Cutting games not needed yet

Posted Jan. 01, 2009, at 8:04 p.m.

Here we are, 2009. With this new year comes predictable optimism, but it’s severely tempered by economic recession, rising unemployment and their continuing impact on the quality of life.

And sports, once thought to be insulated from the ebbs and flows of the world at large, are not immune to such tough times.

The Maine Principals’ Association recently announced several recommendations to downsize interscholastic sports in the state, cost-cutting proposals that will be voted on by the organization’s Interscholastic Management Committee on Jan. 26 and in some instances could be implemented as soon as the coming spring sports season.

They include cutting regular-season schedules by roughly 10 percent, limiting each team to two scrimmage or exhibition-game dates per season, reducing the teams eligible for postseason play in Heal point sports from two-thirds per class to 50 percent, cutting the swimming and ice hockey seasons by a week to save on facility costs, freezing officials’ pay and travel reimbursements for two years, and withdrawing from New England competition.

The recommendations are seen by the MPA as a proactive step to address economic realities given reductions in state subsidies to education that are expected to continue. Better to cut across the board across the state than risk individual schools gutting subvarsity and middle-school athletics or eliminating specific sports.

That the MPA has recommended such action at all suggests dire straits are approaching, but early reaction to the proposals has been mixed.

Most people understand money is not in abundance and sacrifice is needed. But coaches, players and fans cringe at the loss of games, and booster groups likely to be called upon to subsidize more and more of their schools’ athletic programs lament the loss of exhibition games and tournaments that provide added fundraising opportunities.

In reality, the recommendations are more symbolic than substantive, given that sports typically account for just 1 percent to 3 percent of a school’s budget and the suggested downsizing represents a fractional savings for each school’s sports budget.

But interscholastic athletics are one of the more visible components of any school budget, so efforts to downsize are understandable as a means of showing that we’re all in this together.

That’s why I can live with most of the recommendations. However, I would suggest not cutting regular-season games, at least for now.

Proposed regular-season reductions, combined with cuts in scrimmages and exhibition games, could mean a loss of as many as six to 10 competitive opportunities for teams in some sports against opponents from other schools. With travel costs having abated in recent months, preserving the most important of those contests — the one or two countable varsity games set to be cut per sport — seems a reasonable compromise until economic conditions demand even more sacrifice.

Because whether it’s a federal bailout or the mere downsizing of Maine high school sports, no one really knows how any of this will affect the big picture — nor should we be expected to know, given the volatility and global nature of the current economic predicament.

After all, who’d have imagined last summer that gas would now cost $1.61 per gallon, or that heating oil would be nearer $2 per gallon than $5 a pop?

Happy New Year!

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