Fayetteville high schools generate more than $385,000 in revenue from football ticket sales

Vernon Aldridge has been a part of weekly conference calls with athletic directors across North Carolina since high school sports came to a halt on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Aldridge, who took over as the Cumberland County Schools student activities director in 2016, said those discussions cover a number of topics but always end up coming back to football and what a 2020 season would look like without Friday night lights.

"It comes up every time we meet and it’s not just Cumberland County, where football generates such a large piece of the revenue for the athletic programs, it’s every system," Aldridge said.

"There is a lot of discussion around that because we all know that for us to be able to provide the opportunities that we want athletically for our kids, at some point and time, we’re going to have to have a football season. If not, it’s going to be very detrimental to our athletic programs. We really would have to tighten up the screws as far as spending is concerned."

During the 2019-20 season, Cumberland County’s 10 public schools generated $385,457.33 from fan attendance at varsity football games, according to data provided by Aldridge.

Those sales made up 55% of the total revenue from the yearly gate receipts before the high school sports season came to a close on March 13.

"Football is the most expensive sport for us to play, but it also brings in huge amounts of revenue for our athletic programs," Aldridge said.

"Without that revenue, it would be difficult to play some other sports. Without that football revenue, it could be really disastrous to our athletic programs."

For seven of the county’s 10 schools, at least 50% of their total revenue came from football deposits.

South View, which enjoyed eight home games, led the way at $66,963 in ticket sales. The total made up 71% of the Tigers’ total revenue this past season.

Jack Britt collected $54,420 in ticket sales, making up 62% of their total revenue. Douglas Byrd had the second-lowest ticket sales at $21,533.23 but the third-highest percentage of yearly revenue at 60%.

The N.C. High School Athletic Association earned more than $1.146 million on playoff gate receipts during the 2019-2020 season, including $575,000 from fall sports.

"Our athletic programs are ran, pretty much, off gate receipts," Aldridge said. "The county pays for coaches’ salaries, security and utilities. All of the other expenses for running an athletic program come from gate receipts and money that booster clubs can make.

"And, of course, the No. 1 booster club fundraiser is running concessions at football games. Some of our schools can bring in $2,000 to $7,000 on Friday night, depending on what school and who they’re playing. You take that revenue away from booster clubs, that also hurts. A lot of booster clubs make a lot of money off concessions at football games."

During a Zoom press conference earlier this month, NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said the idea of playing football with a limited number of fans or no fans in the stands would be "problematic."

"It is a challenge, especially for those schools where football is the bread-winner," she added.

"That’s why we will watch very carefully and get guidance from the governor if we’re able to play football. ... We would hope that at the least we could have fans that would be at least half of the capacity of the stadium and they could spread out and social distance.

"Our membership would have to give us guidance on if they could still play football knowing that a limited number of fans could be in the stands. Will the finances be such that they could play in that setting? It would be my hope that our schools can say yes."

In addition to those concerns, Cumberland County was set to host its annual football jamboree in mid-August. The two-day event, which has been played on high school campuses for the last three years after three years at Fayetteville State, features the 10 in-county squads and 10 more teams from around the state.

"Our two big fundraisers, at least for the county, are the jamboree and the Holiday Classic (basketball tournament)," Aldridge added.

"Losing that money from the jamboree will definitely hurt. We utilize that money for staff development for our coaches. We use that money to send them to the coaches’ clinic and our ADs to the AD clinic where they pick up some really valuable staff development opportunities. Without the funding from the jamboree, that’s really going to cut into our ability to do that."

‘It’s a numbers game’

After spending the 2019 season away from their home field, Terry Sanford coach Bruce McClelland and the Bulldogs are set to host seven football games at their renovated stadium this season.

"It was our year to catch up. .... For us, it would be a huge hit (if there’s no season)," said McClelland, whose team played three "home" games at Reid Ross Classical School last season.

"Playing at Ross last year, we took a hit but I have to give a shout to our booster club and community who helped us stay afloat."

Even with the change of scenery, Terry Sanford generated $38,979 in ticket sales, which made up 49% of its yearly deposit.

"We feel like we still made money but nowhere near what we would normally make when we’re at home in the confines of a community where a lot of people can just walk across the street to go to the game," McClelland said.

"We rely on that money. Football is such an expensive sport, so we have to put money back in it. It’s a kids’ game first, but it’s a numbers game."

South View coach Rodney Brewington, whose team led the county in ticket sales last season, said the loss of the 2020 season could "decimate" some programs.

"If we did not play a season this year, obviously, where it’s going to hurt you the most is if you have outstanding invoices," Brewington said.

"You still have to pay your bills each year. Some people have HUDL accounts, some people have just ordered jerseys, equipment. … By the time you pay for your reconditioning, your HUDL … unless those venues are going to work with you, you’re stuck with that bill without revenue to pay that bill."

Waiting game

Over the last five months, Tucker and the association’s board of directors, along with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, have looked to Gov. Roy Cooper for guidance as schools begin to prepare for the start of a new academic year.

On July 21, the Cumberland County Board of Education voted unanimously to start the school year on Aug. 17 with classes meeting completely online. Under the plan, schools would operate remotely through at least through Sept. 25.

The NCHSAA has delayed the start of fall sports until at least Sept. 1 and the Cumberland County Schools system has delayed the start of its voluntary workouts indefinitely because of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Tucker said it’s "difficult to imagine" sports starting in the fall if schools remain closed.

"Our goal is to try to get our young people back into school, first of all," Tucker said.

"Sports don’t exist if there’s no school. We want our students back in the classroom safely. Once that can occur, then we want them to be able to play."

Throughout the process, communication has been key as leaders try to make decisions while dealing with the unknowns surrounding the fall sports season and beyond.

"It’s definitely been difficult," Aldridge said. ". … The biggest thing for us right now is knowing and trying to find out exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re waiting on the NCHSAA.

"Right now, we really don’t know what sports we might be playing or when we might be playing them. Once we get a more solid idea of what that is and what that’s going to look like, then we can start making our plan as far as what we’re going to do with our student-athletes."

Despite the situation, Brewington praised Aldridge for maintaining an open line of communication with coaches.

"During this process, the most consistent thing has been the communication," Brewington said.

"I feel like all the coaches in the county, we’ve been kept up to speed. I have to give Vernon all the credit there. He’s definitely reached out to the coaches who are directly impacted by this season. … He’s done a good job of educating us and keeping us aware. The communication has been, if I had to rate it, an A."

Brewington and McClelland have tried to keep that same approach with their players.

"I love football but I love the kids and the relationships that we build," McClelland said. "You just have to let them know that you’re fighting for them. It’s by far been my toughest summer as a coach."

For Brewington, the main priority has been "trying to keep the kids calm, letting them know, ‘Hey, we’re doing everything we can to get you guys back on the field. Just stay the course. We know everyone is working to take care of you guys.’"

Finances aside, even with the 2020 season hanging in the balance, Brewington has been encouraged by the spirit he’s seen from high school players throughout Cumberland County as they wait to return to the field.

"All of the kids in the county, not just South View kids, have done a great job of just working on their own," Brewington said.

"The kids are staying active and, for the most part, they’re just ready to get a season underway."

Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at rbaxley@fayobserver.com.

Ticket sales for 2019 Cumberland County football teamsSchoolFootball deposit Percentage of yearly deposit South View $66,96371%Jack Britt$54,420.7462%Cape Fear$45,816.7554%Terry Sanford $38,97949%Gray’s Creek$37,233.7548%Pine Forest$36,314.1053%Seventy-First$31,922.7658%E.E. Smith$31,83855%Douglas Byrd $21,533.2360%Westover$20,43636%Total$385,457.3355%