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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ The Hurricanes take the field. The Walker Valley Mustangs hosted the East Hamilton Hurricanes in TSSAA football on October 18, 2019.

At a point in the season when the only numbers that should matter are the ones lighting up the scoreboard, coaches, school administrators and even the governing body for Tennessee high school sports will be keeping a keen eye on the finances of football.

As the first round of the prep playoffs is set to get underway this weekend, concerns are growing across the state about the steady decline in postseason attendance.

Sagging attendance affects not only the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's revenue but also causes teams that make road trips to lose thousands of dollars.

The Howard School, which will travel roughly 200 miles for its first-round game at two-time defending Class 4A state champion Greeneville High School, will spend more than $3,500 to charter buses and for pregame and postgame meals for the team.

"That trip will pretty much drain whatever money we have in our football account," Hustlin' Tigers coach John Starr said. "It's such a long trip that not many of our fans will likely go, so the gate receipts will be smaller, which means less money for both teams and the TSSAA.

"If we were to win, we'd have to travel again next week, too. Of course, we're really glad to be in the playoffs and it's a great experience for the kids, but as bad as it sounds to say, that would put a definite strain on us financially."

According to TSSAA figures, attendance for last year's playoffs was down nearly 27% from the previous year and the lowest figures since 2008, when the state had two fewer classifications. That meant $233,312 less in ticket receipts.

 

'It's a nationwide trend'

TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress said declining postseason attendance was one of the main topics of discussion when he attended the National Federation of High School Associations' winter meetings in New York.

"This isn't just an issue in our state, it's a nationwide trend with attendance," Childress said.

Attendance for the first four rounds of last year's playoffs brought in $1,382,426. After paying for referees ($172,581.50) and catastrophic insurance ($345,606.50) — which makes up nearly one-third of the TSSAA's entire annual budget — the 229 teams that reached the playoffs split $691,213 ($3,018.40 per school) and the TSSAA cleared $173,025.

Those figures do not include the championship games, but the association receives an additional $253,000 from the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce each year for the right to host the nine finals.

After the TSSAA staff studied the decline in overall attendance, Childress said, it appears the biggest issue stems from the first two rounds, when there are many more mismatches. Last season, 39 of the 94 first-round games in the six public school classifications were decided by the state's 35-point mercy rule. That includes 10 of the 15 games in 1A.

"You won't lose money playing at home, but there's no doubt teams lose a good bit of money when they have to travel in those first couple of rounds because most people don't want to spend money to watch a blowout, so you have much smaller crowds," said South Pittsburg Coach Vic Grider, whose team will host a first-round playoff game for the 20th straight year, winning those by an average of 50-10. "Most of the schools in the smaller classes are rural so there's more travel, which means teams have to charter a bus and feed the players before and after the game, and that's not cheap."

Grace Academy, one of the smallest local teams to advance to the playoffs, has already made four road trips to Knoxville and Nashville for regular-season games this season and needed to make around $12,000 in its four home games to cover those costs. Now the Golden Eagles will travel 260 miles to Jackson for a playoff game.

Bob Ateca, the team's head coach and school athletic director, expects to lose between $800 and $1,000 on the trip.

"Our reward for making the playoffs is we'll have to ask the players' families to help raise funds or donate money to help cover the cost," Ateca said. "You expect to have to cover the cost for equipment, uniforms and the regular-season road trips, but this trip wasn't budgeted, so we'll need our families to chip in for the kids."

 

'Too many teams making the playoffs'

When the playoffs began 50 years ago, only four teams in each of the three classifications reached the postseason.

Over the five decades that followed, the brackets have expanded six times and the number of classifications has tripled, with Tennessee now crowning nine state champions.

That ranks as the second-most championship games in the nation, just one behind Texas, which has 1,100 more prep football programs in its high school association than Tennessee.

A total of 228 teams — 67% of the TSSAA's member schools — earned a playoff berth this year, including 24 in the Chattanooga area. Of that, 48 have losing records, including 10 teams with two or fewer wins, which is the same as last year's total.

"We simply have too many teams making the playoffs, which leads to some bad first-round matchups," Childress said. "We understand that people only have so much in their budget for entertainment, and it seems like a lot of folks are choosing to do something else instead of coming to first- and second-round games."

He said bad weather and ticket prices aren't the issue.

"It's all about bad matchups, and that comes from having too many teams in the playoffs."

Childress added: "I know a lot of people believe that the TSSAA wants to have more classifications in order to make more money, but I can tell you that we believe we had stronger attendance when there were fewer classifications."

The number of classes is decided every four years by the TSSAA's nine-member Board of Control, with two years remaining on the current classification cycle.

Although football's overall financial numbers are down, the money brought in is still nearly three times more than boys' basketball, which is the closest revenue-generating state tournament.

"It's no secret that you could combine the postseason for every other sport and it wouldn't add up to what football brings in for the whole state," Childress said. "There are several other sports where even the championship tournaments actually lose money. We've got to do something, because in order to even make our budget, the state has to depend on the revenue from football."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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