The pandemic should be a wake-up call for those of us in high school sports. It’s presented a newer, more extreme version of the same old obstacles, a version that could jeopardize the lifeblood of athletic departments (which were always in more perilous shape than we wanted to admit, anyway).

The first part of this two-pronged threat is the daunting prospect of tightened spectator restrictions, which will affect gate money and concession sales, and the second is a sad reality of beleaguered booster clubs, which have been weakened as small businesses have closed and others struggle to make end’s meet.

High school athletic departments are always reliant upon these factors to stay afloat from season to season.

I don’t think it should take a pandemic for us to take a step back and take note of how to best ensure the posterity of high school sports, but since we’re here, let’s do it anyway.

There is something on the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s horizon that affects every school in the state at a number of levels, and it’s the best place to start such introspection: realignment.

We’ve made NCHSAA realignment matter too much to schools’ bottom lines.

It’s a four-year commitment (and by Year Four you’re using six-year-old data) to both a classification and a conference, which are used in tandem and affect travel costs and your gate money.

NCHSAA schools fret realignment because they all know they could easily end up in a league that stresses them financially for four years.

So long as we continue to do it this way, that will always be the case.

But if we did something different (but not unheard of), this could change.

NCHSAA schools could be well-served by decoupling the realigning of conferences from the realigning of classifications. It’s a breakup that has made sense for a long time.

Mouths to feed

We have been doing realignment the same for decades, and all those decades ago, schools had only a handful of programs to support — boys and girls basketball, football, boys and girls track and field, baseball, and a few others depending on the school.

Yet today, even a small 2A school or a large-but-rural 1A might have 20-plus varsity and JV programs (even if some of those programs like cross country, golf, swimming, and wrestling don’t field a full team).

That’s a lot of bus rides and uniforms.

And here we are, still doing realignment practically the same way.

Athletic departments face different expenses depending on their school system. Some are responsible for their own gas money. Others must fund their own coaching stipends.

Gate money is a lifeblood — some sports couldn’t field a team without home football games — and so are booster clubs.

The double-whammy of crowd size restrictions and small business woes impacting booster clubs means we need to explore how to curb realignment’s financial effects.

The Central Carolina 2A Conference is a realignment success story. It has 10 teams, and eight are in one county (in fact, the only Davidson County school not in the CCC is 1A South Davidson). Many of the schools are within a 30-minute drive.

In 2018, the athletic directors from that conference reported seeing an increase in gate money across the board and a decrease in expenses across the board.

Isn’t that what we should be striving for, for all schools?

This conference came about almost by luck: Oak Grove was opening between a then-3A Ledford and then-4A North Davidson, so all three schools had projected enrollments (about 990 each) that placed them in 2A with five other in-county schools.

Let’s not rely on luck anymore.

Let’s intentionally try to achieve these results.

The future of high school sports may depend on it.

The path forward

Decoupling conference realignment from classification realignment may make you wonder, “why would teams in different classifications want to stay in the same conference?”

It’s the same logic we use split conferences now: it made more sense for competitive and/or financial reasons.

Those are the same reasons why N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association schools will change conferences without changing classification.

I often think of how Eastern Wayne (891 students) and Southern Wayne (1,051 students) are stuck in a 3A/4A league because there were too few nearby 3A teams to form a 3A-only conference. But even when those schools had slightly higher enrollments, were their athletic departments at a major advantage if they were to have instead played in a conference with nearby 2A schools like Spring Creek (758) South Lenoir (710) or North Lenoir (858)? Not really.

Why not just “play your neighbor” when it makes sense to for conference play and go your separate ways into the postseason — which is kind of what already happens in football — rather than rope teams into bad geographic fits for years at a time?

Can you imagine how much stronger rivalries would be across the state if teams were able to stay in the same league for decades, or as long as it made competitive sense for both? We’ve all seen a rivalry or two go cold after years of those teams not being in the same conference.

Like the Davidson County schools have shown, having a tight-knit and competitive league can be a major boost financially and in terms of community interest.

But in order to roll this out statewide, it means getting over a once-rational-but-not-so-much-anymore phobia of split conferences.

Split conferences, used so frequently in the NCISAA that they are barely discussed, are not the burden to NCHSAA schools that they once were. Over the last decade, a slew of rules have been passed to prevent split conferences from being an easy path to getting home playoff games.

Take Montgomery Central as an example of how this could work.

The school itself was formed last year when East and West Montgomery were merged, making it the only 3A school in a conference with 2A teams. Montgomery Central had to finish in the top three of its league to get a playoff berth. And though Montgomery Central was in a different classification, it didn’t dominate its league opponents.

It shows how other conferences could be formed in that same vein, placing competitive and geographic fit ahead of classification in terms of priority.

The timing is wrong, or is it?

The realignment committee — already about a year behind schedule due to an NCHSAA membership vote on tweaking realignment rules (that failed) and the pandemic itself — is going to have trouble enough calculating average daily membership numbers when half or all of a given school are online.

In some ways, the timing couldn’t be worse for some sort of transformative overhaul of realignment.

But then again, maybe that lack of an exact ADM makes this the exact right time to put in something new.

Conferences can be made with only approximations of ADMs and classification cutoffs, and, at a later date (even perhaps in the fall), teams will be assigned to their respective classes when those numbers are determined.

This could be the perfect opportunity to make realignment something that works for schools, not against them.

Their bottom lines could surely use it.