Shannon Benton knows the serious implications of Flowery Branch moving up a classification and into a new region.
The foundation for any high school athletic program is the money raised from boosters and ticket sales — more specifically, ticket sales from football games. Benton, the Falcons’ athletic director since the school’s inception in 2002, is faced with a realization his program may take a significant financial hit due to a potential lack of football ticket sales moving forward.
Before this year, the only region the Falcons have competed in was 7-AAA, the same region that featured Hall County rivals Chestatee, Gainesville, East Hall, Johnson, North Hall and West Hall, as well as nearby schools Lumpkin County and White County. The close proximity of those schools made traveling to football games easy for fans and resulted in big gates.
Beginning this school year, Flowery Branch now competes in Region 8-AAAA, where it’s the only Hall County school. Most of its competition is an hour or more away. Apalachee, Clark Central, Madison County, Winder-Barrow, Cedar Shoals, Heritage, Loganville, Rockdale County and Salem are all 45 minutes to an hour away south, east or southeast. Habersham Central is 45 minutes north.
In other words, banking on ticket sales from the visiting crowd just got a whole lot harder.
Benton and school officials braced for a potential decline in ticket sales more than a year ago.
“We were proactive and held back money from last year’s income to make sure we’re OK,” he said. “We have to find out exactly how to structure our financial expenditures going forward in this new region.”
Benton said the athletic program has been putting back money for years. The past three seasons, Flowery
Branch football raked in more than $100,000 — net gains — each year in booster donations and ticket sales, including $30,000 for its state playoff finals appearance at the Georgia Dome in 2008.
Last season, the Falcons earned a net total of more than $20,000 from their Nov. 6 match-up against Gainesville. But now, as a member of the 11-team 8-AAAA, the Falcons must play an all-region schedule and can no longer play local schools.
“I congratulated (Falcons football coach Lee Shaw) on a great season last year, with the deep playoff run and then his son (Connor) signing with South Carolina (to play quarterback),” said Randell Owens, coach of Madison County, an 8-AAAA member since 2002. “Then I told him ‘I hope you banked on all of that money you made during that season, because you’ll be needing it.’”
Owens knows. He’s seen the smallish following some 8-AAAA schools bring and knows the financial implications that result.
“I showed (Shaw) a picture of the Rockdale County sidelines during (last year’s state) semifinals (at Clarke Central),” Owens said. “The visiting bleachers were basically empty. One-third of them were filled with the band and the others were coaches with Georgia High School Association passes. And this was a state semifinal game. When Rockdale played (at) Habersham Central, on the visitor’s side, there were two people in the stands, and they were bus drivers being paid.
“(Flowery Branch) is going to be living off that money they made (in past seasons), so if they saved it, that was wise. Because they’ll be needing it.”
Benton is taking a more optimistic approach to Flowery Branch’s position, saying it will take two years — the time it will take for the Falcons to play home and away games against their new region foes — to better determine how the region change affects the program financially.
Though Shaw said he heard at a region meeting that some schools don’t travel well, Benton has faith in other schools, like Friday’s opponent Apalachee.
“I think Apalachee is a mirror image to us,” Benton said. “Their demographics are similar, they’re a new school like us, they’ve had success, and they travel well.
“I see them turning into one of our biggest rivals. Not in a bad way — both schools will bring great gates.”
On the flip side, Benton said last year’s worst gates actually came from some Hall County schools. He said factors like a team’s record, the point in the season, and weather factor more into a fan’s decision to travel rather than distance.
Last week, Flowery Branch hosted its first home game against Winder-Barrow — a 28-0 shutout that moved the Falcons to 2-0 on the season. Benton said Winder had a decent following and the gate — $14,000 net — was on par with last year’s average.
As of now, Flowery Branch is prepared for the unknown, the potential lack of football gate sales. However, long-term, the distance of region opponents, which could lead to a significant decrease in ticket sales, could negatively impact the athletic program.
Profits made from football games don’t just feed the football program. They also feed non-revenue sports such as track and field, golf and cross country. If the money starts to run out, Flowery Branch may have to make budget cuts.
That could result in disaster.
“Flowery Branch is in between two great city schools,” Benton said. “Buford is 15 miles south on one side and Gainesville is 10 miles north. We have to provide for our kids an environment people want to be involved in, or they’ll chose to pay tuition and transfer. That’s just the reality.”
In the meantime, while Flowery Branch waits to see how competing in a new region affects the athletic program, all it can do is budget accordingly.
“We’re going to be frugal and that’s always been our practice since we opened up the school,” Benton said.