Local athletic departments absorbing blows from pandemic, but booster clubs taking financial hits

Published on Friday, 11 December 2020 14:01


This past Thanksgiving, Muzzy Field stood empty, rather than being filled with roaring fans taking in the annual Battle for the Bell between the Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern football teams.

Over in Berlin, Sage Park’s lights were left off in late November rather than playing host to the football team’s annual rivalry game against New Britain. The Hurricanes could usually count on a large crowd when rival Southington visited Veterans Stadium, but this year, those gates remained closed, as did the football season for all Connecticut teams.

The gymnasiums at both Bristol schools would have typically been packed with a raucous crowd for the Eastern-Central girls volleyball matchups, but instead, spectators were limited to two immediate family members per each home student-athlete.

Many local athletic departments and booster clubs rely on such big games to pull in ticket and concession revenue for their budgets, but despite the diminished ability to raise money for the games that did still happen this year, athletic departments have been able to lick their wounds and change their focus to the upcoming winter season, scheduled to start with practices on Jan. 19.

“We missed the revenue from some of those big games,” New Britain athletic director Len Corto said. “The Berlin and Southington football games always bring a crowd, but the rest is minimal. A couple of those big games at the stadium would bring in some money, but other times, most of those events just pay for the game staff and officials.”

Unlike collegiate sports, high school athletic departments don’t rely heavily on ticket and concession revenue to stay afloat. While colleges across the country have cut certain athletic programs as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, local high schools are in no such danger, instead dealing with smaller casualties that have come with a lost spring season and a shortened fall season with limited spectators.

“It's a balance, but the main share of the budget doesn't rely on ticket sales,” Southington athletic director Steve Risser said. “There are certainly some things that it helps with … but it's not like colleges missing huge college football games. We had to put certain things on hold that we just can't do right now, but that's sort of emblematic with everything with covid.”

While the lost ticket sales doesn’t cripple a high school program like it may for colleges, there are still ripple effects that began back in March when high school sports were first shut down. In the Hardware City, the absence of a concession stand outside the Hurricanes’ girls volleyball games meant extra apparel for the team at the end of the season could not be purchased, and those minor equipment losses were the majority of what local athletic departments and booster clubs had to sacrifice. Even for a school like New Britain, which uses its Veterans Stadium to host state championship games for football and soccer, the absence of such championship games wasn’t a devastating loss financially.

“In reality, the revenue from the ticket sales for those events for us is minimal,” Corto said. “For the CIAC, they take a big hit for not having the soccer finals and football finals. The concession stands are run by Parks and Rec, so they take those hits for not having games there.”

Most other concessions are run by booster clubs for each school, and unlike the athletic departments themselves, those clubs did take some big hits without such sales and fundraising opportunities. Many booster clubs have been scrambling for alternatives to raise money while the effects of covid-19 continue to prevent in-person gatherings and typical fundraising events.

“It's killed us,” said Ben Gedimen, president of the Plainville Athletics Backers Club. “It's tough. You could say we've got a plug in the boat, but it's got a small leak.”

Booster clubs like Plainville’s Backers Club rely on those concession sales and fundraisers to help pay for plaques when a team wins a conference or state championship, end-of-year banquets, team apparel and any other bigger expenses the athletic department can’t fund on their own. They also rely on membership fees that parents and loved ones can pay for to help for those expenses, but over at Bristol Eastern, memberships are down due to the pandemic.

“A lot of people who normally would have done a membership for the booster club didn't either because of the uncertainty of the year or maybe they thought it wasn't worth it,” Bristol Eastern athletic director John Stavens said. “So they definitely took a hit.”

In Plainville, the Backers Club lost out on concession revenue, such as the football team’s regular season finale, which typically brings in almost $2,000 in profits. But the pandemic has also resulted in normal expenses not being a current option, since banquets cannot be held due to health risks and state restrictions. But the money saved by not hosting such events doesn’t make up for what’s been lost with the lack of sporting events and other fundraisers.

“Our big things are that we want to hold banquets and give out scholarships,” Gediman said. “Last spring we were OK because we had a great fall, we had a really successful wine tasting fundraiser and had some money in the bank. We were still able to give out 12 $750 scholarships. It's based on how much we have in the bank, but in a successful year we give out 15, 16, 17 scholarships. This year, we're in trouble.”

Gediman anticipates being able to give out closer to 10 scholarships this coming year, while over in Berlin, scholarships this year were able to be given out thanks to a donation from the athletic department. But the booster club doesn’t anticipate another donation this year, and have resorted to other fundraising efforts such as calendar raffles, discount cards and a car wash held last spring to try and make up for the lack of money coming in.

“Everybody had to come up with new ways to try and raise money,” Berlin Athletics Booster Club president Tony Butrimas said. “That's not easy. One of our teams did a restaurant fundraiser, where anyone who went to a certain restaurant at a certain time mentioned the team name, the restaurant would donate a portion of the sales. That was great, it was helping both the restaurant and the teams out. But funds raised were nowhere near what it is when things are going normally. You hold a jamboree and raise two or three thousand dollars, where a restaurant fundraiser raises maybe $600. So we can't provide all the things we normally would for the athletes, like different gear and apparel.”

Berlin’s booster club has helped fund larger projects in the past, such as upgrades at Sage Park to new trophy cases at the high school, while Plainville’s club has helped the track team with new javelins and discuses, and the tennis team with new tennis ball machines in recent years. Once sports came to a halt in the spring, plans for any other bigger upgrades of that nature were immediately put on hold, and the mission became one of survival. Gediman anticipates asking parents and potentially some local businesses for donations to help their cause in the coming weeks, and Butrimas is continuing his efforts to come up with alternate fundraising options.

In the athletics departments, not much can be asked of booster clubs right now due to diminished revenue, but aside from losing potential equipment upgrades and new apparel, operations are OK thanks to funding from local Board of Education departments. As long as the cities continue to fund their Board of Education the normal amount, athletic departments will be fine, save for some desired upgrades that may need to be put on hold. The absence of ticket sales for bigger football games hurt in that regard, but for all other sports, ticket sales typically cover the cost of officials and game workers, and not much more.

Some schools, like Bristol Eastern, did have to dip into budget savings to purchase equipment for live streaming games this fall, but other money for those purchases was helped by grants as well. There was also saved costs due to limited travel and the absence of a spring season, which let many schools carry over the funds for that season to help offset any potential losses that the fall season may have brought on. Of course, the winter could bring more empty seats and lost ticket prices, since basketball and wrestling events are held at night and require a ticket for entry (most schools don’t charge for daytime outdoor events like soccer), and most athletic directors anticipate another season of spectator restrictions, meaning those ticket losses are already being accounted for.

The financial losses for athletic departments were minimal this season, and while booster clubs were hit much harder, both groups agree those hit the hardest were the student-athletes and fans themselves, who are craving to return to a normal atmosphere like the ones typically produced at Muzzy Field, Veterans Stadium and Sage Park.

“It didn't really affect our budget,” Berlin athletic director David Francalangia said of the altered fall season. “What really hurt me, being a Berlin guy and being back here for this first year, was just the atmosphere around the games. Volleyball, soccer, football, all of the events, just not seeing kids there. I think schools are seeing an impact in terms of school culture, but I'm confident we'll get it back.”

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol Central, Bristol Eastern, Plainville, Southington, St. Paul, Terryville on Friday, 11 December 2020 14:01. Updated: Friday, 11 December 2020 14:04.