As budgets dwindle, high schools and youth sports teams turn to crowdfunding
A sample of the poor condition of the weight room at Kahuku High School in Hawaii (Photo: Tanoai Reed)
Two years ago, Tanoai Reed moved back to Hawaii eager to watch his son play football for his alma mater, Kahuku High School, its powerhouse program a source of great pride for many in the poor community on the North Shore of Oahu.
The chiseled Reed had traveled the globe as the longtime Hollywood stunt double for his cousin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and even played “Toa” on the 2008 reboot of American Gladiators. But as he toured Kahuku’s facilities, he grew dismayed by what he saw. The corroding bleachers, the deteriorating scoreboard, the ramshackle weight room. It was all too familiar.
“There was a lot of stuff that I was using 25 years ago,” Reed said in a recent phone interview. “And it was old then.”
Reed gathered photographs of the school’s weight room equipment, now dilapidated and disgusting, the cracked plates and moldy, rotten padding well beyond reasonable wear and tear. He found a company in New Mexico able to produce custom free weights and machines featuring the school’s colors and logo, and worked a deal to have it all shipped to the island, but couldn’t possibly afford to foot the entire $115,000 bill himself. Reed pledged $10,000 of his own money. He raised $10,000 more from fellow Kahuku alumni and former NFL linemen Chris and Ma’ake Kemoeatu. And he posted those jarring weight room photos online, creating a page to solicit donations through GoFundMe.com.
Crowdfunding platforms, or websites where users set up fundraising pages to share through social media, are expected to raise more than $5 billion this year, according to the industry website crowdsourcing.org.
And their use isn’t merely reserved for help with medical bills, humanitarian efforts or other emergency situations. Thousands of young athletes and their parents, coaches and schools are turning to the web – and by extension their friends, family and strangers – to try to make up the difference between ever-shrinking budgets and the hefty cost associated with summer and high school sports.
A search of GoFundMe, the largest crowdfunding website, generated more than 2,500 campaigns related to high school sports.
On Tuesday in New York, DICK’S Sporting Goods and school donation site DonorsChoose.org announced a partnership called “Sports Matter” to help public schools fund their sports programs. When a campaign reaches 50% of its goal, the DICK’S Foundation will provide the other 50%. DICK’s will donate a maximum of $1.5 million, meaning $3 million could go to school programs.
All donors will be allowed to choose which donation drives they take part in, similar to other crowdfunding efforts.
“Some of the budget cuts in team sports are really coming to a head,” Charles Best, the CEO of DonorsChoose.org, said. “In a few years time more than a quarter of public high schools will not have any sports because of these cuts.
“Students in low-income communities will be more likely to attend schools without sports. I think people stereotypically think that kids in low-income communities will pursue sports because it’s a way out, but in fact that they’re less than half as likely to have that access. Even though sports have all kinds of positive impact.”
Officials are hoping the program will deepen bonds among supporters and communities and their athletic programs and lead donors to contribute more than once to continue to help defray ongoing costs.
“Sustainability is a major issue, and it’s important that teams that participate will see support in a long-running way,” Best said. “I’d like to think that’s why DICK’S has brought fundraising to bear in a critical way. The citizen donors who are donating are likely to becoming supporters of that program. … We think we can engage an entire group of citizen philanthropists who will become ongoing supporters of the programs.”
Elite athletes find help too
Although each website generally keeps some percentage of donations as a fee, crowdfunding has been embraced by everyone from youth travel ball teams to some of the country’s elite amateur athletes.
Candace Hill, a rising junior at Rockdale County (Conyers, Ga.) High School and a 2016 Olympic hopeful, ran the 100-meter dash in 10.98 seconds at an invitational meet June 20 in Seattle, becoming the first 16-year-old in the world to run the distance in less than 11 seconds and the first American girl under 19 to accomplish the feat.
Candace Hill won the 100 and 200 meters at the IAAF World Youth Championships, (Photo by Buda Mendes, Getty Images)
It was one of numerous races around the country that she attended with her parents and younger sister this summer, and after budgeting conservatively and soliciting donations through their church and school, the family set up a fundraising page on YouCaring.com.
“She can’t go to those places by herself,” said Rockdale track coach Venson Elder, who raises money for the school’s football team using OurFund.us. “Someone has to go with her. She’s only 16 years old. The cost was astronomical this summer.”
Candace’s mother, Lori Hill, said she estimates the family spent $10,000 this summer.
“There’s an incredible amount of expenses going to something like this,” Lori Hill said, “because there are so many rounds and qualifying and traveling and room and board and hotel expenses and food and coaching, therapy, massage. At a certain point, you’re not at work anymore because you’re traveling with your child and trying to make sure they get what they need, and you add it all up and realize you’re going to be short.
“You want the best for your child and to be there for your child,” she said, “so we put our heads together and said, ‘How can we generate some money, have people come on board and be supportive?’ And I did a little research to see which websites were legitimate and basically 100 percent of the money raised would go to the fund.”
The campaign sought to raise $5,000 to help Candace Hill reach the IAAF World Youth Championships from July 15-19 in Colombia, where she’d set records in the 100- and 200-meter dash.
But specifically, the money helped defray the cost of competing in a qualifying event in Illinois, Lori Hill said, adding that the page was promptly deactivated after they hit the goal, once someone in the local community pledged more than $2,000. USA Track and Field picked up the tab to Colombia for all the qualifying athletes.
“It was heaven sent,” Lori Hill said. “We were recharged knowing that a lot of Americans were behind Candace. That was a good feeling. It made us proud. It made her proud when she was going over there to represent the USA.”
Faster and easier than traditional fundraisers
Aside from travel expenses, many sports-related crowdfunding campaigns are for schools such as Kahuku that are short on resources.
The Rogers (Spokane, Wash.) High School baseball team was recently trying to raise $2,500 to dedicate a field in honor of its late coach, in addition to replacing equipment.
The St. Joseph’s (Bryan, Texas) Catholic School football team is seeking $20,000 to buy new helmets.
The South Philadelphia High School wrestling team collected $1,500 in less than two weeks last season in order to afford high-quality warm-up gear, like the suburban schools. The kids wrote thank you notes to everyone who contributed, coach Robert Schloss said, and included a photo of the team wearing its new garb.
“I was really blown away by the charity of my friends and my parents’ friends, because my parents could share [the page] on Facebook,” Schloss said. “I was getting contributions from people I didn’t know, but through friends of friends.
“The weird thing about [crowdfunding] is it could not necessarily be used for good, charitable reasons,” he said. “Donors have to basically have trust, because they do just send you the check.”
The South Philadelphia High wrestling team raised $1,500 in less than two weeks to buy new warmup gear (Photo: Robert Schloss)
When crowdfunding works, it’s much easier and faster than traditional fundraisers, like selling candy bars. And many schools don’t want their kids going door-to-door. Even when teams host car washes or similar events, there’s often a shortfall.
James River (Midlothian, Va.) High School teacher Tony Yonta, who drives a team bus to help defray travel costs, is using GoFundMe to raise money to maintain the school’s weight room, an expense that largely slips through the cracks.
“I don’t get money from the booster club,” Yonta said. “I’m not a sport. The teams do fundraising for themselves. I get a little money for the phys. ed. department, but other than that I’m always on my knees begging.”
“There are so many schools in such a close area,” he said, “so many teams, that people are getting hit constantly for fundraisers. Our school alone, we probably have 25 different sports. You take all those kids going out fundraising, season after season. A lot of time you get the same people donating all the time. It’s a burden on them. It’s tough. Everybody is looking for new ways to make money so we can service the students the best we can.”
Crowdfunding allows not only friends of friends to contribute, but school alumni who have moved away from the area. But many campaigns tend to hit a lull after an early burst of activity.
In the last year, Reed has been able to raise $16,000 for the Kahuku weight room using GoFundMe, with many of the same donors kicking in small amounts on a monthly basis. He’s up to $36,000 total, counting his own $10,000 and the matching pledge from the Kemoeatu brothers, but the donations have tapered off and the sum is nowhere near enough.
Reed said he’s considered taking out a $100,000 personal loan to make up the difference, and trying to recoup the money through fundraising over the next several years. But like the person who helped Hill with one large donation, there’s a chance a single wealthy benefactor comes to Kahuku’s aid.
The NFL Pro Bowl returns to Hawaii this season, and Reed said league officials recently met with area leaders to learn how to best give back to the community. Reed mentioned the Kahuku weight room.
“The kids are the community,” he said. “And if you can do that for the kids, that would be huge. It would be a prayer answered. And then we could use the money in the GoFundMe account to fix up the building.”
Contributing: Cam Smith, USA TODAY High School Sports