bradford football coach Brian Tomlinson said that just the thought of a season that deviates too much from the norm is difficult to think about from a playing perspective. Coaches and their assistants are tasked with taking temperatures, asking players health-related questions and repeating the process every day to spot any potential signs for COVID-19.
The financial ramifications are another challenge altogether.
“I think it would affect us in a pretty bad way. A school our size, they really depend on football. We have several sports that are able to provide their own revenue, but football is always the real money maker. We utilize advertisements at football games and that helps pay for some sports. We understand as coaches, that’s just how it’s done. It’s done that way at the next level, too,” Tomlinson said.
“It’s very scary thinking about going through a fall and not having football. How is the game day going to look now? We don’t know. We’re a copycat society [follow what the NCAA or neighboring states do] when it comes to this.”
Professional sports have absorbed billions of dollars in revenue loss already due to playing in empty venues. Forbes estimated that if the NFL held games without fans in the stands, it would lose in the neighborhood of $5.5 billion in 2020. The Jaguars announced that they would reduce capacity at TIAA Bank Field by 75% to begin the season. The New York Jets and Giants won’t have fans at all. The University of Wisconsin said it stands to lose more than $100 million if football games aren’t played this year.
The FHSAA stands to lose a significant amount, too.
The association reported a $16,000 increase in net income from its football championships from 2018 to 2019, putting the revenue from the championships at roughly $137,000 after expenses. In 2018, the football state championship games alone accounted for 36.1% of the association’s net income from its full menu of 23 championship events.
The organization said it lost $500,000 due to COVID-19 wiping out its spring season, including spring football games. The FHSAA receives 20% of gross receipts or between $200 and $600 (depending on classification) for spring football games, whichever number is less. In fall classics, the percentage stays the same, but the baseline is between $450 and $1,150.
A later start date to the season in Florida — the week of Sept. 7 is now the target for kickoff classics or Week 1 of the regular season — is what is penciled in now following a second emergency board vote. The reversal by the FHSAA board came in a 72-hour span after the organization was shellacked for voting to keep the athletics calendar the same, despite most of the state being in an unrealistic position to begin on time.
As individual districts opted to push back practice dates by the dozen and medical advice was given more credibility, the FHSAA board reversed its stance and pushed back practice by nearly a month.
The next question is will the FHSAA extend the regular season or push whatever playoff format back so that teams have the ability to play more regular-season games. That should get further clarity by mid-August and several proposals are currently being discussed by the fall sports advisory committees.
The Georgia High School Association, too, pushed its regular season back by two weeks but voted to keep its 10-game regular season and full five-week playoff slate intact, a testament to just how vital football is to high schools. Its championship games will now be held Dec. 28-30, provided COVID-19 doesn’t send the season there into unforeseen turmoil.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the GHSA has reported 655 positive COVID-19 results since conditioning began on June 8. Full contact practices in pads have yet to start. The FHSAA is not tracking those numbers publicly.
‘Talking about the unknown’
Athletic offices are having conversations about how to mitigate as humanely as possible those cuts that will have to come from this to the rest of the sports program as a whole.
“We’re talking about the unknown,” Wingate said. “The world is hard to predict. Exactly what ticket sales will we have? If we have less ticket sales, we may have to rely more on fundraisers to help out to cover those shortages. It’s just so hard to say right now.”
Bartram Trail athletic director Ben Windle said that budgets are going to have to be tailored to just the basics for the foreseeable future as districts navigate the unknown.
“You have to make sure we’re providing essentials to our student-athletes. When I say essentials, I mean paying for officials, security, transportation,” Windle said. “This is going to be a year, maybe two, where we get away from the bells and whistles. But that’s OK. To me, it’s just going to be a constant reevaluation of your budget and making sure you’re being smart.
“At the end of the day, we all have to be solution-oriented and find solutions and be grateful we have a chance to go compete.”
Could we see some sports disappear at the high school level, at least in the short term, due to the pandemic? It’s unlikely, but the topic has at least been brought up. Smaller private schools could potentially see sports teams postpone a season.
“Being in the education business is about developing the whole child. From the academic perspective, kids that are involved in sports, really anything extracurricular, drama club, band ... is that it affects them in a positive way. I don’t think leaders think that’s [cutting sports] a good idea of what’s best for kids.”John Sgromolo, Clay County district athletic director
Title IX law would limit female sports programs being cut, but reductions in games are a possibility. Are 25 games in volleyball a necessity this year? Is taking a cross country team to a meet in Tallahassee worth the travel cost? Does the entire football team need to go to an away game?
More likely than dumping entire sports is a combination of cuts across the board to spread out the impact. Fewer games and significantly reduced travel are the first things mentioned. No overnight trips unless absolutely mandatory.
Several area football coaches across a sampling of north Florida counties have said that they would be in favor of playing only schools from within a one-, two- or three-county radius and crowning a local or regional champion. Leon County just announced a county-only schedule this week.
A local-only schedule would reduce travel costs and allow teams to face other teams that are following the same safety protocols. Playing the same opponent twice in the regular season is also a possibility if schools lose a regularly scheduled game.
Think that sports couldn’t briefly go away? One area district has been down this path before and put that exact topic on the table.
In 2011, the Duval County Public Schools board faced such a dire economic situation that a proposal was made to eliminate sports. Not one or two sports programs. All of them.
It eventually shifted into eliminating non-revenue sports like cross country, golf, lacrosse, slow-pitch softball, tennis and wrestling while also staying in compliance with Title IX laws. Through a combination of fundraising and public discussion, the option to eliminate sports was eventually averted.
But the pandemic has wreaked havoc in ways that haven’t been felt before.
As of July 17, a site tracking cuts at the college level lists 1,217 sports teams in the college ranks — junior college through NCAA Division I — that have been cut, dropped or suspended with no return listed. The number is so high because it includes multiple teams (men’s and women’s) at the same school. The site also lists 273 colleges across 12 conferences that have postponed or announced plans for fall sports to compete in the spring.
In limited data that covered less than one-third of its membership, the FHSAA said last month that four high schools in the state have already decided that they would not field a sports program in 2020-21.
“I don’t know if every school will play the maximum number of games in team sports, especially when you have to travel, if we’re not allowed to have fans in football,” said Lee, First Coast High football coach and athletic director. “It will have a major impact on every high school in the state of Florida. I don’t care who you are. Those are just facts. If you don’t have football making those gate receipts, you’re going to be devastated.”
Options for revenue
Among the counties prefaced, one area district has participation fees — commonly referred to as pay to play — in high school sports.
St. Johns County implemented that in 1998, and it has become an important piece of the athletic funding pie. Fees are different at each school.
Athletic booster clubs help fill in the gaps, too. St. Johns County programs have the most significant booster clubs on the First Coast.
The top ones there are Ponte Vedra’s PV Sharks Booster Club, which had $844,669 in its most recent filings for the 2017 tax year. Nease’s Golden Panther Booster Club reported $431,818 and the Bartram Bears Athletic Booster Club showed a 2017 total of $287,914. Alongside the participation fees, those booster clubs afford schools more resources from which to pull. But St. Johns County, annually rated one of the best districts in the state, is also the wealthiest in Florida.
The goal in most counties is for athletic programs as a whole to be able to be self-supported (outside of funds that they receive from districts to handle things like supplements, some security and some transportation). Even in a far better financial situation than most, St. Johns County district athletic director Paul Abbatinozzi said that schools there will no doubt have to plan for the loss in revenue and get creative in doing so.
“Let’s say hypothetically we do lose spectators for a semester, right, and I hope that doesn’t happen. I think some decisions for the following year are going to be impacted in that, as well,” he said. “You know, maybe that’s not the year you have a new uniform cycle. Maybe that’s not the year you take a trip that you had planned for, you know, a large scale overnight trip with an out-of-county opponent. So I think this is, it’s not just going to have the current year impact, right. I think the impact could be felt possibly the next year.
“We have some great relationships with business partners, outstanding booster organizations. So, you know, we’re going to continue to foster that. But you said a number [$85,967.11]. … Yeah, that’s a big missing piece for a year.”
Glynn County’s Waters said that everything is up for discussion, including the implementation of a participation fee in that county in the future. Districts have avoided pay-to-play fees because it is seen as a roadblock for students to participate. Former Duval County district athletic director Jon Fox proposed a pay-to-play fee during the county’s two-year battle with rising sports costs and a ballooning district budget in 2011-12, but it was scuttled.
Several coaches in the area have brought up the participation fee as the looming harsh reality of sports at public schools and liken it as a less-expensive option than travel and club sports.
With costs on the rise annually to maintain high school athletic programs, raising ticket prices or initiating fees that are passed on to athletes and their families are two areas to look at to bolster revenue. Some schools that haven’t streamed games online before have explored that option and charging for it.
What immediate relief is there for districts in terms of athletics?
School districts are no doubt in search of new revenue streams or donations. Talley, the Duval County district athletic director, said that the district has been approached by sponsors and supporters, including the Jaguars, about ways to help, including with cleaning supplies and equipment.
“We do need additional funds and anything that we can get from our community to help us out, and the gate receipts, having the fans come in the gate, that helps pay a lot of the expenses, but we’re not knowing what that’s going to look like,” she said. “Because if we’re having to limit our capacity, then that limits the funds that we have to not only pay our football bills, but ultimately pay all of the other non-revenue generating sports.”
In Glynn County, the district has weighed different combinations of ticket packages for Brunswick and Glynn Academy programs and discussed limiting travel to players on the two-deep depth chart so it doesn’t have to bring so many players on the road. Do schools still bring cheerleaders and bands to games? Travel expenses will have to increase due to social distancing and having to take more buses to games.
“If you socially distance correctly on an 84-passenger bus, you can only take 27. So we’re going to have to take extra buses, you know, which is extra revenue. Fundraising is going to be tough to do this year. Will people still come to games? You have to plan on reduced crowds, probably, so that’s going to hit us,” Waters said.
“As you said, officials’ costs are going up. Equipment costs went up this year. Uniform costs [went up]. So there’s a lot of revenue expenditures that are still there. And the revenue’s not there right now. It’s pretty stressful to be in an athletic director’s seat right now.”
Coffey, the Camden County athletic director, said that the biggest challenge at this point is planning for something that could look far different next month.
“Football is your biggest draw, football gate receipts, if you will, is the biggest part of your budget,” Coffey said.
“If we don’t have a football season, the repercussions from that are going to be huge. I’m not saying we absolutely need to have one [a season] because of that. I value human life and the safety of our student-athletes and coaches more than anything else. If we don’t [have a season], we’ll have to look at ways to minimize costs and contemplate those things that are quote, essential. Nobody likes that [mindset]. Anything that goes beyond something essential may be a situation where it may have to be cut.”