Elimination of pay-to-play system turns back clock

Fielding phone calls and emails from parents all morning, first-year Mt. Vernon High School Athletics Director Brandon Ecker really loved his job Tuesday.

The elation in his voice as he freely answered questions on the phone was a dead giveaway of the mood inside the Marauders’ athletics office.

No more pay-to-play. Goodbye limitations and hopefully, dwindling participation numbers.

You could almost envision glasses of Gatorade clanging in the background and high-fives all around whenever a varsity head coach passed through his office.

“Everyone is excited, obviously. It’s going to change the way we do things a little bit around here,” Ecker said with a laugh. “It’s going to offer more kids an opportunity to play and hopefully in more than one sport, which maybe they put on the back burner before.

“That’s the goal: to get more kids out that are interested in participating because there are a lot of benefits to being involved in an extracurricular setting.”

Before Monday, “extracurricular” at Mt. Vernon had a rather pricey meaning.

Faced with a financial crisis in 2011 and a nearly $1 million reduction in state funding, the school board had no choice but to make drastic changes.

Teachers, custodians and cafeteria workers were laid off, a school and several educational courses and programs were sacrificed.

Former athletics director Mark Caraway was replaced by the stretched-thin tandem of Greg Roach and Derek Shelton, who both served as athletic directors and assistant principals.

Another blow was dealt to the athletics community when a “pay-to-participate” fee was adopted, requiring high school student-athletes to shell out $225 per high school sport. Middle school students had to pay $100.

Three-sport athletes — already on the downswing with the rapid increase in specialization — became a fabled trend of yesteryear.

If by chance, there was the infrequent Olivia Colemans around willing to play three sports, it would cost families $675, not including a $40 transportation fee (which still exists).

The effect on varsity rosters was noticeable, especially when the numbers were taken into consideration. The high school jumped from Class 2A to 3A and eventually 4A with enrollment figures steadily climbing.

In the late 1990s around 800 students grew to 1,077 in 2011 and 1,170 today, according to the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s recent figures.

Yet, numbers for the minor sports suffered, and it was less often that athletes transitioned from one season to another.

“Two- and three-sports athletes dropped significantly,” Ecker said. “We’re a growing school, but we obviously want to encourage kids to experience as much as they can. If they were interested in more than one sport, it was difficult for them to do that.”

That was the past before newly hired Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins spearheaded a campaign for the betterment of the future, one the school board made a reality with Monday night’s approval to drop pay-to-play.

Of course, getting the vote was just the start. Next in Robbins’ multi-layered plan is to recoup the approximately $190,000 in lost revenue.

While superintendent at Northwestern Consolidated School District of Shelbyville, Robbins achieved a similar goal by renting out district athletics facilities to external athletic competitions and selling concessions.

This netted a $160,000 profit to offset the elimination of pay-to-play.

Ecker believes lightning can strike twice and for good reason. Mt. Vernon High School’s football stadium, soccer fields, baseball and softball diamonds, basketball gymnasium, and track are all enticing options. They were all built or upgraded less than 15 years ago.

In a word, they are hidden gems within Hancock County’s boundaries and are readily available.

“Our focal point is going to be to get out there and find those outside groups and rent the facilities at Mt. Vernon whether it be our baseball field, softball field … there are a lot of summer tournaments that are available,” Ecker said. “Outside of that, we are opening our doors to corporate sponsorship full force, something Mt. Vernon hasn’t done extensively in the past.

“Anything from signage to potentially naming rights, I think is on the table for discussion for various facilities. We’re going to find ways to keep that money flow consistent to keep the burden off the families.”

Don’t be surprised if Mt. Vernon Stadium gains a commercial brand much like Fishers High School’s Clarian Field at Reynolds Tiger Stadium. It might seem odd at first (and a chore to type on deadline), but remember the why — no one wants to go backward, again.

This is a new throwback era.

“This is going to be better for the families, better for the community, and hopefully provide top-notch athletic programs,” said Ecker, a former three-sport athlete at Centerville High School.

“It’s a great time to be here at Mt. Vernon. It’s a great time to be the AD because they’re making a positive change … I’m curious and excited to see how it changes our numbers over the course of this year and moving forward.”

Well done, Mt. Vernon School Board. I applaud you.

Rich Torres is the Daily Reporter’s sports editor. Send comments to rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com.