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Money has become driving force for NJSIAA

For the overwhelming majority of athletes, coaches, parents, and fans, the best place for the state wrestling championships is Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

For the overwhelming majority of athletes, coaches, parents, and fans, the best place for the state wrestling championships is Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

For the NJSIAA, that's not necessarily the case.

That's a big problem. When an organization's priorities aren't aligned with the wishes of its constituency, trouble is right around the corner.

But that's the hard reality for the NJSIAA in May 2012. The organization that oversees high school sports in New Jersey has lost nearly $2 million since 2006, and is running another $400,000 or so in the red this school year.

Under mounting pressure to find additional revenue to cover the shortfall, NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko plans to look for a better deal for the wrestling tournament, which annually attracts crowds of more than 40,000 for the three-day event in the old arena off the boardwalk.

The possible move of the wrestling championships and the NJSIAA's historic decision on Wednesday to create a Group 5 for public-school football are related in this way: Both have the potential to make more money for the organization.

And increasing revenue has become a driving force for the association that is composed of 433 public and nonpublic schools and oversees the participation of more than 250,000 student athletes.

Kingsway athletic director Joe Galliera spoke for a lot of folks in high school sports on Wednesday when he said that the creation of a Group 5 in football felt as if it was "rushed" without debate, discussion, and deliberation.

Another athletic director at a prominent South Jersey high school, who requested anonymity, expressed the same concerns and wondered about the "ripple effect."

What's next? Group 5 in basketball, baseball, and soccer? Group 6? The return of Parochial C?

Timko and associate director Jack DuBois, who oversees football, note that the expansion of the tournament creates more opportunities for student athletes to participate in the playoffs. That always has been an imperative for an organization that rightly takes pride in its wide array of championship programs.

But it's fair to wonder if Group 5 wasn't fast-tracked in part because the expansion of the tournament will result in additional revenue.

And there's no question why the NJSIAA is considering another site for the wrestling tournament: Money.

"There are some people who think we need to be more financially prudent," Timko said Wednesday in what seemed to be a thinly veiled reference to New Jersey state assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester/Salem), an outspoken critic of the organization. "We may have to look at what the best alternatives are for NJSIAA."

Timko knows Atlantic City has been a great site. He knows wrestlers love competing in that fabled arena with that famous vaulted ceiling. He knows coaches and parents and fans love the other aspects of the weekend experience: the boardwalk and ocean, the restaurants and shops, the hotels and casinos.

"It's the ideal place for that type of event," Boardwalk Hall general manager Greg Tesone said of the venue that has hosted the wrestling championships since 1992, save for a four-year break from 1998-2001 when the building underwent renovations.

Timko knows it. He also knows that the NJSIAA's bottom line is bad and getting worse, and that wrestling isn't a major moneymaker anymore.

The NJSIAA made around $130,000 on the event in Boardwalk Hall in March. But the organization lost $18,000 on the entire wrestling tournament because the districts and regionals run in the red.

Timko said the NJSIAA pays Boardwalk Hall $80,000 in rent. The arena also takes a $1 "facilities fee" from every ticket, which amounted to around $32,000 in March.

"That's $112,000 before the first kid wrestles," Timko said.

So the organization will seek proposals from other sites. Realistically, just three other venues in the state could host the event: the Prudential Center in Newark, Izod Center in East Rutherford, and Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton.

None come close to offering the ambience, amenities, and history of Atlantic City. Take money out of the equation, and the NJSIAA would never consider leaving Boardwalk Hall.

But money has become a big part of the equation.