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Yvonne Abraham

Wide world of greed

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 7, 2008
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The Dorchester Eagles, the powerhouse of their Pop Warner football league, had another undefeated season this year.

Their regional championship earned them a spot in the national playoffs in Florida. Oh, and a week of acute anxiety over how to get there.

It's as messed up as it is predictable. Every year around this time, talented kids and their coaches across the country scramble to raise tens of thousands of dollars so they can compete in the Pop Warner superbowl.

Little Leaguers go to their World Series in Williamsport, Pa., for free. Why do Pop Warner teams have to come up with as much as 45 grand to go to the playoffs they've spent an entire season working toward?

One big reason: unlike Little League, Pop Warner doesn't have its own stadium or dorms. So, for more than a decade now, the Super Bowl has been held at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

And under its contract with Pop Warner, Disney has the whole thing locked down. To compete in Disney's pristine facilities, players must stay at Disney hotels and buy passes to its theme parks. They eat in Disney restaurants, with nonrefundable Disney dining cards, and they use Disney transportation.

While all of this might be a logistical dream for organizers, it's a fiscal nightmare for teams.

Adults spend days and nights on the phone pleading for donations. Kids shake cans on corners. Parents hand over cash they can't afford to give.

And all of their labors help pad the coffers of a company that racked up a whopping $4.7 billion in profits last year.

This year, five nights' accommodation with the most basic theme park pass costs $450 per person for a four-bed room. A Disney spokesman said that rate is deeply discounted, though he declined to say by how much. It means Disney collects $360 per room per night - about six times the going rate at the nearby Orlando Vista Hotel.

With 9,000 players and cheerleaders, plus coaches and other supporters descending on Florida this weekend, that's a huge payday for Mickey. Disney could afford to give a big break to needy teams in national championships like this one.

Pop Warner spokesman Jon Butler says he encourages teams to raise money all season long, to avoid the mad scrambles and shortfalls in November. Pop Warner even helps with a couple of programs: In one, teams get to keep 60 percent of the money they make by selling subscriptions to ESPN Magazine.

The other 40 percent? Surprise! It goes to Disney, which owns ESPN.

In some communities, though, people can't afford ESPN magazine, especially now. They can't even afford their kids' $30 registration fees.

Most of the year, Pop Warner says that doesn't matter. The league has done magnificent work for kids, particularly those in poor neighborhoods. It has given them focus, and scholarships, and it has doubtless saved some lives. The way the playoffs work - requiring teams to raise obscene amounts of money that could be put to much better use - is utterly at odds with the organization's philosophy.

On Friday afternoon, the Dorchester kids got on a bus with less than $20,000 in hand, including a $4,000 grant from the NFL. They were still negotiating with Disney over the rest of the costs. They may have to forgo the theme park visits, or the big players' party. They may have to take their bus in search of cheaper fast food. They may be paying down their debt for months.

All season long, their coaches tell the Eagles, "If you have the heart of a champ, then you're going to play like a champion," team president Leslie Goodwin says. "It doesn't matter where you come from."

Except at Disney this week, where it matters a lot.

Abraham is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is Abraham@globe.com

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