- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

The Blue Cross Bowl, ShopRite Gymnasium and Wachovia Cup. The latest college bowl game, a retro-modern basketball field house and a major tennis tournament?
Hardly.
They are, in order, the Tennessee prep football championship game, an elementary school gym in New Jersey and an award honoring overall excellence in Virginia high school sports.
Far from a passing fad, sponsorship of scholastic athletics now represents one of the fastest-growing areas in all of American corporate marketing and includes much of the Fortune 500. Much like the professional and major college ranks, stadium- and event-naming rights, shoe deals and ballpark signage are now permanent fixtures of the teen-age sporting life. Estimates of corporate spending on high school sports nationwide exceed $10 million a year, but the number is a fast-moving target.
"This is something that is growing exponentially. I'm not sure anybody has a firm handle yet on an aggregate [amount of spending], but it's getting very, very big," said Rick Horrow, visiting professor of sports law at Harvard University. "A targeted, tasteful program that reaches high school purchasers, and by connection their parents, can be a very efficient corporate play and will be a key part of many future corporate strategies."
But what exactly is tasteful and where to draw the line to protect impressionable young minds are key questions causing debates among school boards from coast to coast. Some jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, have resisted widespread corporate overtures, though that county has accepted funds toward new scoreboards and more general initiatives such as soda machines and ATMs in school buildings.
Other districts facing budget crunches, however, have chosen to accept corporate dollars rather than do away with sports programs. Fairfax County schools are actively pursuing how best to take advantage of corporate interest.
"Schools never want to cut programs if they don't have to; so if you need to rely on corporations, that's what you need to do," said Judy Thomas, marketing director for the National Federation of State High School Associations. The oversight group, best known for compiling rules of play for high school sports, has developed its own sponsorship program that includes credit-card giant MBNA Corp. and Red Roof Inns.
For more than a decade, shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas have sponsored basketball camps and supported powerhouse programs that often send graduates on to the pro ranks. But the rising and more universal corporate interest in prep sports is due primarily to three factors: cost, availability and exposure.
High school sponsorships generally cost only thousands or tens of thousands per year, or in the case of shoe deals, simply the cost of shoes and other gear such as uniforms. The bargain prices represent a deep discount from the six- and seven-figure outlays required to get involved at the higher levels of competition.
A 10-year, $4 million deal between Dr Pepper and Grapevine High School in Dallas, a national prep football power, is seen as one of the high-water marks for high school sports. The multifaceted deal includes Dr Pepper logos on the roofs of school buildings visible to planes taking off and landing at nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
With thousands of schools still untouched by corporate America, the sponsorship also represents an open opportunity for companies to get a leg up on rivals. And with high school sports gaining more exposure through cable television and the Internet than ever before, prep athletics no longer exist in a vacuum, heightening the marketing value for the sponsoring companies.
"It's something that has been very effective and beneficial, for us and the schools," said Travis Gonzolez, spokesman for Adidas. The athletic shoe giant provides free sneakers and other gear for more than 100 high school basketball teams, including National Christian Academy in Fort Washington. School officials there declined to comment on its relationship with Adidas.
"There was a stigma out there before. A lot of schools didn't want to be perceived as selling out. But if we and other companies who are committed to high school sports can come in with the same goals and save the school districts money, why shouldn't we be involved?" Mr. Gonzolez said.
Critics of the corporate involvement say it violates the basic tenets of high school athletics and fosters unhealthy efforts to field winning, visible sports teams attractive to more companies.
"This professionalizes high school sports, and that's a direction exactly opposite of where it needs to go," said David Shields, co-director of the University of Notre Dame's Mendelson Center for Sport, Character and Culture. "There's more pressure on the kids to win; there's more pressure on the administrators to keep winning and justify the investment. Where does it end?"


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