From the Sidelines
In Alaska high school sports there are two classes of teams- those who pay a lot for travel and those who pay a lot less.
The schools from Southeast Alaska fall into that first category, and so do most of the other schools in the state that aren't within an easy drive of Anchorage. The disparity in travel costs is something teams off the road system have been dealing with for years, but lately things have gotten so bad it's time for the issue to be addressed by the Alaska School Activities Association, the group that oversees high school sports in the state.
Many of the road system teams have no problem playing games against teams from the state's hinterlands, but they don't want to travel if they can get a home game. And that's creating scheduling problems for the teams outside the Anchorage Bowl.
Take, for example, the Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball schedule. Each year, coach George Houston tries to get a balanced schedule with 11 home games and 11 road games (in most sports the maximum number of games allowed is 22 before region and state tournaments). This year he has 11 road games and nine home games, even though he's had notes posted on the ASAA Web site offering other non-Southeast Class 4A teams a $2,000 travel stipend if they'll play two games in Juneau.
"I had one other year where I had 13 road games and nine at home, but this year I didn't do that because I thought I could get two more home games," said Houston, who said that even in the Carlos Boozer years it was difficult to get a balanced schedule. "But so far, nothing, and we're willing to pay a guarantee."
One reason it's become harder for teams outside the Anchorage Bowl to schedule home games is the growth of out-of-state travel in Alaska high school sports. When I was in high school 25 years ago (I went to Bartlett in Anchorage), it was extremely rare for teams to go to the Lower 48 for games.
But in the 1980s, former East Anchorage (and current West Anchorage) boys basketball coach Chuck White started taking his teams to tournaments in the Lower 48 so his players could face tougher competition and possibly be seen by college recruiters. Now, trips to the Lower 48 are common, with some teams taking as many as two or even three trips south.
ASAA has never taken a formal statewide stand on scheduling and travel, believing those decisions are best left up to the individual school districts. But at the same time all out-of-state travel must be approved by ASAA, which usually results in a rubber-stamping of the request if the opponent school or tournament meets national high school regulations and the traveling team submits the form in a timely manner.
That has resulted in several Southeast coaches making comments similar to this, "That airplane you hear flying overhead, it's got another team flying over us to go to the Lower 48."
Another of the reasons given for the out-of-state travel is it's cheaper than flying to Southeast Alaska, which is why teams off the road system have kicked in with travel stipends to try and lure home games.
The three Class 4A schools in Southeast - Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan - all offer about $1,000 a game for basketball, and sometimes they'll pair up and pay $3,000 for a team to play two games in Sitka and one in Juneau. When I worked in Barrow, the Whalers also paid teams a travel stipend to come north for games. In an article earlier this week, Ketchikan boys basketball coach Doug Nausid said his school's travel budget for its boys and girls programs was $100,000 a year.
Even with the stipends, teams off the road system struggle to fill their schedules. When you've got a team like the East Anchorage girls playing nine games in Lower 48 tournaments last year and a 10-game Region IV commitment, that leaves just three open dates for non-conference games. And those were taken up by the annual East T-Bird Classic. The Bartlett boys have a similar schedule.
The situation is even more pronounced in football, where Juneau is the only large school team in Southeast and is way out of the league competition-wise when it plays Ketchikan and Sitka. The Crimson Bears, who are funded by the Juneau Youth Football League and not the school, were independents until 1996, when they joined the Anchorage-based Cook Inlet Football Conference on the condition they buy 27 airline tickets for the other CIFC teams when they come to Juneau for games.
Over the years, the ticket purchases have changed as Juneau added a junior varsity program and more schools started playing football. Last year, the JYFL bought 20 varsity and 15 JV airline tickets.
But two weeks ago, the CIFC dropped a bombshell on the JYFL, telling the league that it would have to dig deeper into its pockets if it wants to remain in the CIFC.
The CIFC actually wrote into its league bylaws that the JYFL now must purchase 30 varsity airline tickets for Juneau home games, and said the CIFC JV teams won't be coming to Juneau anymore. Because the only way to make the state playoffs is to be a member of a conference, and the other large school conference requires even more expensive travel to Fairbanks and the Mat-Su valleys, the JYFL grudgingly will accept the CIFC's edict. JYFL president Karen Lawfer did say the league was hoping the CIFC would accept a counter-proposal to go back to the original 27 tickets, though.
East Anchorage activities principal Sue Holway, who is the coordinating principal for football in the Anchorage School District, said one of the reasons for the CIFC policy change was that Anchorage schools said they couldn't afford to travel to Juneau anymore. But the JYFL picks up most of the visiting teams' costs, and the league receives no help when the Crimson Bears travel to Anchorage.
At the same time, the Anchorage schools can find the money to travel to Lower 48 games. In 1999, the Service Cougars actually took two trips to the Lower 48 (one to Washington and one to Hawaii) during an eight-game regular season. And when it came time that season for Service to make its CIFC trip to Juneau, you guessed it, Juneau paid most of the bill.
In the meantime, the Crimson Bears are going to have to find a way to raise more money for a program that already has an annual travel budget that's closing in on $250,000. That's a quarter of a million dollars, for one sport at one high school. Each year, before they take the field, the Juneau players have to pay $250 to join the JYFL, sell $400 in raffle tickets, sell $600 in ads for the team program and perform 10 hours of Chorebusters (where Juneau residents hire football players to do odd jobs like raking leaves or shoveling horse manure, with the money going to the JYFL).
Meanwhile, there are some schools that rarely have to do more than rent a couple of school buses for crosstown trips during the season to take care of their travel needs.
All of this makes me wonder about when ASAA will step in and try to find a way to make things more equitable when it comes to travel budgets. It's time for ASAA to do its job, which is promoting the growth of high school activities around the state and giving students a chance to compete on a level playing field. And aren't trips around the state educational?
I fully realize that school district budgets around the state are under pressure, and school activities are one of the first places cuts are made when the district can't afford books. But there are a couple of solutions available to ASAA that could level the playing field on travel costs.
First, ASAA needs to make Class 3A and Class 4A basketball teams wanting to travel to the Lower 48 show that they also are willing to within the state.
Before a trip to the Lower 48 is approved, that team must show signed home-and-home contracts with at least one team in each of the state's other three regions in its size classification. These are two-year contracts, so the travel can be staggered a little bit, but they will at least get teams traveling around the state again. If it helps get more travel around the state, then maybe ASAA can allow teams that have the three contracts to play an extra game or two, which would still allow a trip to the Lower 48.
Another solution is for ASAA to work with its corporate sponsors to create a statewide travel fund which can be used to help teams travel around the state. This can help in football, where teams have joined different conferences for competition reasons.
But the biggest thing is it's time for ASAA to finally do its job and take a stand on travel.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.