Our Opinion: Troubled MIAA must focus on its mission

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The spring regional high school tournaments are ongoing, with the Taconic baseball team's claiming of a third straight Western Massachusetts championship Saturday high among the highlights for Berkshire County teams. Away from the fields, however, the organization that manages the tournaments — the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) — is experiencing troubling and largely self-inflicted financial problems that could impact these tournaments in the years ahead.

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Bob Hohler, who has reported extensively on high school sports in the state, revealed the MIAA to be an agency mired in financial problems caused by costly retirement benefit increases and salary hikes at a time of declining tournament attendance. The financial crunch, described by Hohler as the worst in the MIAA's history, could lead to increased fees and dues for the 377 member schools and increased ticket prices. A fee hike on schools will translate to higher user fees for parents and an increase in ticket prices could trigger further drops in attendance. These hikes appear likely, at least in the short run, but in the long run new management, or at least dramatic reform, is needed to right the ship.

The agency, which is a nonprofit, has an annual budget of $6.5 million, 96 percent of which comes from public support. According to the Globe, the MIAA's cash and investments dropped by 35 percent between 2015 and 2018 to $1.2 million, its lowest balance in a decade. During this same period, however, the payroll for the organization's 29 employees increase by 22 percent to $1.3 million.

Atop the pay pyramid is Executive Director William Gaine Jr., who collects the handsome sum of $196,000 annually as head of the MIAA. He works out of the same office as executive director of the Massachusetts School Administrators Association (MSAA), earning $50,000 annually in that position. Mr. Gaines' four-member staff, which also is paid by the MIAA and the MSAA, saw its compensation rise by 18.5 percent to $772,000 over that same 2015-2018 period when MIAA revenue was declining. The two organizations, which were funding a $1.2 million retirement fund, recently increased the cost of the fund by guaranteeing retirees 80 percent of their incomes. This comes as pensions continue to vanish from the private sector in favor of 401ks.

Meanwhile, revenue has been declining dramatically at high school tournaments. From 2010 to 2018, turnout dropped by 20 percent and revenue by 67 percent to $317,000. Some of this may be due to increasing competition from televised sporting events in the cable and streaming era, but the MIAA also made the damaging decision in 2016 to move the state high school basketball tournament from Worcester, where it had been successful, to Springfield, where it has not. Tournament revenue has dropped by 56 percent to $217,000. Football championships at Gillette Stadium and hockey championships at TD Garden are played before a sea of empty seats, and while it is undoubtedly a thrill for student-athletes to play at the homes of the Patriots and Bruins, it is difficult to justify if tickets aren't being sold.

Athletic directors and superintendents critical of the MIAA and its management asserted in the Globe article that there is a desperate need for better financial oversight of the agency. A member of the Board of Directors described the board to the Globe reporter as a "rubber stamp," with a seven-member finance committee closely tied to Mr. Gaine seen as the real power.

In the months since the Globe began its study of the MIAA, the organization has trimmed its budget and has at least temporarily abandoned plans for increased dues, fees and ticket prices. The underlying problems remain, however. The organization needs greater transparency, increased oversight, and the kind of new ideas that can only result from new leadership. "Who is the MIAA actually serving?," asked Peter Rittenburg, a Brookline High School athletic director and holder of a Harvard degree in economics who analyzed the organization's finances. "The state's student-athletes or MIAA executives?" As of now, the executives are doing better than anyone involved with the MIAA, and that must change.

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