Facilities (Sports and Fitness)

Let's Play Ball! Managing Sport Facilities

Facility requirements for athletic programs in schools present challenges that coaches, students and parents may not be fully aware of.

Several years ago the irrigation system went off during the first inning of a major league baseball game in Shea Stadium, prompting the commentators to question whether or not they had ever seen anything like that happen before. It was a reminder that behind all of the practice and competition of athletic events, there is a complex facilities infrastructure requiring significant planning, design, operations and maintenance. For those in charge of providing and maintaining educational facilities in public education, this could be considered an added responsibility. School facilities administrators are skilled in many areas, including health and safety issues for students, planning and scheduling capital improvements, energy conservation and dealing with compliance for school buildings. The management of sport facilities in public schools involves all of these concerns along with many others.

sports facility 


Each year, facility administrators develop a capital outlay budget to prioritize a never-ending list of facility needs across the district. Athletic facilities, particularly those in high schools, can heavily impact this process. The spirit of competition can drive a diverse group of participants to demand improvements in gymnasiums, locker rooms, training facilities, tracks and assorted playing fields. This is particularly true when there is a perceived inequity between schools. Parents and community members speak at school board meetings making comparisons and requesting new facilities or upgrades. The addition of lighting, artificial turf or synthetic track surfaces at one school will invariably create a similar need in others. District officials faced with budget cuts and other critical needs for the educational environment are forced to delay athletic facility improvements creating even more discontent.

This experience has led to increased involvement from booster clubs, parent teacher associations and community organizations to raise funds for specific athletic facility improvements. In recent years, school boards have wrestled with new policy issues regarding procedures for the approval of these projects. Ignoring these activities may result in serious problems for the school system. Design and construction must be consistent with district standards related to expected life cycle, safety and aesthetics. The organization must be able to pay for the completed project without the district incurring responsibility, unless funding participation by the board has been agreed to beforehand.

Over time, the size, type and quality of athletic facilities may inadvertently reflect certain biases held within the community. This often results in one segment of the student population being favored over another, particularly between male and female sports programs in schools. In many cases athletic facilities such as gymnasiums, training areas and practice fields are shared between groups with the exception of softball and baseball fields which are predominately divided by girls and boys. Everything including covered dugouts, fencing, lighting, spectator accommodations and the overall condition of the field is subject to comparison. Discrepancies most often found are male teams having better facilities. In 1972 congress passed Title IX – Public Law 92-318 which states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

In a 1977 case, Daniels v. School Board of Brevard County, a complaint was filed by a parent alleging the school system was in violation of Title IX due to improvements made to the baseball field at Merritt Island High School in Florida. The booster club added an announcer’s booth, new bleachers, restrooms and lighting for night games to the baseball field, however similar upgrades were nonexistent for the softball field. When faced with a lawsuit, the district began dismantling improvements to the baseball field due to an inability to fund improvements for the softball facility. Nevertheless, the U.S. District Court required equivalent upgrades for the girls’ facilities. It has become increasingly common across the country for public school systems to deal with this issue. Title IX compliance is not the responsibility of outside organizations, it rests solely with the board of education. Facilities administrators should routinely conduct audits throughout the district with a focus sports facilities.

From an operations perspective, the management of athletic facilities is a key consideration in the district’s energy management program. Typical water and sewer usage for a high school depending on size of the facility may average hundreds of gallons a year costing between $20,000 and $30,000. An aggressive irrigation program for ballfields may use more than half as much water necessary for normal operations in the school building costing over $10,000 a year. It is understandable that maintaining competitive playing fields requires irrigation, however; care must be taken that automatic controls are carefully managed to eliminate wasteful spending. It is unlikely that athletic directors and coaches concerned with the condition of the fields receive information related to cost. Additionally, irrigation lines are often added to existing utility systems without sub-metering allowing utility providers to include sewer charges for water. Stadium lighting also represents an opportunity for energy savings. Annual costs for lighting football fields vary based on use and utility rates. Davidson County schools in North Carolina has eight schools with stadium lighting averaging a little less than $7,000 a year.

An additional concern for facilities managers in public education arose in 2003 when the death of football player Ricky Lannetti at Lycoming College increased awareness on MRSA infections in schools. MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) spreads easily in athletic facilities, locker rooms and gyms because of shared equipment and skin-to-skin contact. Surfaces in these areas including weight training and wrestling areas must be designed for routine cleaning by the users as well as custodial staff. Special consideration of cleaning materials and techniques should be reviewed periodically to prevent the spread of infection in areas where skin contact is made.

Easy access to athletic facilities by emergency medical personnel is another consideration for the design and operation of outdoor and indoor athletic facilities. This is particularly complex during sporting events attended by the public.

The new state of the art football stadium in Katy, Texas is currently the most expensive high school football stadium in the nation with a price tag of $70.3 million. Even though most school districts will never come close to constructing athletic facilities to this level, these “football palaces” (as they have been labeled by the media), serve as an example of just how far the hunger for competitive sports in public education can be taken. It creates an enormous weight on the shoulders of facilities administrators whose primary concern is providing and maintaining instructional space. There are some who believe sports programs divert limited funding critical to the academic program. Others point out the benefit of fitness, teambuilding and character development provided by sports training. From the perspective of facilities management, it can be a win-win as long as the community is willing to provide sufficient funding and resources. What is in the best interest for student athletes? Clearly, it is facilities that are safe, energy efficient and equally available to everyone.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.