The Cost of Pageantry…Is It Worth It?

debaseinstallFinancing the Marching Arts

About a year ago, I was asked as a part of my job to do a little field research on the cost of extra-curricular activities on families. The purpose of this task was to determine whether or not the quasi-governmental entity I work for could fund underprivileged children’s participation in youth activities to help level the playing field in areas of education and the obesity epidemic. If funding wasn’t possible, then the project at the least would allow us to advocate and create position papers on why it is not only important, but necessary that all children have access to extra-curricular activities. What I came up with was not shocking to anyone who has been around youth activities for any length of time and in fact, much of the research was already done for me by author, Mark Hyman who wrote a book called, “The Most Expensive Game In Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families.” 

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I’m an advocate for research and statistics. I’ve spoken about it on this blog, on Facebook, circuit meetings and anywhere anyone will listen. I think they are vital to not just understanding our culture, but without it we can’t create public policy that makes sense and we can’t really understand ourselves. Without data, our lives just go on moment to moment without any true understanding of the connections to those around us. We never truly know the answers to the why’s and debate is almost pointless.

In my brief bout with researching extracurricular activities, I looked at dance, drama, hockey (note to self…way to expensive), tennis, golf, beauty pageants, every ball sport imaginable, and of course music, band, and winter guard. The project put me in touch with numerous people who were writing blogs on the cost of youth athletics. I had many phone calls with parents, coaches, and national industry leaders. Their opinions were sometimes shocking and sometimes appalling. Some of their opinions however, were ones of great concern for the direction youth activities are taking in this country and how youth activities are becoming less affordable and more white.

This is what we know and what research already tells us. If you can get a kid in any activity that requires discipline at an early age, they will be less likely to drop out of school, less likely to have issues with sedentary behavior, lower obesity rates, a stronger work ethic, and friends who are more likely to not participate in self destructive behaviors outside of the norm of teenage insanity.

So when looking at these sports activities several trends kept popping up that eventually became the recommendation from me that it would not be possible for us to fund youth activities at a rate that would make a significant difference. Unfortunately, in the world of funding “significance” is vitally important, especially to the tax payer. Here are just a few reasons my recommendation was a fairly definitive no:

  • Transportation 
    • Ever wonder why kids quit? Ask about transportation first.
  • Additional and hidden costs outside of the original contract
  • Parental Involvement that is not the issue of the parent, but issue of the activity and its unrealistic expectations
  • Fundraising based on poor budgeting, poor planning, and surprises 
  • Seasons that last for an entire year and not just a “season”
  • Unregulated activities that could put children at risk such as a lack of consistency in background checks, lack of training for coaches, lack of understanding of youth development, and a lack of consistent data to prove need
When I looked at all the activities, I realized something that became very clear to me. Pageantry, with all of its issues is probably the cheapest activity with the biggest return on investment. The problem with pageantry; marching band, winter guard, winter drum line, and drum corps, which are cheap comparatively to other activities, is that we exist under the radar. When you live under the radar, what might seem the best answer for the time can actually harm the ultimate mission. Pageantry falls into the traps that other sports do. It exhausts the household budget and doesn’t give parents much of a reprieve if the child participates at the state or national level. Just like other sports, there are good programs and bad. There are good instructors and bad instructors. One thing that I did notice in my research is that the pageantry arts for the most part does not take a strength based approach to training its instructors. A person barely in their 20’s, with no teaching background, no experience managing money, no experience managing facilities, and no understanding of risk management can find themselves in charge of a guard program.  Band is a little different as the director usually must have a college degree and is governed by the school they are hired by. Sometimes though, even a band director has little understanding of what their tasks are as they try to balance students, parents, administration, and budget. Many of the budgets take on well over 6 figures a year and parents are asked to pay into those budgets without much understanding as to what they are really paying for. 
Now, pageantry is not the only sport to have these problems, but our problems are unique in the sense that there are no “private clubs” to sign your child up for to make them better for the “varsity team.” There are no “little league” winter guard programs for the elementary children to participate in and compete against. Parent’s don’t put their children in marching band with the hope of getting a college scholarship or playing for the non existent professional league or Olympics. The majority of parents see marching band and winter guard as a good activity to keep their child busy, teach them a lesson or two, and get them some much needed exercise. Some parents unfortunately see pageantry as a fairly expensive baby sitting service without truly grasping its true beauty and the passion involved. The community certainly doesn’t see the passion, the work, and the benefit. So, with all we do and with all the expense, we aren’t seen as a major player in the world of youth activity, even though we serve thousands a year. 
I’m often amazed that with as many people in this country that have participated in marching band, drum corps, and winterguard, that there are still people who ask what the hell it is. This makes fundraising and advocating for funds difficult. The beauty of pageantry is that we have virtually gone unnoticed by big marketing and companies such as Nike, Gatorade, and Under Armour. When a kid joins the band, there aren’t big hopes of going to the Olympics in 4 years. A student holding a trombone for the first time as a 5th grader doesn’t usually have visions of playing the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl one day. They are usually just playing because it’s fun. We have managed to create an activity that is one of the few ones left untouched by big business. We haven’t been tainted by the buying and selling of the talents of children. It’s a double edged sword, though. Being under the radar makes it very difficult to create community buy-in and buy-in is exactly what we need right now. We need it, because it is becoming too expensive and we are pricing families out of it. We are pricing families out who have never been priced out before. Much of this is the fault of the economy, but some of it is the fault of an activity who hasn’t looked at ways to bring costs down. In all reality, if my child came to me today and said he had been accepted by one of the top 12 drum corps, I’m not sure he could march. We simply don’t have that much disposable income. 
This is unacceptable! 
We need every kid who wants to pick up an instrument, play a drum, spin a flag, or dance a phrase to be able to. The costs of the actual program are just the start, because we also have to consider that by the time a child reaches high school, the family has been paying for years of athletics, might have other children, and are saving for college…and this is just middle class. 
We are an activity that CAN get kids through high school. If we can figure out a way to get music, dance, and flags in their hands starting in elementary school, then we might just have an advocate for life. I can see a world where children who grow up in poverty will get the gift of music and with that we build their math skills, passion for school, and a place that is safe and monitored. 
How do we do it?

Well, we start by understanding that the solution lies in the longevity of the activity. We create buy in by the people who have already participated. We build a case. We say that every kid and parent who wants to play can, because the community is going to support them. We figure out the transportation problem once and for all. We make it unacceptable for any parent to say that their child can’t participate because the school is too far away and they can’t afford the cost of gas. We figure out how to lower the costs of participation fees by getting the community to give us gym space, stages, and field time. We teach instructors how to consign equipment, uniforms, and save on travel. We teach instructors and directors that maybe they shouldn’t make every season a travel season to Dayton, so they can raise funds in the off year. We make sure that instruments and long term instruction on how to play those instruments get into the hands of every child who has ever desired to play. We professionalize instruction and do our best to insure that none of our instructors end up as the opening story to the nightly news for inappropriate actions with a minor or misappropriating funds. We make it unacceptable for the community and private sector to turn their backs on the activity. We show them that with their investment children graduate high school, which ultimately brings unemployment and the crime rate down. Seems pie in the sky? Well, we use to fund little league baseball for that very reason. 

We build a case. We collect data and prove that with the long term participation in the pageantry arts that children have a better chance of graduation and higher rate of entering college. We take the thousands of alumni of this activity from decades of pageantry and we speak in one voice that we want every child to experience the passion we had the luck to experience. We stop writing proposals at the local and national level that focus on the needs of a few units and that almost border on the nature of ego and greed. 
I was brought this up to a friend of mine once. He said that if a student wanted to participate they could. He said that the parents were just lazy. The fee for the program he teaches at over the course of an entire school year is approximately $3,500. Even with fundraising, that amount of money for many families is virtually impossible. I asked him point blank, “How do kids who are poor fund raise  when most fundraising for youth activities occurs within the community they live?” There was no answer. I then asked him how a single mother would manage transportation with rehearsals over 3 times a week, football games, and shows on Saturdays. What if she worked shift work and the child doesn’t live in the community with the school, but takes a bus in? So the answer is that we just say, “It was luck of the draw kid. Sorry.”
You see, these are all considerations that I believe is time to discuss, because it’s not just flags in a gym anymore. I know people that have said this activity saved their life and in the times we live in, our children could certainly use this activity. We have to ask questions, debate, and find solutions. We have to create a community advocacy plan and speak the same language from the national level all the way to the local community recreation centers. We need people at the state capitols and in Washington. This is not just about music education, because if it were we would just leave it up to the school systems, which are already under funded and under staffed. 
I believe that this problem is complex and the solutions aren’t easy, but I believe if we do it right, then we can turn a generation of kids on to pageantry in a way that has never been imagined. I can see a day where the Dayton floor is made up of the melting pot of the U.S. Census and not one of income disparity. It’s time to re-imagine the picture of what pageantry is and see if our reach can go way beyond to floor of Dayton and the football field of Indianapolis.