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No tickets, no hot dogs: Bare stands could ding York County school districts

ROB ROSE
717-505-5418/@robrosesports
Chambersburg vs Red Lion in Friday night football action at Horn Field in Red Lion, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

While coaches, parents and players across the state wonder whether there will be a fall sports season, schools have another question to answer: Can they afford to play games without revenue from fans?

High school athletics don’t turn a profit, but in a time when school districts are being forced to spend more money on transportation, sanitization products and other expenses to comply with new protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be less money available for sports.

“This is a new world we’re moving into, and we’re not exactly sure how all of this is going to impact us,” Red Lion athletic director Arnie Fritzius said. “We’re going to see a financial impact that’s going to hit every part of the educational world. It’s something that we’re all going to have to handle.”

While parents, players and politicians across the state debate the fall sports decision, it's still unclear how schools will return with in-person classes and how that might affect athletics.

Gov. Tom Wolf has doubled down on his recommendation that sports should be delayed until 2021 in an effort to ensure that schools can deliver in-person education this fall. Multiple York County schools have decided to go with hybrid models this fall, while most plan to open without an online portion.

On Monday, after a week of in-person classes, the University of North Carolina switched to a virtual course model after dealing with multiple clusters of positive COVID-19 tests. As of now, that hasn't changed the plans for its football team to continue its season.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said on Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee meeting that he believes even if schools open with virtual learning, sports should continue, despite Wolf's previous statement that contact sports would be hard to justify without in-person schooling.

Fritzius said that Red Lion varsity football generated $54,000 last season from tickets and concessions, and that money went back into the school district’s general fund.

Central York athletic director Marty Trimmer said his budget for last year was $339,000 — and while there is still a chance the fall season is played, the hope that Wolf would adjust the limit of 250 people at outdoor events and allow fans is likely dead.

That means the bulk of Central York’s estimated $66,000 revenue from ticket sales will be lost without fans in the stands on Friday nights in the fall.

“I guess the choice is — do you want your kids to play with no spectators or do you want your kids not to play at all?" Trimmer said. “I don’t think anybody doesn’t want their kids to play at all.”

One way that schools could make up the lost revenue from ticket sales and concessions is by livestreaming their games. Central York and Red Lion are among a number of teams that are likely to use Pixellot to broadcast games this year. 

Pixellot is partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and currently offers member schools two cameras (one indoor and one outdoor) in partnership with the NFHS Network.

The service requires a subscription, and as part of the NFHS program, schools will keep a larger portion of subscriber revenue to help member schools offset the complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Central York will offer Panthers’ fans free broadcasts this season on Pixellot, which usually costs $9.95 per month.

Fritzius was excited about the product’s ability to professionally broadcast games at all levels whether or not somebody from the school is able to make it to the game, but Red Lion hasn't officially decided to use Pixellot.

“Staffing the broadcast of all games is difficult,” Fritzius said. “The one benefit this Pixellot product has is it’s not operated manually. So, it would allow us on days when a student or adviser isn’t available to not have a change of plans and livestream right to our YouTube channel.”

Both athletic directors said they are looking at ways to limit spending this season so that major cuts aren’t necessary. Trimmer added that there was a discussion about cutting junior high sports this year in an effort to save money, but the decision was made to play fewer games and save money elsewhere to prevent a potential battle for the sports’ return in 2021.

“The problem is, when you start cutting things, then next year it may not come back,” Trimmer said.

One cost-cutting measure is less travel with league-only games, which also means fewer games and less money spent on officials. Additionally, Fritzius said he told the coaches their expenses would be scrutinized this year and things like new footballs and soccer balls would not happen.

York High at Central York football, Friday October 25, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

An issue for schools trying to cut costs is the recommendation that football players wear face shields this year to limit the potential for transmission of COVID-19. The shields cost $25 each from Schutt, and some schools are undecided on whether they even work.

The decision of whether to purchase the face shields is just one example of the choices that need to be made during the dilemma athletic directors face right now — are we playing sports this fall?

Outfitting a full varsity football team with face shields or masks will cost schools at least $1,000. York-Adams League teams are scheduled to begin practices on Aug. 31, but Schutt’s website says the shields currently will take three weeks to ship. How are schools supposed to decide whether to order the product recommended to keep their student-athletes safe if they don’t know whether the season will be canceled or postponed until the spring by the time it arrives?

“I’m not going to do anything right now that I don’t have to do until I know what we’re doing,” Trimmer said. 

The PIAA board of directors will meet again Friday, having delayed the start of the fall sports season until Aug. 24 after the Wolf administration strongly recommended the sports season be delayed until Jan. 1 and reiterated that statement last week, despite multiple efforts to change his mind by the PIAA.

While the athletic directors in the area prepare to make choices about how to spend their budgets this year, one major decision needs to be made first — will fall sports be played in 2020?

Until that ruling comes down from Wolf or the PIAA, schools can only continue to prepare for an uncertain year where fall sports might go on as scheduled or be canceled or postponed until the spring, and may or may not feature fans in the stands.

“I want to do whatever we can do to get our athletes an opportunity to play,” Trimmer said. “If that means we have to wait until the spring to do that, then that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t know that we’re going to have fans in the spring, to be honest with you. I’m just hoping that somewhere along the line we can get our kids on the playing fields and get games in, so if it’s the fall — with or without spectators — we will make it work, and if it’s the spring, we’ll do the same.”

— Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.