Wanda Thompson laughed at a recent meeting of high school athletics directors when one of her cohorts talked about generating $25,000 in preseason ticket sales and encouraging attendance at basketball games by admitting spectators free of charge before 6 p.m.
Thompson is athletics director at Warren County High, which serves a community where 27.1 percent of the population lives in poverty and 86.5 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
“Twenty-five thousand dollars? That’s my budget for just about the whole year,” said Thompson, who considers an $800 purchase of baseball and softballs for a season of play at Warren County High to be a major expense.
“We can’t let spectators in free. Our system and our board have done a great job for us athletically, but we still have to watch every nickel.”
The squeeze on the high school athletic program at Warren County, and in the other five school systems that formed the Roanoke River Valley Education Consortium, is a tad looser because of a partnership with Spalding, a manufacturer of athletic equipment.
The seven high schools and 11 middle schools in the RRVEC each will get one football, one girls’ basketball, one boys’ basketball, a dozen baseballs and a dozen softballs from Spalding and will receive a 40 percent discount off the catalog price on Spalding equipment.
In return, the RRVEC schools will use Spalding equipment exclusively and provide signage and other publicity.
“This is wonderful,” Thompson said. “Anything we can do to hold down expenses is great. A good basketball will be $50 to $60 and to be able to get balls and equipment at a discount is unbelievable. This is something that we never could have done on our own.”
Brian Kelly, a Spalding representative based in Connecticut, said this is one of the few partnerships the company has made with a school consortium.
“We feel really good about going into an economically challenged area and giving some help,” Kelly said.
Sporting goods manufacturers more often have relationships with state associations. The N.C. High School Athletic Association, for example, has a partnership with Wilson Sporting Goods and uses Wilson balls in state playoff competitions.
“I don’t know of another group of school systems who have entered into an agreement like this one,” said Karen DeHart, an NCHSAA assistant commissioner who handles development and marketing.
The Roanoke River Valley Education Consortium was formed about 20 years ago by Warren County Schools, Bertie County Schools, Halifax County Schools, Hertford County Schools, Northampton County Schools and Weldon City Schools.
“Initially, we were formed to look at grants that we could apply for, but we have evolved,” said Dr. Elie Bracy, the superintendent of Weldon City Schools. “We still look at grants, but we also look for other opportunities.”
Bracy said the athletic partnership should help all of the students.
“This should free some funds that we can put into the classroom,” he said.
All of the schools in the consortium are in rural and economically challenged areas of northeastern North Carolina.
The poverty rate ranges from 21.7 percent in Northampton County to 27.1 percent in Warren County. More than 80 percent of the students in each county receive free or reduced-price lunches, including 98.2 percent of the students in Northampton County.
The deal is no bonanza, but even the smallest financial break is appreciated, said Thompson, the Warren County athletics director.
Her budget took an unexpected hit this school year when a soccer goalpost broke. Thompson hopes to have the goalpost welded and repaired, but already she has told the football team that new gray uniform pants have become a low priority.
“We had some success this year and had a good year financially,” she said. “But it is tight every year.”