It was a crisp autumn evening, the perfect atmosphere for high school football and the much anticipated matchup between Paul VI Catholic and DeMatha. Nearly 3,000 people crammed into the metal bleachers of Paul VI's tiny stadium off Lee Highway in Fairfax on Oct. 15 to watch the two undefeated teams play a key Washington Catholic Athletic Conference game.
Paul VI suffered a humbling 43-0 loss to DeMatha, but as far as turnouts go the Panthers were victorious. Derek Donnelly, Paul VI's athletic director, said the school collected $10,000 in gate receipts, an amount that does not include thousands more fans spent buying soda, food and team merchandise at the concession stand. Once expenses are deducted and DeMatha gets its share, Donnelly said the school expects to clear nearly $3,500 from the gate.
"The word is out about us, and the crowds we're drawing," Donnelly said. "We're able to supplement our entire athletic department budget by doing so well at the [football] gates."
High school football in the metropolitan area is big business. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and the Virginia High School League, which oversee most high school sports in the region, do not keep attendance figures, but several area athletic directors said fan support and participation in football remains strong, despite the rising popularity of other sports such as lacrosse and soccer.
Third-ranked DeMatha (7-0-1), the WCAC's defending champion, had more than 500 students, alumni and faculty attend its game at Paul VI. Some were like alumni Marian Brown. Although her son, Marvin, graduated from DeMatha last year and now plays for the University of Alabama, she still comes back to watch the Stags.
"A lot of us are here today because we love DeMatha," Brown said. "It's like a family. You come to holler, yell, support and motivate them [the players]."
Gonzaga also has a loyal following. At Saturday's away game against DeMatha, 300 fans were among the 2,000 in the stands at Parkdale High in Riverdale.
However, some schools struggle to attract fans. Ed Morris, who is the athletic director at Whitman in Bethesda, said home attendance has declined this season because of a slow start by the Vikings and a schedule that has games against rivals on the road.
"We've been down," Morris said. "Our last game is against Churchill [Nov. 5]. . . . That'll give us a notion as to whether we're going to break even. Nobody's suffered because we're raising funds other ways all the time."
Sometimes, it can be difficult for a successful team to draw fans. Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies said getting parents, students and alumni to attend games has become tougher, even this season when the Crimson Tide (4-3-1) has a good chance to repeat as the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association champion.
District schools often play games Friday afternoon, a difficult time for working parents and teenagers--who have jobs after school--to attend. "We've got a very active alumni association. But people are busy," Jefferies said. "We're vying for a piece of an already packed schedule. If it's a big game, they will come."
Attendence at the Virginia doubleheader football state championship declined nearly 33 percent last year to an estimated 18,000 paid fans because of less-than-spectacular matchups, said Hannah Catherine Munro, director of development for the VHSL, which puts on championships for all sports. Gate receipts, she said, bring in only a fraction of the $46,000 needed to execute the football championships.
"What we would like to do is come up with more corporate sponsors to support events," said Munro, who added that football still brings in the bulk of money from attendance at championships. Of the 80 state championships held every year, she said 60 produce no revenue. "Traditionally, [football] is the sport where people have been spectators. People outside of just parents and friends will attend."
Last season, gate receipts for postseason football among public schools in Maryland rose 11 percent to an estimated 42,000 people at 28 games, while the attendance at last season's DCIAA championship game was 3,200, the same as in 1997.
"Last year, the championship had two teams from the west [Theodore Roosevelt vs. Dunbar]," said Allen Chin, director of athletics for the District's public schools. "It's the same old teams, and people get tired of it." Still, Chin said the game brought in nearly $29,000 in receipts before expenses.
With a strong alumni association, tradition of winning and the ambiance of a Friday night social occasion for students, top-ranked Seneca Valley has averaged 4,000 fans for its home games this season, Coach Terry Changuris said.
"I think the big crowds and fanfare occur when you have a program that wins year after year," said Changuris, whose team drew more than 5,000 fans Oct. 15 to its victory over Damascus. "High school football is a lot of fun. The kids play with such passion and lay it out on the field."