In the current economic climate, public education programs are squeezed for every penny allocated and educators are forced to make-do with less. The effect of budget shortfalls is manifested in larger class sizes, reduced bus services and fewer classroom resources. Particularly hard hit in this recession have been extracurricular programs such as athletics. Creating student participation fees, cutting back on scheduled events and dropping programs altogether have been some of the ways schools have addressed budget shortfalls.

Traditionally, fundraising and booster club support have met some of the financial challenges in education. More recently, sponsorships are generating additional revenue. The question for high school coaches and physical education teachers who seek to augment their budgets with private revenue is: How can private money be generated and used with the least amount of adverse commercial intrusion on campus?

Commercialism in public schools

Marketing efforts by private businesses are already in place in public schools in the United States, including but not limited to, program and activity sponsorship, appropriation of space (signage, banners, etc.), sponsored educational materials and privatization of school or program management.

One example of this trend was the introduction of high school football uniform sponsorship by Nike. In 2008, Nike sponsored the branded uniforms of a number of Florida high schools, including Armwood High School in Hillsborough County, Miami Booker T. Washington High School, Miami Northwestern High School, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High School and Lakeland High School. While this was seen as a dramatic incursion into an area of public education that had been relatively sponsorship-free, it was noted that this was just “the latest entry into a school system already riddled with corporate influences. Hillsborough campuses sell Pepsi products. Students and teachers get a discount on Hewlett-Packard computers.”

From ABInfographic: Inside the High School Apparel Turf War

The current economy has school districts looking at many different ways to raise cash. It was recently reported that one school district in southern California, Chino Valley Unified School District, has considered hiring a private marketing firm to help them develop a variety of different marketing strategies, including the establishment of sponsorships for various district programs, advertising on campus, the district cable channel, a proposed district magazine, facility naming rights, and service and facilities rentals.

From ABFundraising Ideas for High School Athletic Directors

For better or worse, marketing now has a history in the public-school setting and will probably remain in place and probably expand in an uncertain economic climate. What is important to remember is that each organization in non-profit community sport (including that in public schools) has a mission to serve in its full capacity its constituents. This capacity is hindered by the lack of financial planning capabilities. As University of Western Ontario School of Kinesiology researchers Katie Misener and Alison Doherty noted in A Case Study of Organizational Capacity in Nonprofit Community Sport, “Uncertainties about future funding and the constraints on how current funds can be used appear to have a significant effect on the ability of organizations to plan strategically.” One way to address this problem may be to use strategic marketing concepts to generate contractually obligated income through sponsorships and planned fundraising efforts. The key is to do it in a way that limits the negative impacts of commercialism in the schools.

Strategic revenue generation

Sponsorship allows a business organization an opportunity for affiliation with a sport property or event as a means of gaining a marketing benefit beyond typical advertising. Sponsorship creates a perceived relationship between a business and a sport organization where the sponsor publicly endorses an activity and tries to maximize image transfer between the two entities.

There is mutual benefit for both parties in a sponsorship relationship: The sport property gets monetary or in-kind benefits, and the sponsor gets awareness and image benefits, which in turn can lead to increased sales. This is an important aspect of sponsorship for non-profit sport entities that are considering fundraising efforts to augment budgets. In a time when businesses are cutting spending, money earmarked for charitable donations may be scarce. Physical education and athletic programs would be more likely to gain revenue from private sources if they provide businesses a rationale for giving money beyond altruism. Soliciting sponsorships that can give a business a return on their investment may be a more effective way to develop revenue.

Knowing what businesses want out of sponsorships is important for those seeking them. Sponsorship objectives can be divided into two main categories: Indirect objectives are considered pre-behavioral and include creating awareness for the sponsor and enhancing sponsor’s image. Direct or behavioral objectives are those designed to stimulate a purchase response by the target consumer. Determining what businesses want from a sponsorship is difficult, so it may be suggested that those seeking sponsorship relationships with businesses approach the process strategically. This means assessing internal and external contingencies, using specific marketing strategies such as market segmentation and targeting and product positioning, and evaluation of those efforts.

In the current economic climate, there is no shortage of non-profit entities seeking funds from private businesses. Being able to strategically design and carry out the search, as well as effectively demonstrating a return on investment for businesses that provide funds for physical education and athletics programs are two ways to improve the success of the effort.

Limiting the negative consequences

Kristin Larson, author of Commercialism in Schools, provided several suggestions for creating sponsorship relations between private organizations and public schools. These include the following:

  • To control the duration and scope of the relationship, create specific educational objectives for the sponsorship.
  • Work with parents, administration and the community to create a school policy on commercial activities in schools in advance of entering into a sponsorship agreement.
  • Seek information and entertain sponsorships from a variety of businesses.
  • Examine all potential sponsors’ past relations with schools, to understand their motives and tactics prior to entering into a relationship with them.
  • Communicate information with other schools, districts and states, as well as national education organizations. Seek as much information as possible from others about techniques and businesses.
  • Enter into sponsorship agreements that ensure your school's or district's approval and that allow your school to terminate the sponsorship at its discretion and in its own timeframe.
  • Never require a student to take part in a sponsorship-related activity.
  • Continuously monitor the process and effects of the sponsorship, including feedback from students, instructor, parents and administration.

In tough economic times, physical education and athletics programs in K-12 education face great challenges of funding and staffing, despite their importance to the overall educational experience. Augmenting budgets with private money is one way to meet these challenges. It is important to approach the process of finding and soliciting funding in order to effectively raise money and to do so in a manner that limits commercial impacts on schools and students.