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Pandemic Changes The Game For Fall HS Sports: Fewer Fans In The Stands And Less Revenue

High School Sports
Eli Atzenhoffer

Lansing-area high school programs prepare for a budget hit, as the Friday night game atmosphere will be smaller and bringing in lower revenues.

While Fall Friday nights may look the same on the field, in the stands, it will be anything but normal. The Michigan High School Athletic Association decided that a shortened Fall sports season would be played this year with a limit of 1,000 spectators. It is still unknown how the limit of spectators will impact local high school athletic budgets.

“You’d think running a smaller event with less people would be easy,” Williamston Athletic Director Paige Paulsen said. “But there’s so many protocols and things in place that no one’s had to worry about before.”

The commencement of Fall high school sports was made possible on September 3 when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relaxed restrictions on organized sports. That same day, the council of the MHSAA reinstated the Fall season.

The Fall seasons will be played with limited spectators in the stands at indoor and outdoor events. Spectators will be limited to two people per participant in the competition. 

Limitations directly impact the revenue schools receive from gate fees at home sporting events. 

Fuller said ticket revenue only applies for 15 to 20 percent of the Okemos athletic budget.

“People take the same kind of revenue model that they have for college and they apply it to high school and it’s just not the case,” Okemos Athletic Director Brian Fuller said.

Fuller is referring to the college athletic landscape where schools like Michigan State were projected to lose between $80 million to $85 million if football was not to be played this Fall, according to MSU athletic director Bill Beekman. 

“We’re probably talking about thousands of dollars, meaning tens of thousands of dollars out of a $900,000 budget,” Fuller said. “It’s not like that [ticket revenue] pays for the athletic program like football might at Michigan State.”

Some high school sports will be impacted by the spectator limitation more than others. Waverly High School Athletic Director, Scott Casteele, said sports like soccer, may not see many changes in the amount of attendance.

“Our first soccer game at home, attendance was almost exactly what it would be otherwise,” he said. “We had a $350 gate. . . and that’s about what a gate would normally be.”

Paulsen emphasized that the changes in attendance will impact how they schedule events hosted by the school.

Paulsen said that Williamston will be unable to host its usual 16 team invitational volleyball events over multiple weekends throughout the season. Across all three levels, Williamston will miss out on tournament fees and gate receipts that they’d usually receive for these events.

“All that’s gone just because you’re limited to four teams per site,” Paulsen said. “You’re basically only running quads on weekends. . . you start at nine and you’re done before noon.”

All the athletic directors agreed that the number of spectators at football games will be where they will see the biggest change in gate receipts.

“Football gates will certainly be the one we feel the biggest pinch on,” Casteele said. “People, not [just] the two parents, show up for those games.”

Fuller noted the other impacted groups that will be absent from the usual Friday night festivities. 

“We won’t have a marching band. . . a student section, our dance group,” he said. “All of those ancillary activities are just off.”

These types of groups are also a concern at Williamston High School as well.

“A lot of booster clubs or organizations that depend on fundraisers or large-scale events. I think those have been hit the hardest,” Paulsen said.

Potential budgetary impacts have not impacted the excitement that the local athletic directors have for their athletes while still maintaining health and safety as top priority.

“Here at Williamston we’re trying to do it the safest way we can, following all guidelines and protocols that are given to us to give the kids the best opportunity,” Paulsen said.

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