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Friends in High Places

By Laura Smith - Assistant Editor at MomentumMedia Sports Publishing.
With the help of a friends' organization, a Connecticut high school saves its athletics program.

May can be a tough month for high school administrators. For Lance Pliego, Athletic Director at New Milford (Conn.) High School, May 2005 brought the fourth year in a row of athletics funding cuts, and he could see no way out of eliminating three sports. From a list of undesirable options, he opted to cut girls' gymnastics, a co-ed swimming team, and boys' golf. Thirty athletes were told they would lose their sport.

By the time their seasons arrived, however, the athletes were competing for their school. The miracle, Pliego says, was pulled off by a key group of people, and every town has them: business owners and entrepreneurs, CEOs and senior managers, professors and professionals--people whose connections make them a "who's who" of a community.

In New Milford, they call themselves the Motivational Volunteers Promoting the Spirit of Sports and Activities (MVP-SOS). The group involves local businesspeople who twice a month gather over coffee at 6:00 a.m. to discuss how they can get other community leaders to support athletics at New Milford High. They are totally separate from the school's booster club, and most members do not have children currently on athletic teams.

The group began a year and a half ago, and its first fundraiser, a formal dinner with a $50 ticket price, raised over $20,000 and paid for an electronic sign outside the school that promotes school activities and athletic contests. The group envisioned providing the extras—the items on Pliego's wish list that otherwise wouldn't be affordable.

But in the fall of 2005, Pliego asked MVP-SOS to do more: to save three sports from the chopping block. Their second annual fundraising dinner was already in the planning stages, so with the school board's okay, MVP-SOS stepped up its goal and went to work. In Oct. 2005, their dinner—with the addition of a silent auction, brought in $32,000—enough to revive the three sports with money left over. The key, says MVP-SOS spokesperson John Kaiser, was thinking big.

MVP-SOS packages the fundraiser as a classy night on the town, and in just two years, it's become the not-to-be-missed social event of the season. For $75 per ticket (prices were raised $25 for the second year), patrons enjoy wine, dinner, and dessert, served in an elegant catering hall by professional chefs. The silent auction, set up in a large tent alongside the catering hall, included 28 high-ticket items—from sporting event tickets and ski trips to dinner certificates and golf outings—and contributed $10,800 to the final tally.

MVP-SOS members' roots in the business community were the second key to success. "Ninety-eight percent of all the proceeds from the dinner and auction were profit," says Kaiser. "With our contacts, we were able to get local business owners to donate almost everything. The local golf course donated the services of their chef and the side dishes. A local meat packing company and a local supermarket gave us the meat and fish for the dinner entrees. And all of the items for the auction were donated, including a signed Derek Jeter baseball that a friend of mine who is a representative of Rawlings Sporting Goods secured.

"I'm in broadcast sales, another member is a physician's assistant, and another has his own CPA firm," Kaiser continues. "We rub shoulders with all kinds of people in the course of our work day. We sold all 240 tickets and got all of the items donated just by personally picking up the phone and chatting with people we know."

Putting a face on the need for funds was important, too. Captains or seniors from each sports team were at the event, and Pliego placed player bios on each table. "Seeing the kids and reading about their accomplishments really made donors feel connected to the program," Kaiser says.

The success of MVP-SOS could easily be duplicated elsewhere, Kaiser believes. He recommends starting by assessing the parents of your current student-athletes. "Is there anyone who is a community leader, connected to local businesses?" he says. "Identify two or three such parents who you know care about the welfare of all the kids in the program. Approach them about starting a committee to get local business owners involved."

Although MVP-SOS may become part of the booster club in the future, for now the two complement each other. "For us, the groups have two different sets of goals," Pliego says. "The booster club focuses on smaller projects, like concessions stands and carwashes. MVP-SOS focuses on appealing to local businesses and corporate donors. The two groups also draw very different members151;there are few parents on MVP-SOS, so they aren't the same people who would join the booster club.

"However, at some point in the future I can see the two groups merging," Pliego continues. "I think the booster club could be the central entity with MVP-SOS as an arm responsible for big projects and targeting corporate donors."

One thing that Pliego does not want to see happen, though, is MVP-SOS rescuing teams every year. "We all agree that we do not want MVP-SOS to be in the role of sponsoring sports," he says. "From the start, we made it clear to the group and the superintendent that this was a one-time fix. Hopefully this year, the community will support the budget. But if they don't, we will not accept another donation to bring sports back, and we're making sure we get that message out to the community."



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