OHSAA Article in the THE ATHLETIC

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blackshooky
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OHSAA Article in the THE ATHLETIC

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OHSAA faces major changes, possible collapse, if there’s no football in the fall
By Tom Reed and Aaron Portzline May 21, 2020 34

The state’s governing body for high school sports announced Wednesday plans to significantly expand its football playoff field for 2021.

That’s if the organization that regulates 816 member high schools and provides financial backing for all their tournaments survives this calendar year.

A confluence of bad luck, poor planning and dwindling attendance has pushed the Ohio High School Athletic Association to the precipice of financial ruin, causing those inside the organization to wonder if they can withstand a fall season without football due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also forcing member schools to confront the uncomfortable question of who would organize and operate postseason tournaments in a world absent the 113-year-old non-profit association.

OHSAA executive director Jerry Snodgrass believes the association could weather a fall calendar with little or no gate receipts coming from tournaments. Nearly 80 percent of the organization’s revenues are generated through tickets sold at sectional, district, regional and state playoff games in all sports.

Other sources told The Athletic such a scenario would doom the OHSAA, which produced no revenue this spring and limited revenue over the winter because of cancellations to the boys and girls state basketball tournaments and the state wrestling meet.

OHSAA officials also said despite internet rumors there is no contingency plan to move high school football to the 2021 spring calendar.

Every state high school governing body is dealing with the same set of unknowns regarding a virus that reportedly has led to more than 92,000 deaths and cratered the nation’s economy. The OHSAA, however, is one of the few such associations that does not charge membership fees. It also does not receive tax dollars from the state.

“We are working on a budget, as many states are, that includes fall sports revenues and one without fall sports revenues,” Snodgrass said. “I’m very confident we will be OK. We will have to make significant cuts — and I mean significant cuts — but we will still exist.

“Will we look the same? Absolutely not. … You hope for the best and plan for the worst. By doing that, we stay where we are, but we look different. Very different.”

Snodgrass, named OHSAA executive director May 4, 2018, confirmed he’s taken a 25 percent pay cut. Other high-level officials have seen salaries reduced 20 percent. The association already has laid off one full-time employee and several part-timers.

The executive director confirmed the OHSAA has received a stimulus loan worth more than $500,000 through the national Payroll Protection Plan. Other cost-saving measures, Snodgrass said, also are being considered.

But sources said without tournament money from football and other revenue-producing fall sports such as soccer and volleyball, the future of the OHSAA is in serious jeopardy. Football is one of the organization’s big money makers along with boys and girls basketball.

“No football playoffs puts the OHSAA out of business,” a northeast Ohio athletic director said.

“We will fold if there are no fall sports,” another source said.

A line in the Feb 24 OHSAA state board of directors report, obtained by The Athletic, reads: “out of money by 11/1/20 if no football, possibly a $25/sport tournament fee for … schools beginning with the 2021 school year …”

Officials from some schools have told Snodgrass they would be willing to reinstate membership fees to keep the OHSAA afloat. The executive director said streaming tournament games on the internet with advertising is another option if the contests are played in empty stadiums or limited to small crowds.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Wednesday the Buckeyes might allow 22,000 to 50,000 fans into their 100,000-seat stadium, depending on the state and national guidelines at the time.

A similar model could be adopted by Ohio high schools, but unlike major college programs they don’t have lucrative television deals to offset gate-receipt losses. Some high schools might choose not to even play in that scenario. The domino effect would be ominous. One northeast Ohio school superintendent told The Athletic football revenues pay for equipment used in all sports.

Adding to the dilemma is the fact Governor Mike DeWine announced previously the state plans to slash $300 million from K-12 public school funding because of the virus’s economic impact.

“My job is to right the ship,” Snodgrass said. “My job is to see us through this crisis. That’s mission No. 1 for me.”
Official basketballs from the state tournament. (Scott W. Grau / Getty Images)

The OHSAA is to high school and middle school sports what the NCAA is to college athletics. Each is loathed by some fans for how they choose to punish athletes and schools for recruiting violations and various infractions. The OHSAA is sued at least 20 to 30 times a year, a source said.

Such is life for the sheriffs of the sports world.

But many athletic directors, coaches and school officials cannot imagine a landscape without the OHSAA. And it’s not just about bringing rule breakers to justice.

State officials at the OHSAA and its six satellite districts provide structure and finance the postseason tournaments. There are:

• Limited tournament entry fees for schools.

• Bonuses returned to schools for ticket sales in some sports.

• Reimbursements to schools of selected regional and state tournaments. The OHSAA returned more than $2.6 million to member schools last school year.

What organizations or state coaches associations could afford to book venues, sell tickets, pay officials and set up accommodations for media and sponsors?

“In absence of order, chaos develops,” Snodgrass said. “Organizational structure is a necessary evil to create rules and regulations that affect everyone. They also are for the betterment of everyone.”

The OHSAA’s budget is composed of three main sources of revenue: 78 percent from tournament ticket sales, 11 percent from annual officiating permit renewals and 11 percent from corporate sponsorships.

Nobody budgets for a pandemic, but it’s fair to wonder why the OHSAA is so ill-prepared to face a short-term crisis.

Multiple sources attribute it to bad long-term planning and not having the vision to squirrel away money to endure economic downturns. Snodgrass shoulders some blame, but he’s been the face of the organization for just two years.

“For about 90 years, the OHSAA was printing money,” one source said.

Another source added it was spending money “like a drunken sailor” throughout much of the last two decades.

In 2012, the OHSAA purchased a second office building next to its headquarters in suburban Columbus at the cost of $900,000. While the sale price was reasonable, sources said, the new building sat unoccupied for six years.

Snodgrass confirmed the association might need to sell it to raise money.

The OHSAA board of directors had been working on two-year terms. Critics say that’s not long enough to gain a full understanding of how to operate the business. The association recently increased the term to three years.

As the association continued to increase spending, it was dealt an unexpected blow. During the past two decades, enrollment in member schools has dropped. More importantly, attendance at postseason tournament games began to decline sharply. Ticket sales are the lifeblood of the OHSAA.

Not since LeBron James won his third and final basketball title with Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2003 has the OHSAA enjoyed a sellout at a state football (Canton/Massillon) or state basketball event (Columbus).

Various reasons, including the decision to televise state football and boys and girls basketball games, have been offered for plummeting attendance figures.

“Overall, the drop-off has been significant over the last 12 years,” Snodgrass said.

The shortfall has invited scrutiny to even small details. One item in the northeast Ohio district meeting minutes last month raised suspicions.

According to the report:

The state board has applied for a federal grant . . . in hopes of using this one-time funding to close out and pay off any outstanding pension debts and costs associated with reducing staff and/or transitioning staffing levels and job responsibilities.

Some wonder if using national stimulus money from the Payroll Protection Plan for such means is permissible.

Snodgrass said he wasn’t part of that teleconference — it’s run by a board of directors — and would need to get clarification. Board vice president Jan Wilking said Friday morning the reference to “pension debt” was a clerical error. Officials had been discussing 403(b) contributions to retirement plans, she said.

In the meantime, the OHSAA and its member schools must hope the impact of the virus abates and limits on large gatherings are relaxed. There’s also concern about a second COVID-19 wave hitting the state. What happens if fall sports do resume only to have them suspended before tournament time?

“There are a lot of people nervous right now,” one athletic director said about the state of the OHSAA. “There are a lot of doomsday scenarios being put out there.”



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