The business of high school sports tournaments has never been bigger in Wisconsin, generating $7.6 million last year from ticket sales, broadcasting rights, sponsorships and other sources.
The paychecks of top Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association executives have followed suit, according to nonprofit tax records reviewed by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
The WIAA reported paying its top six executives $1.1 million last year, a 72 percent boost from 2001 tax filings that outpaced hikes in other workers’ compensation.
Executive director Dave Anderson received a $162,000 salary in addition to $78,000 in benefits, including retirement contributions. His predecessor’s salary in 2001 was about $37,000 less and his benefits cost $47,000 less.
The WIAA receives most of its funding from operating the state’s annual postseason athletic tournaments. …
Until this year, hundreds of public and private school districts have also directly funded the association through membership fees and dues. School district funding last year totaled $424,000, according to the WIAA’s tax filings.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin took a closer look at the WIAA’s spending in light of a proposal moving through the Capitol that would require the association to comply with government transparency laws. Some legislators say the WIAA is so strongly tied to public schools that it deserves equal scrutiny.
Tax filings, open to public review under federal laws, already provide some insight into the association’s operations and how paychecks at the top have climbed even through years in which public school officials complained of state funding shortages.
About 13 cents of every dollar raised by the WIAA ultimately flows into the pockets of its top six executives: Anderson, four lower-ranking directors and an association spokesman. Each received a six-figure salary and more than $57,000 in benefits last year.
Anderson, in response to our review, said salaries are approved by a member-elected board of school officials and reflect industry rates. He said directors now work 10 more hours per week than in 2001 and noted rising consumer prices as a factor in pay changes.
Anderson disputed the fairness of comparing total compensation reported in tax filings, saying federal laws today require nonprofits to account for benefits differently than 15 years ago. By the WIAA’s calculations, the reported cost of Anderson’s benefits last year would’ve been about $28,000 lower under 2001 reporting laws.
Still, Anderson and three WIAA board members interviewed by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin didn’t challenge our core finding that executive pay has grown alongside the association’s expenses as a whole. The combined salaries of the top six executives alone have climbed by about 40 percent since 2001 and one person’s salary has nearly doubled.
Anderson isn’t a public employee. But as the WIAA’s executive director, he now earns more than just about every administrator at a WIAA-member public school as well as the state’s superintendent and governor.
Recent calls for greater transparency at the WIAA trace back to December when a Hilbert basketball player was suspended for 4½ games because she used an expletive on Twitter to criticize the association for banning crowd chants such as “air ball” and “scoreboard.” …
The fallout prompted John Nygren, a Marinette Republican in the state Assembly, to resurrect a proposal requiring the WIAA to comply with state public records and open meetings laws. The proposal was previously introduced by a Democratic legislator in 2009 but failed to gain traction.
Nygren has argued the WIAA is a quasi-government entity and that more transparency after the suspension would’ve saved the state from international ridicule. The WIAA is opposing the proposal with the aid of four lobbyists, arguing it would set a dangerous precedent for any nonprofit that works with tax-funded agencies.
“This is a fast-tracked punitive bill that is a slippery slope eroding the privacy protections of other private entities,” Anderson wrote in a Feb. 10 memo to Assembly legislators. “Schools pay no membership dues or fees. The WIAA receives no public tax dollars from the state.”
Only recently has the WIAA cut direct ties to tax dollars, though. Member school districts, the vast majority of which are taxpayer-funded, have contributed more than $6 million to the association since 2001, according to its tax filings.
The WIAA voted in April last year to cease membership dues for two years, citing an interest in distancing the association from taxpayer funds and easing financial pressure on school athletic budgets. The association plans to vote again next year whether to continue the break, Anderson said.
Nygren’s proposal passed the state Assembly last month. It next heads to the Senate and possibly Gov. Scott Walker’s desk, where is faces an uncertain fate. Asked about the proposal last month, neither Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald nor Walker endorsed the bill and only offered that it would be considered.
A recent veto by Walker also suggests he might oppose the proposal. Explaining a veto last summer related to student eligibility for public school sports, Walker said, “I do not believe state statutes should stipulate the participation and membership requirements of a private athletic association.”
That position may be foretelling in this case because Nygren’s proposal would effectively thrust state transparency laws on the WIAA via new limits on school district participation. The proposal says no district may join an athletic association unless that association elects to comply with state laws.
While the WIAA is lobbying against Nygren’s proposal, several association leaders told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that they don’t entirely oppose following state transparency laws because the association is already so open with its business.
“We got absolutely nothing to hide,” said Mike Beighley, the superintendent public schools in Whitehall and a current WIAA board member. “We already put everything else out.”
Association leaders pointed to allowing news reporters at Board of Control meetings where financial reports and other internal business are discussed, and their publishing of meeting minutes online like a government agency.
Simple requests for information are also routinely honored in spirit with the state’s Public Records Law, they said. Indeed, they answered most of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s questions and released internal figures to back up some statements.
“What would be different? I don’t see that as a big deal,” said Dean Sanders, the superintendent of public schools in Lake Mills and a longtime voice on the WIAA’s Board of Control.
Of course WIAA leaders have their concerns. Aside from disagreeing with the principal of extending state law to a nonprofit, Sanders said he worries that athletes would be more reluctant to speak candidly during meetings or in messages that could be released publicly.
No longer would the WIAA have discretion to allow visitors at board meetings or to release certain information. These activities would be required with the added risk of lawsuits and hefty legal bills over failures to comply.
Beighley said he worried that open meeting laws could slow the WIAA’s response in unusual situations, such as an athlete who needs an emergency waiver of association rules, or invite frivolous requests that increase costs.
“Is it going to change our operation? No,” Beighley said. “Is it scary to me? Yeah.”
Sanders and Beighley, both past presidents of the WIAA’s Board of Control, are familiar with government transparency laws in their work as superintendents. They are reimbursed for meals and mileage by the WIAA but do not receive a paycheck.
The Board of Control includes nine public and two private school officials. Sanders and Beighley said board members vary in clocking hours for the WIAA. Some use taxpayer-funded school district time for WIAA meetings and personal time for tournaments.
“I’m on school time and expected to make up whatever I do on Sunday when I’m home,” Sanders said. “My (school) board knows that I put in enough time.” …
Sanders and Beighley scoffed at comparing WIAA paychecks to compensation at member school districts, saying the Board of Control instead looks at other high school athletic associations. The head of Minnesota’s association, for example, earned $61,000 more than Anderson in 2013, the most recent year for which comparable tax figures were available.
“We’ve always tried to be right in the middle. I also don’t think Wisconsin athletics should be right in the rear,” Sanders said. “By being in the middle, we’re saying we respect what you do, we respect what you’ve done.”
Beighley also said the WIAA hasn’t increased revenue merely to boost executive pay, noting that tournament costs, legal bills, insurance, printing and other expenses have risen over the years as well.
“I don’t think we’ve set out to make more money to pay people more money,” he said.
The WIAA has been able to provide larger paychecks to its executives over the past 15 years in part due to hikes in ticket prices, referee licensing fees and broadcasting partnerships.
In just the past decade, association figures show revenue from operating the state’s high school tournaments has grown from about $5.9 million to $7.2 million annually while royalties have increased eight-fold to $476,000.
In some cases, those royalties have come from media organizations seeking to cover high school postseason competition. The WIAA in 2009 sued The Post-Crescent and the Wisconsin Newspapers Association over the broadcasting rights of state tournament contests held in public schools. A federal appeals court sided with the WIAA, rejecting the argument that the games were public events. The Post-Crescent is part of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
The WIAA operates more than 3,000 competitions annually, with more than $2 million flowing back to host schools through payments that vary by sport. For example, hosting a basketball tournament pays $60 per game compared to $80 per game for football.
Sanders said growing revenue was critical to eliminating membership fees and dues last year. The Board of Control wanted to make the decision permanent, he said, but that can only happen under a vote of all member school districts.
“It’s been a goal of (Anderson’s) ever since he took over as executive director,” Sanders said.
The WIAA’s claim of not using taxpayer resources is false, irrespective of whether or not the WIAA charges membership fees for state high schools. Where are the vast, vast majority of those 3,000 high school sports events (including all 20 boys basketball sectional finals Saturday) played? In high schools, funded by those school districts’ taxpayers. Who pays coaches? School districts, which means local property taxpayers and state taxpayers (through state aid). Who pays the teachers and other staff who man the games? Same answer.
If school districts and other governments are required to abide by state open meetings and open records laws (and they absolutely should be), then the WIAA, which also uses taxpayer dollars, absolutely should be bound to those same open government laws. The state Senate has until Tuesday to vote on Nygren’s bill. The Senate should approve Nygren’s bill, and Walker should sign it.