High School Sports Keeping Right Company? Corporate Sponsorship Burgeoning

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Fisher, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …