Economic woes equal free football sign-ups

One local youth football program is answering a poor economy in an interesting way: by eliminating registration fees.

The Modesto/Empire Vikings have waived their typical $125 sign-up cost in an effort to keep players and cheerleaders on the field. Board members said they're doing all the fund-raising themselves to keep the four-team organization going after many parents indicated they couldn't afford to enroll their children this season.

Some families said they planned to sign up, but had to save the money first. Others said they wouldn't be able to afford football this year.

President Joe Vera said he feels waiving the fees was the best move, and the board unanimously agreed at a meeting in May.

"If they don't play for us, what are they going to be doing with their down time?" Vikings secretary Sabrina Janz asked. "They'll be in the street. If they take a year off, who knows if they'll come back. The whole purpose is not about winning, it's about getting kids involved in something positive."

Now the Vikings have an abundance of players -- more than 30 at each age level -- ensuring they won't forfeit games due to a lack of players as they have in the past.

But the program has had to order more equipment, and Vera has called other teams searching for helmets he can borrow until the Vikings are able to buy more.

"Right now I'm at a point where I'm always thinking, 'What can we do to get more money,' " Vera said. "I don't want to see kids leaving our program. There's not much to do out here. There's not big incomes. We don't have sponsors who say, 'We'll take care of it.' We don't have that luck."

It's for the kids

In the absence of a winning lottery ticket, the Vikings board members have been working concession stands at the Stockton Arena to raise money. They hope to raise more than $8,000 by selling hot dogs, nachos, soda and beer.

Vera said it costs $50,000-60,000 per year to run the program, much of which they make during the season on their own concession stands. A typical haul at one of their five home dates nets $6,000. There's an expense for every dime, including field rental and referees.

The Vikings need more money up front this season to replace equipment and make up for the lack of sponsors.

As one of many groups who serve as "free" labor for food service companies at sporting events and concerts, the Modesto/Empire board has been able to make up some of its missing sponsor and registration money. A portion of the sales from the booths they work at the Stockton Arena is returned to them. Janz said the most the Vikings have made in one night is $850.

"We all had Mother's Day planned and we all canceled our plans," Janz said. "We just kept saying, 'It's for the kids.' It adds up. We still owe $5,000 for shoulder pads, but we've paid close to $4,000, all from working the Stockton Arena."

Suiting up

Known as the Empire Eagles for 16 years, the club became a feeder program for Johansen High last season. The name changed to Modesto/

Empire Vikings, which meant new uniforms had to be ordered and tax papers filed.

Shoulder pads, which Janz estimated were 10 years old, were replaced at the varsity and junior novice levels last year. The junior varsity and novice teams are getting new pads this season. The spike in enrollment has added nine helmets to the list of costs.

The Vikings' first game in the Stockton-based Delta League is Sept. 6. That gives them one month to raise the remaining $5,000 needed to get the uniforms and equipment currently sitting in a warehouse with their name on the boxes.

"Everybody was kind of shocked we did this," Vera said. "Even people in the Delta League were asking, 'How are you doing it?' We still owe them for insurance, about $2,000."

Appreciative crowd

Jason Little has six family members in the program, including three sons, ranging in age from 7 to 12. He said there's no way all the children would have been involved if it wasn't for the fee break.

"It helped out a lot," Little said. "It made their day and made things easier for us. It feels great that they can get out there and have a great time. I've seen football make my kids better. They look forward to it every year."

David and Leanne Miller are new to the Vikings program. Their son David, age 8, is enjoying his first year on the junior varsity team thanks to the fee waiver.

David Sr., a forklift driver who has been out of work much of the summer, said his son and two nephews probably wouldn't be playing otherwise.

Janz said to be fair to all families, no one was asked to pay a registration fee and no one is forced to volunteer for the fund-raisers. Two families refused an offered refund.

"We don't know if we were crazy by waiving the registration or what," Janz said. "Ultimately we'll make it through and keep the kids safe. We've had an overwhelming response, but we don't want to tell anyone they can't sign up."