‘It’s a financial struggle’: School athletic officials grapple with lack of funds amid pandemic

Keeping Schools Safe

(WJHL) — Limited attendance leads to limited funds, and amid the pandemic when schools are unable to fill the bleachers at sporting events, athletic departments throughout the region continue to struggle with finances.

News Channel 11’s Anslee Daniel spoke with Dobyns-Bennett Athletic Director Frankie Debusk, who said the ongoing battle goes beyond the basketball court and affects the athletic department as an entirety.

“When you limit attendance, that means you limit your concessions because there are not as many people there to buy,” Debusk said. “When you limit attendance, that means you limit the money you’re taking in at the gate to help your program then you still have expenses that you have to pay regardless of how many people are at the game.”

Hosting home games costs departments — from gatekeepers and security guards to concessions for a limited audience.

Across the region, Hampton High School Athletic Director Dewayne Humphrey revealed that hosting home basketball games for a single night racks up to around $950, but with attendance limitations, athletic departments scrap to break even.

“Our gate goes to general athletics,” Humphrey said. “So, that supports all athletics here at Hampton High School. Most of the time our winter athletics — our winter sports — support spring sports, and our fall sports support our winter sports.”

Through Jan. 19, only immediate household families of athletes are permitted to attend athletic events, and before that, the stands were at a third capacity.

Humphrey said this led to around a 90% cut in Hampton High’s basketball revenue for the season.

Amid these limitations and plummet in funds, game officials faced $35-pay cuts for working double header games, according to TSSAA spokesperson Matthew Gillespie, who said this decrease helps give schools the ability to continue hosting these events.

“It does help alleviate the strain on the schools a little bit,” Gillespie said. “The officials are making a little less, but the positive is they’re still having three officials work each game.”

Departments now only have to pay $80 per official for a doubleheader game, which most nights are with boys and girls junior varsity and varsity games.

But one local referee brought up an additional issue to scheduling woes and the pay decrease — exposure to the novel coronavirus each event.

“I caught COVID this year at a gymnasium,” Jeff Francher said. “My wife caught COVID at a gymnasium. There’s been a lot of referees that have been out there refereeing that have become sick at a gym, Francher said. “Of course, we signed up for it. That’s, I guess, one of the hazards.”

Francher has been a TSSAA and NCAA referee for about 35 years. He told us there was a shortage of referees before the pandemic and he’s worried this will lead to more choosing not to work games.

“There were no negotiations. There was no ‘Would you be willing to help out?’ It was told to us to take that pay cut,” Francher said. “Some of us referees would probably come over there and referee a game for free because it’s for the kids.”

These financial troubles are expected to carry over into the spring sports season.

“You’re looking at baseball and softball and track and field and tennis and boys soccer, all five of those going on at the same time, that’s the most I think most schools deal with during one season,” Gillespie said. “So, it can be a financial strain and a lot of those sports are not revenue-based sports for a lot of schools and if they are, it’s very minimal.”

Some athletic departments worry the impact will go beyond the next season.

“We’ve had to tighten our budget here at Dobyns Bennett just to be able to be sure that we can provide spring sports for our spring student athletes, said DeBusk. “Moving forward into the next fiscal year, we could face even more challenges because we’re not making the money this year that we were counting on to keep our programs going.”

Despite the struggles, everyone is just thankful winter sports are still able to be played and are hopeful for the spring season, especially since those athletics were cut last year.

“Hopefully spring will be a little easier just being a little warmer outside, having all these outdoor events in outdoor facilities, hopefully that will lend to a more successful spring in regards to less spread,” said Gillespie.

For a complete list of TSSAA limitations, CLICK HERE.

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