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Sports can be the straw that stirs the drink

How important are sports to a school's enrollment?

Open enrollment has been a reality in Minnesota for many years and it has created a type of market place that appeals to many student athletes and their parents.

Don Kostelecky, the longtime activities director in Fergus Falls, once told me about the questions he fielded from families interested in moving to that west central Minnesota community.

The parents were naturally interested in seeing their kids receive a good education but their questions often centered on sports. What sports did the school offer? What kind of record did the hockey team have? What were the prospects of the football team? How successful was the swimming program? Did the school have good sports facilities? If the answers to those questions pleased the parents they might pick Fergus over another town. Not every parent is limited by their job or where they can find one.

There can be other issues as well. What are my son's chances of starting on the wrestling team? Being part of a team and learning the value of teamwork are fine but will he have a chance to really compete? This is where smaller schools can have an advantage over larger ones. There are kids starting for smaller schools that would not start for a larger one. That does not mean there are not situations that are tough to handle. Your daughter might be a good basketball player but if a school already has set lineup she is not likely to be welcomed with open arms. To play, she may have to take over someone else's position, perhaps a player who started for a couple seasons. A coach placed in that position has to weigh what the team might gain against what could it may do to team morale.

Less than one percent of all U.S. high school athletes end up playing in the professional ranks but try telling someone their son, the one who hits the ball a mile and runs the bases so well, is not going to be the next Derek Jeter. The best part of athletics is the great dreams they conjure up in the minds of kids.

Kids compete in camps when school is out for the summer. Even if their best sport is not in season they might be invited to some skills competition or get an invite to play with an elite team. After a few of these trips, even the most down-to-earth parents are going to start asking if their offspring might someday be offered college athletic scholarship. Professional sports might be a dream few can share but scholarships are certainly a great runner-up prize. Someone is going to play quarterback for Bemidji State this fall and someone will be a outside hitter for North Dakota State - why not my kid? Those college tuition fees are pretty hefty and high school sports can be a stepping stone to a great college education.

Sports can also be the carrot on the stick. Academics are only going to have so much appeal for some students, but if they are athletes they might find the discipline to hit the books, or the iPads, and keep those grades up so they will be eligible to play. It is an incentive more powerful than most because it offers these kids something they want.