It's Rough and Tumble at FHSAA
The new head of the powerful organization that regulates high school sports stepped into the job amid controversy and hasn't been afraid of it since.
High school football has gotten so big in Florida that it draws live TV and radio broadcasts, corporate sponsors and even ESPN. Football is the FHSAA’s top revenue generator, with championship games bringing in nearly $1 million, or about a quarter of the association’s total revenue this year.
The sponsorship contracts had been negotiated by Steve Berrey and his Jacksonville-based company, Youth Sports Marketing. Berrey’s firm had held an exclusive contract to provide marketing services to FHSAA since 2005; in June 2008, Stewart had extended it for another four years.
It had been customary for the corporate sponsors to contract directly with Berrey’s company. Dearing says he wanted to examine the sponsor contracts, but Berrey wouldn’t let him. Ultimately, Dearing says he got the contracts by performing an audit. Berrey denies the claim and says the FHSAA already had the contracts in-house. In an April 2009 audit report, FHSAA’s new CFO, Linda Robertson, a former employee of Dearing’s from the Indian River school district, alleged that Youth Sports Marketing owed FHSAA $94,409 and that the company should return an additional $37,500 to RegionsBank for accepting funds for a contract Dearing had not agreed to.
Berrey has responded by suing Dearing and the FHSAA for breach of contract, unfair trade practices, defamation and interfering with business relationships. Dearing, the pending suit charges, unjustly ended Berrey’s successful and profitable relationship with the FHSAA.
Berrey says Robertson deliberately ignored contract terms that show he provided other media services to sponsors outside their contracts with FHSAA. He says that given the nature of their escalating dispute last winter, Dearing should have brought in an independent auditor from outside instead of using Robertson. Berrey calls Robertson’s findings “predetermined.” He alleges that Dearing has defamed him and his company to sponsors and other professionals, ruining his reputation and his business.
Berrey says he can’t figure out why Dearing was so eager to get rid of him since he met or exceeded his fund-raising goals, netting nearly $1 million in sponsorships in the four years of his contract — much more than previous contractors.
Dearing says the answer is that FHSAA wasn’t getting all the sponsorship money it was due. He says he also wanted the organization — not its sponsorship contractor — to control media services, such as TV and radio championship broadcasts. For example, he says Berrey earned about $90,000 a year producing TV shows. Dearing says he now has the Manatee County school system doing the same work for $12,000. Replacing Berrey will be “a tremendous savings,” he says.
State Rep. Debbie Mayfield, a longtime mortgage broker, was awarded the sponsorship marketing contract for FHSAA and will receive $122,000 a year. [Photo: Jessica Klewicki]
Mayfield says that Millner, who had produced TV campaign ads for her and knew she was looking for new professional opportunities, told her about the request for proposals. She says he suggested they bid on it together, since she and Dearing had known each other for many years, ever since Mayfield’s late husband, former state Rep. Stan Mayfield, was on the Indian River School Board that hired Dearing in 1993.
Ultimately, FHSAA awarded the radio and video streaming portion of its marketing to the Pensacola company; the website portion went to Millner. Mayfield got the sponsorship marketing contract and will receive a $122,000 annual lump sum from FHSAA.
Dearing says that he and other FHSAA staffers decided Mayfield should handle sponsorships separately from other media services to avoid the problems they had with Berrey. Mayfield, a longtime mortgage broker, formed her own company, Athletic Marketing Group on Aug. 12 — about two weeks after she landed the contract.
Mayfield says she asked lawyers with the Florida House of Representatives to review the contract to make sure it wouldn’t conflict with her position as a state lawmaker. She says she will recuse herself from any votes involving the association. “It would be no different than any other lawmaker who has a job,” Mayfield says.
For his part, Dearing says there’s no conflict because FHSAA is a charitable organization rather than a state entity. “The Legislature doesn’t oversee us in any way,” Dearing says.
In fact, Florida Statute 1006.20 designates FHSAA as the governing non-profit for all the state’s public schools and any private school that chooses to join. The statute outlines in great detail how FHSAA must operate, from the rules that establish athlete eligibility and prohibit recruiting to the precise makeup of the organization’s 16-member board of directors.
Dearing sticks to his view of the law, acknowledging that he bases many decisions on his gut instinct built over four decades as a teacher, coach, athletic director, principal and superintendent in Florida’s public schools.