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High-School Sports Turn To Corporations To Help Offset Costs

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The union of high-school athletics and corporate America grew stronger last week.

Texas' governing body for high-school sports was said by officials to be close to signing a deal that would make Coca-Cola its first of many hoped for big-name sponsors for championship athletic events. The move would put Texas on the growing list of state athletic associations that have turned to corporate sponsorship in recent years to offset program costs.

The stage was set, too, last week for corporate dollars to begin flowing to school sports at the national level.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, the organization that last year put together the first national television package for high-school sports, announced plans to seek major corporate sponsors.

The plan entails not only advertising for the high-school games shown on cable television's SportsChannel America, but also other promotional ventures involving the federation's magazines and drug-awareness programs. The group pledged, in addition, to help facilitate sponsorship deals with state associations.

"Private-sector involvement is essential to help ensure that interscholastic sports and activity programs flourish and remain available to every young person wanting to participate," said Brice B. Durbin, president of the national federation, in announcing Students in shape, or "Sports and Highschool Activities in Partnership with Enterprise."

The developments come amid heightened concern over the increasing "big time" cast to interscholastic sports.

In addition to last year's pact for nationally televised games and an increase in local coverage of high-school sports, the trend includes growth in the number of major invitational basketball tournaments, greater media and scouting attention to top college prospects, paid endorsements by high-school coaches for athletic gear, and other developments critics fear could subject high-school athletes to the same abuses seen at the college and professional level. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1989.)

But as sports and activities programs become more expensive to maintain, school officials have found that their traditional source of revenues--gate receipts from football and basketball--have not kept pace. And their answer has been to turn to corporations for support.

The Reebok Connection

One of the largest and best known corporate-sponsorship deals involves the California Interscholastic Federation, which two-and-a-half years ago signed a $1.9-million contract with Reebok International, the athletic-shoe manufacturer, and Coca-Cola.

The agreement was significant, because it allowed Reebok to put its name on state playoff events. Like the major college-football bowls, California's year-end competitions now carry names such as "CIF/Reebok State Track and Field Championships."

At least two other state associations, in Oregon and Utah, also allow name sponsors. In Utah, the logo of the state high-school activities association has been changed to include the symbol of the First Security Bank, one of three major sponsors in a three-year, $650,000 sponsorship deal.

"We haven't had one complaint," said Glen L. Beere, executive director of the Utah governing body. In the first year of the contract, he added, there was enough money left over to give each high school $1,100 to spend on athletics and other activities, such as speech and music.

The Utah sponsors not only get advertising and signage rights during championship events, but also may have their logos appear on banners that hang year-round in high-school gymnasiums throughout the state.

The Texas University Interscholastic League, that state's scholastic-sports governing body, has decided against allowing any sponsors to have their names in the title of state championships.

"We're not going to have a 'Coca-Cola state championship,"' said Bailey Marshall, the UIL's director. "They can have ads and be recognized, but it's still the schools' programs."

The UIL is completing an agreement with Coca-Cola expected to bring at least $250,000 per year, which is the minimum needed to become a "gold sponsor" under the request-for-sponsorship proposals the league has advertised recently.

The league is seeking one sponsor from each of 15 product categories, such as airlines, fast-food restaurants, and shoemakers. Depending on their level of contribution, sponsors will get advertising, banner space, public-address announcements, and other promotional benefits.

At least $100,000 from the league's first contract will go for academic scholarships, Mr. Marshall said, emphasizing the organization's belief that corporate sponsorships will not only provide extra funding for athletics, but also aid the schools' educational mission.

'Untapped Market' for Agents

The Texas move is unusual, in that the governing body is attempting to launch a sponsorship program on its own, without the help of a major sports-marketing agent.

"We decided to control it ourselves," said Mr. Marshall. The UIL will also avoid paying an agent's cut, which can run upwards of 25 percent of the total package.

The California, Utah, and Oregon deals were among several negotiated for the state associations by School Properties U.S.A. Inc. of Yorba Linda, Calif., a leading agency in this budding marketing arena.

Don Baird, a former Olympic pole-vaulter and president of the firm, said he looks at high-school activities and sees 1.2 billion annual paying spectators, including the 11 million high-school students who annually spend more than $2,300 each.

"To say this is an untapped market is putting it mildly," Mr. Baird said. He argued that state associations are too inexperienced at marketing to make their own sponsorship deals.

"It's a slow process, because associations say they might not want to give a percentage," he said. "But I say to them, 'Do you want to keep 100 percent of $50, or 50 percent of $1,000?"'

The Utah activities association,which got its $650,000 deal through School Properties, verified his claim. "We tried to do it on our own, but $10,000 was all we were able to get," said Mr. Beere.

Now, School Properties' Mr. Baird is involved with the National Federation project, which, under the rubric of business support to education, is looking for major companies to defray the costs of scholastic sports.

"We're canvassing the country for sponsors to put in $1 million to $2 million," said Bob Hope, executive vice president of the Burson-Marsteller public-relations firm, which is also working with the federation.

Under the program, sponsors would have advertising on SportsChannel's high-school sports broadcasts, as well as banners at game sites. Further advertising and promotional opportunities would be available through the federation's magazine for students, High School Sports, as well as its target drug-education program.

School Properties would be enlisted to help make deals between the federation's national sponsors and state athletic associations.

"Traditionally, state associations have relied on ticket sales," said Warren S. Brown, the federation's assistant executive director. "Why shouldn't they tap into the private sector for funding? I don't see that this is something that's going to be harmful. You're not going to see kids running around with commercial armbands."

But some observers say they are worried that the commercialization of school sports could lead to a shift in priorities from academics to athletics.

"There is certainly a reason to be concerned," said Richard E. Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "We have to make sure these athletes are getting what they are there to get."

"These corporate sponsors would be performing a tremendous public service," Mr. Lapchick added, "if they would tie their sponsorship to a demand for higher academic standards for athletic participation."

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