Some Aren’t Sold on It, but Corporate Sponsors Catch On in High Schools : Prep Idea Whose Price Has Come
Tom Danley has sold more pancakes than you can shake a spatula at and enough Christmas trees to fill a forest. He has raffled off cars and organized track meets and is in the midst of putting together a bingo program.
He needs the money. He always needs the money. Danley has been the athletic director at Anaheim’s Katella High School for 16 years and knows that an athletic program is as vulnerable as the local mini-market when funds run dry.
He also knows how hard that money is to raise. So when the Southern Section began courting corporate sponsors in 1976 to help pay its operating costs, Danley understood and encouraged it.
“You can’t have it happen without money,” he said.
Danley had been on the cutting edge of corporate sponsorship for high schools in the mid-1970s when the Orange County Athletic Directors Assn., an organization he helped found, accepted sponsorship from a soft-drink company. Danley even amused himself with the idea of getting a corporate sponsor for Katella High.
“I was thinking of something like the Katella Nissan Knights,” he said.
But, with corporate sponsorship in the Southern Section steadily increasing since its initial $35,000 arrangement with Dr. Pepper 12 years ago, Danley’s musings have taken on a prophetic air. And like many of his peers, who admit that there is a real need for corporate sponsorship, Danley is starting to wonder how much money high school organizations can accept before corporations start calling the shots.
“It’s really a fine line you travel,” Danley said. “You need the money, but how far do you go before you sell your soul?”
Agreements with 11 sponsors for more than $200,000 make up 21.8% of the Southern Section’s $971,000 budget--which goes to rent facilities for championship events, print schedules and informational booklets and pay its 15-person staff. Southern Section officials estimate that the figure will rise to 25% by the 1992-93 school year.
The California Interscholastic Federation, the body that oversees the state’s 10 athletic sections and runs the state championships in eight sports, followed the Southern Section’s lead in 1987 and signed a $1.2-million, 3-year agreement with Reebok and Coca-Cola.
The CIF disburses the funds it receives through sponsorship agreements to the 10 sections, according to Tom Byrnes, CIF commissioner. And that money helps each section stage its championship events--in as many as 12 boys’ sports and 9 girls’ sports.
Which means that anyone attending one of these high school championship events can expect to see a Reebok banner prominently displayed and a table loaded with Reebok shoes set up somewhere on the grounds with a sales representative sitting behind it.
Over the next 2 weeks, all 10 sections will meet separately to vote on whether to authorize the CIF to negotiate with Yorba Linda-based School Properties Inc. to market the CIF name on T-shirts, mugs, key chains, et al. Don Baird, president of School Properties, arranged the Reebok/Coca-Cola deal for the CIF and believes that corporate sponsorship in high school sports is in its infancy.
"(High school administrators) don’t know what they’re sitting on,” Baird said. “We think this could be something very big.”
Which is the kind of talk that makes the likes of Danley smile--and wince.
Corporate dollars are viewed as a frightening intrusion by some who see high school athletics as one of the last bastions of true amateur competition. The same person who accepts the USF&G; Sugar Bowl or the Shearson Lehman Hutton Open as a fact of the bottom line may have a hard time swallowing the Southern Section CIF-Reebok-West Coast Netting Girls’ Volleyball Championships, or Gatorade as “the official thirst quencher of the Southern Section.”
“High school sports are not about making money or promoting someone else’s ability to make money,” said Dennis Evans, Newport Harbor High School principal, and one of the most influential administrators outside the formal Southern Section structure.
But, to others, corporate sponsorship is not only a necessity of modern education but a godsend, the logical product of slashed education budgets and increased demands by high schools.
“These people have got to realize that someone is going to have to pay for all of this,” said Larry Zucker, Southern Section administrator in charge of procuring and maintaining corporate sponsors. “If it’s not going to be the corporations, it’s going to be the schools and the parents. Do they really want to do that? Can they afford to do that?”
In the Southern Section, for example, member high schools pay annual dues of 23 cents a student. According to Southern Section officials, without corporate sponsorship, that figure would be nearly three times as high.
Similar issues are popping up throughout the country as corporate sponsorship of high school sports, an idea that had its birth in Southern California, spreads.
The Oregon High School Activities Assn., which runs high school athletics, was in dire straits, having exhausted its reserve funds 5 years ago. Then it signed a 5-year, $750,000 deal with U.S. Bank of Oregon.
The Utah High School Activities Assn. recently signed a 3-year, $650,000 contract with First Security Bank of Utah, Hardees of Utah and the Utah Dairy Commission.
Corporate dollars support high school sports in Indiana, $250,000 a year; North Carolina, $200,000; Washington, $200,000, and Colorado, $100,000.
It was in 1980, when Ray Plutko took over as commissioner, that the Southern Section aggressively went after sponsors. Byrnes, who preceded Plutko and went on to become the CIF commissioner, got the Dr. Pepper deal. But Plutko, with Zucker as his point man, broadened the idea.
“When we started, there were absolutely no guidelines,” Zucker said. “It was like there was an electric fence out there and I just kept going until I hit it and got a little shock. Then I started over again.”
Journeying into uncharted territory, Plutko and Zucker built the model that other state associations are copying.
“Ray Plutko and the Southern Section are the pioneers,” said Charlie Adams, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Activities Assn. “Everyone has learned from them.”
Plutko balks at any suggestion that he was a visionary in this area.
“I just thought it would work,” he said. “I think the rush (by other high school organizations) to get involved has been a lot quicker than I would have anticipated. But I’m no genius. I simply reacted to a need. Very simply, the needs of our schools had doubled, but their ability to pay for them had not.”
Plutko and Zucker put together packages that would made it attractive for sponsors to get involved with high school sports. Packages that included advertising in championship programs, banners placed prominently at championship events and announcements promoting the sponsor’s product during breaks in action. The minimum price of sponsorship was--and still is--$5,000 a year.
“Cash,” Zucker emphasizes.
But what comes with the money?
“I think the main concern of everyone who gets involved is, ‘Will we lose any control? Will there be any strings attached to the money?’ ” said Warren Brown, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Athletic Assns.
Meet the entwined Fountain Valley High School football team. Fountain Valley didn’t just win a football championship at the end of the 1988 season, it won the--take a deep breath--Division I Southern Section/California Interscholastic Federation/Reebok/Jack-In-The-Box Football Championship game in Anaheim Stadium.
It won it in Anaheim Stadium because corporate sponsorship dollars made it possible for the Southern Section to rent the facility, which costs about $25,000. People such as Zucker warn that if sponsorship is lost, so may the likes of Anaheim Stadium.
Now, a month after winning its Southern Section/CIF etc., etc. football championship, what does Fountain Valley have to show?
Certainly not the official Southern Section/CIF logo on its championship rings. The company Fountain Valley chose to make its rings was not the Southern Section’s official awards company. That’s Herff Jones of Indianapolis. And only Herff Jones, by virtue of its sponsorship agreement with the Southern Section, can use the official logo.
Still, Mike Milner, the logo-less football coach at Fountain Valley, says he believes in corporate sponsorship.
“We need it.”
But others remain unconvinced. The Illinois High School Activities Assn. has been considering accepting corporate dollars for 3 years, but has yet to take the jump.
“Educators aren’t businessmen,” said Liz Aztroth, Illinois commissioner. “We like to move safe, sure and slow, like a turtle. You have to be able to convince your people that your power will not be usurped.”
Apparently also unconvinced is the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education, which funds the 49 high school athletic programs of the Los Angeles City Section. The City Section does receive a cut of the CIF deal with Reebok/Coca-Cola--that money is divided among all 10 sections--but hasn’t gone after corporate sponsors.
“It’s a philosophical thing,” said Hal Harkness, City Section commissioner. “We could do that, but I’m not sure that would be popular with the board. They prefer to have control.”
Danley said that the Southern Section has already lost some of that control by allowing corporate names in the titles of section championship events.
“I differ when instead of promoting the high school event, we’re promoting a sponsor’s product,” he said. “I think it should strictly be the Southern Section/CIF football championship or whatever. Underneath we can put the sponsor’s name. I have no problem with that. They deserve that for putting in the money. But when we start incorporating sponsors’ names into our championships, we lose our identity.”
Evans said that may have already happened. For 17 years he was the principal at Corona del Mar High School, a school that has had more than its share of athletic success. But Evans describes the Corona del Mar trophy case, as “a wall of advertising. A billboard.”
Some coaches and administrators aren’t bothered by the prominent display of sponsors’ names on trophies.
“A trophy’s a trophy,” Milner said.
But others are.
“I think it’s really tacky,” Evans said. “I know a lot of people who really wince at it when they see it. What a travesty sports has become if everything, even in high school, has to have a sponsor’s name hanging on it.”
Of course, if it had been up to Zucker: “I would have stenciled the Jack-In-The-Box logo in each of the (football) end zones and at midfield. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
What Zucker sees is that the Southern Section has not had to raise its dues to member schools a significant amount for some time.
Zucker, who has heard the criticism since he came to work for the Southern Section as a promotions manager in 1982, believes that high school athletics have something to offer.
“We show companies they can either increase sales or improve their identity by being involved with high school kids and high school sports,” Zucker said. “We’re not a charity. We’re partners in this thing.”
Said Wilson Sporting Goods’ Harry Brown: “We’re always trying to expose our name. It’s an up-front form of advertising.”
The California Army National Guard pays the Southern Section $7,500.
“This is an excellent market for us,” said Sgt. Mike Curtland. “We’re reaching the type of kids we need to reach.”
Ken Conlin runs Conlin Bros. Sporting Goods and calls the $5,000 he gave the Southern Section “a good investment.”
He knows that many of the large corporations that invest in the Southern Section--the Ford Motor Co., for example--do so to help their public image, which might translate into greater car sales as well.
“It’s not strictly PR for me,” Conlin said. “I’m in the business and I’m looking for a direct return. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”
Zucker said: “We’re equal partners. Well, not equal, because we believe we are always in control.”
To illustrate that point, Zucker’s favorite anecdote has to do with the Southern Section basketball tournament in the Sports Arena in the early 1980s. A representative of McDonald’s restaurants, then a Southern Section sponsor, approached Commissioner Plutko and told him what a great idea it would be to have the company’s mascot, Ronald McDonald, shoot free throws during halftime.
Plutko said no, and kept saying no.
McDonald’s did not come back as a sponsor.
“OK, we lost them, but we got someone else (Carl’s Jr., later replaced by Jack-In-The-Box),” Zucker said. “It was more important to retain control and to let them know who was in charge.”
The Southern Section does that with contracts that it demands be followed to the letter, so there can be no last-minute surprises.
Still, Plutko, now the commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Assn., doesn’t ease fears much when he says, “If McDonald’s would have asked the same thing when we were writing up the contract, chances are Ronald McDonald would have been shooting free throws.”