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Leasing the Future of Football

Many athletic booster clubs raise money to offset the cost of their schools' sports program. Fergus Falls Youth Activities Club, though, has a different role. The 501(c)3 athletic booster club's main goal is to promote football to younger students in this central Minnesotan community in an effort to reverse the declining number of high school student-athlete participation. The club's six-man football program, now entering its third year, is hugely popular among parents and has attracted more than 150 kids each season.


The Fergus Falls School District has taken notice. In an innovative three-year pilot program, the school district is leasing its junior high football program to the activities club with the hope that success at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels will encourage these younger student-athletes to go out for varsity sports when they reach high school.


By Danielle Catalano

Before coming to Fergus Falls High School (FFHS), new football coach Richard Risbrudt spent 29 years across town at the private Hillcrest Lutheran Academy, serving as a math teacher, athletic director and head football coach. His tenure at Hillcrest was successful, making the state playoffs 10 years in a row and winning the state championship in 2001.


FFHS, Risbrudt quickly found out, was not as lucky. The high school is the smallest in the powerhouse Central Lake Conference and has experienced declines in overall enrollment as well as sport participation-especially at the senior level. While he couldn't prevent the decline in school enrollment, Risbrudt was adamant in reversing the non-participation trend plaguing Fergus Falls.


"When I got hired in 2005, the first question the superintendent asked me was, 'What do we have to do to be successful?'," explains Risbrudt. "I said two things: Number One, we have to have strength-training classes during the school day. Right now, schools that have strength-training classes during the school day are very successful in athletics. Number Two, we need to start a youth football program with tackling in third grade, not seventh grade like we've been doing. I cannot control the process of the strength-training class—that's up to the school board—but the board did give me the green light to start the youth football program. I said that I needed to raise $30,000, and they said go ahead."


With help from coordinators Dan and Carl Prischmann ("Two brothers who love football and kids and are basically my year-round assistants," says Risbrudt) and secretary-treasurer Sherri Money ("A godsend who handles all the computer and legal stuff," he adds.), Risbrudt re-organized the FFHS football booster club into the non-profit Fergus Falls Youth Activities Club and implemented the youth football program. More than 150 youngsters between grades 3 through 6 have participated in the program each of the last three seasons. Risbrudt says parents sign up their children for various reasons, but the top two are guaranteed equal skill-playing times and no traveling, as the kids play against each other.


With the elementary problem solved, Risbrudt focused on the junior high team. At the junior high level, Fergus Falls is actually one of the larger schools in the immediate area, forcing officials to divide the players into four seventh- and eighth-grade teams. The students would play four games over six weeks, "but oftentimes, one of the games rained out, snowed out, or cancelled. So really, we were playing three games," says Risbrudt.


"And because we divided up our talent equally," he continues, "we would get beat badly—the score would be 36-6 or 40-0. This had been happening for 20, 22 years. So, because they were only playing tackle football for the first time in seventh grade and they were not successful, and when they got to ninth grade and played a Central Lakes Conference schedule—which was very difficult—it also proved difficult to keep or get kids out for varsity football."


Risbrudt believed that if the junior high team was coordinated the same way as the activities club's youth football program, the transition to varsity football would be easier and more rewarding for the younger student athletes. In April 2007, the school board agreed and leased the junior high team to the activities club for three years. An evaluation will take place after the 2009 season, and if the results show positive gains, the activities club may retain the junior high program. Risbrudt discusses the lease and the unique role the athletic booster club has with the future success of Fergus Falls High School football.


Fundraising For Sports (FFS):How did you go about raising the necessary funds for the youth program?
Richard Risbrudt (RR): Back in 2005 when I got the green light from the board, I contacted one influential leader in the community, ran the program idea by him and asked, "Will you help me raise this money?" He said, "This is what you do: call 25 people you think will donate $1,000. Invite them to a breakfast at Perkins on a Tuesday morning and let them know that you're doing this as a fundraiser to help youth football get started."

And I did that. I called 25 men and women and told them what they can expect. Eighteen came and I explained that third and fourth graders would play Six-Man Football and the fifth and sixth graders would play Nine-Man Football. Eventually, we raised $25,000.


FFS: What questions did this group of sponsors ask?
RR: Their first concern was, "Okay, where will the money be going and what will it be used for?" We said, "We're going to purchase new equipment. There's a lot of used stuff floating out there. If we're starting for the first time, we're going to get all the helmets that are NOCSAE-approved (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment), brand-new shoulder pads and pants, and just do it right. It cost about $110 per player just to put equipment on.


We gave them a proposed budget, balance sheets, an outline of what the money would be used for, approximate costs, and so they just wanted to verify this. They wanted to know about insurance and we said that we found a good insurance company that insures each kid's liability for $12 to $15.


FFHS_Youth.jpgThey asked if we were going to pay coaches. No, we said, they're all volunteers. Are we going to pay the referees? Yes, $20 a game. Are you going to cut the fields, mow the lawns, and draw the lines? I said Nine-Man football would play on a 40-yard wide field as long as we could get a field available. For the maintenance, I said no, we're not going to mow or make the lines. We're just going to use cones to mark the field. We saved a lot of money this way.


FFS: How is the youth program coordinated?
RR: My rationale behind Six-Man Football was that if you ask any third- or fourth-grade student which position he wants to play, none will pick a lineman—they all want to be quarterback. In Six-Man Football, you have five skill-positions and one lineman, the center.

Third and fourth grades would be playing together and we got eight teams, with the dads being the coaches. We did the same for fifth and sixth grade, only they had eight teams of Nine-Man Football. For third and fourth grade, you have about 10 kids on each team with three or four subs. In Nine-Man, you have about 13 on a team, sometimes up to 14—and they all play, no matter how good they are. There's a requirement that says all players must get in four plays every quarter. So now, little Johnny has to get in 16 plays for a game—and that's good for everybody. Our youth football players are playing at halftime of every home varsity football game. Right there, we have increased attendance—every parent comes to the games, which is good because we have more people showing up in the stands.


We charged a $100 fee for grades 3 to 6 and raised a total of $30,000, which helped to purchase equipment and everything we needed to help run the program. That first year, we had 154 kids in youth football. The second year, we had more than 180. They would practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays after supper when the dads got done with work. And they play their games on Saturday mornings on the football practice field, one after another.


FFS: Why did the Fergus Falls Activity Club seek to take over the junior high team?
RR: I actually got the ball rolling when I got e-mails from concerned parents who knew what happened in the past with the seventh- and eighth-grade program. Because of the success at the third- through sixth-grade levels, I went to the other coaches and asked them what we could do.


Also, because the school ran our seventh- and eighth-grade program, the coaches had to be paid and the four coaches were paid approximately $2,200 to $2,600 each, and kids were only charged a $40-participation fee. With travel—about $1,000 a year—equipment at a $1,000, along with insurance, supplies, referees, and preparing the field, our school was operating the seventh-and eighth-grade program at about an $8,500 to $9,000 loss. So all things were leading to the booster club taking over the program.


Because of the tremendous support we got from the community with the initial fundraising, we just thought taking over the program was something we had to do. And the important thing was that the equipment was already there, it just needed to be refurbished and that was something we could do, so we didn't need a massive fundraising effort to add two more.


FFS: How did the club propose taking over the junior high football program?
RR: In order to this, the school had to drop the program and let it be taken over by the booster club. So we worked on certain things with the administration, such as lease equipment for $1. In the meantime, the booster club figured out that we would have to charge a fee of at least $125 or $135, because were going to be paying our coaches. That was okay because the students who had already gone through the youth football program were already used to paying $100 to participate.


We also would't be traveling—teams from Fergus Falls would be playing each other instead of area schools. Depending on how many kids sign up, we will either have four 11-Man teams playing each other or six Nine-Man teams playing each other. We would like them to play 11-Man Football, but we're more interested in seeing the kids participate and having fun and having more a successful year than in the past.


FFS: What items did the booster club have to consider for the junior high program?
RR: The rules for required number of plays will carry over, but they'll be a little different because we decided to incorporate all the rules students have to follow in seventh and eighth grade tackle football according to the Minnesota State High School League, such as eligibility, alcohol, and tobacco. There are additional rules, such as academics, that we have to work out and enforce so the teacher knows to notify the coach.


FN2.7FFHS_Varsity.jpgIn order for the booster club to take over the program from the school, we had to answer one of the major concerns: will the booster club just make up its own rules for eligibility or will it follow the high school rules? We agreed to follow the high school rules because the high school rules are actually tougher than the state high school league's—Fergus doubles the penalties. The state's required penalty for the first violation is a two-game or two-week suspension, whichever is longer. It's our school policy that if a seventh or eighth grader gets caught drinking or smoking, he's not out two games or two weeks, but four. We agreed to follow those rules that are currently in effect at our high school, which only makes sense.


FFS: Do you think the activities club will develop different sport teams or programs? If so, how will it raise the necessary funding?
RR: Yes. Each of our sports in the district has its own booster club. But with schools looking for ways to cut budgets if need be and if this program continues to be successful, it may force other booster clubs to take over their sports at the younger levels. In our town, the school board has discussed eliminating middle school sports programs. They haven't done that, but they have discussed it—and football is the pilot program. We may have to operate the program at a loss the first year because the $125 won't cover everything or we may have to buy more equipment. But we do have other fundraisers that we borrow from the varsity program.


We have one fundraiser called the Otter Card, where we sell discount cards of businesses where people can get breaks for shopping at the businesses. In fact, we give each youth football player five Otter Cards to sell for $10. They're good discounts, like buy one meal, get one free. Just by giving those cards to the youths, the businesses like it because they're getting more people to their stores. Yes, they're getting a discount, but people are buying other things as well. It's been accepted and used by our community successfully.


The other fundraiser is our golf tournament fundraiser. It's an Otter football golf tournament that raises $4,000 to $6,000 for these programs, grades 3 through 6 and 9 through 12, to supplement the high school program. The school provides the basic expenses, but if we want a decal on the helmets, the booster club has to buy the decal.


FFS: How is the activities club publicizing the new seventh- and eighth-program?
RR: We have a Web site, www.ffsareafootball.org. It isn't the best Web site, but it gives information. We put our calendar on there, stating when, where, and times of games and practices. I've written letters on it to parents and coaches and put our Otter varsity football statistics on it. We also use the local paper, the Fergus Fall Daily Journal, put up billboards, and some businesses allow us to post announcements on community boards. We have a telecom, Otter Telecom, that has a digital display sign that posts community events. We announce information on the radio stations here, and the sportscaster, Craig Olson, has his own Web site, where he writes great articles on the area teams and will post stuff for us, too.


FFS: What is the administration's perspective on the junior high program?
RR: They knew that seventh and eighth grade was not very successful—that teams were too big and kids were dangling on the sidelines—and that things were bad, but their hands were tied regarding the amount of money they had to pay the coaches.


It helped that several school board members were coaches for our youth program and saw how successful it was and how much the kids enjoyed it. They were very supportive of this new idea. In fact, I had to do very little convincing—they bought into it right away and they had nothing to lose. They didn't have to gamble anything because the booster club people are doing all the work. If it works, great. If it fails, it will be okay. They just let us use the grass.



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