Tough times for hometown sports

JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Some 900 miles due west of Wall Street is where life these days gets far too real, where the rubber truly meets the road. This is where the bankruptcy of General Motors is much more than a politically expedited plan in which rebirth is now the company's marketing mantra.

Here, reality is the 3,000 people suddenly jobless and a 4.8-million-square foot automobile plant sitting dormant. And that's just the beginning. Or the end.

The recent closure of the 90-year-old Janesville Assembly Plant is a case study in the trickle-down effect of a crumbling economy -- a trickle felt all the way down to the world of local youth sports.

For when GM closes a plant, as it did here six months ago, the impact is far-reaching. There are the trucking companies, the car dealerships, the seat suppliers. There are the aluminum providers, the heating and air conditioning businesses, the engineers. And there are the grocery stores, the child care agencies and the educators.

"You've got the snowball effect," says Andy Richardson, the president of United Auto Workers Local 95, the union that represented the GM employees, among many others. "Whenever you've got an area where, you know, 3,000, 3,500 jobs have been lost, it's gonna affect your supermarkets. It's gonna affect your banks. It's gonna affect your restaurants."

In the past year, according to the city's local newspaper, the Janesville Gazette, more than 6,500 jobs have been lost in the region. Unemployment in the Janesville metropolitan area has nearly tripled -- going from 4.8 percent to 12.9 -- according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Janesville proper, the unemployment rate is at 14.7 percent, up from 5.0 percent a year ago; and in nearby Beloit, Wis., the jobless rate has spiked from 7.2 percent to 17.4 percent.

"It's like they've always said: 'As GM goes, so goes America,'" says Richardson, standing outside the empty plant where his father worked before him and his father's father before that. "You know, when GM's hurting, America is hurting."

So, what does all this have to do with sports?

At the national level, GM has been a major player in the sponsorship game for decades. But that is changing. The company won't say by how much, but it's scaling back across the board on its sponsorship commitments in NASCAR. As well, GM recently cut its tie to the U.S. Olympic team, which was worth about $7 million, according to an expert quoted in the Los Angeles Times. That same expert estimated GM spends between $5 million and $10 million per year for a relationship with Major League Baseball and another $1 million annually on a relationship with the National Basketball Association. In the wake of the bankruptcy, those kinds of deals are likely to be reduced or eliminated altogether.

But the grassroots level is where the potential damage to sports appears most acute. In towns like Janesville all across America, sponsors are the bedrock of youth sports leagues -- from the local bank that pays for a sign on the outfield fence at the Little League field to the car dealership that sponsors the junior hockey team with uniforms or equipment.

Richardson sees trouble from both sides, as the parent of two school-age girls who are immersed in several sports and as the head of an organization that used to donate about $8,000 per year to local youth teams.

In 2007, UAW Local 95 gave $9,104 to sports teams in the area. Last year, the union gave $7,855.

"We didn't turn hardly anybody away when it came to that stuff," Richardson says.

And this year, how much have they given?

"Nothing," Richardson says inside the empty union hall.

Recently, Richardson made his weekly visit to a friend who owns a body shop in the nearby town of Edgerton.

"On his desk, he has at least eight requests for just the Edgerton area alone for money donations," Richardson says. "This is anywhere from the Edgerton Athletic Hall of Fame, the Little League baseball organization, the girls' softball … the soccer program. They were all requesting money or a donation of some sort and he was just wondering how he was gonna do it. He had done all that in the past."

Richardson's daughters, 14-year-old Monica and 12-year-old Erica, both play softball and basketball. Erica also golfs and swims and Monica plays tennis, as well. Andy Richardson is particularly active as a coach and a board member with the Edgerton girls' fast-pitch softball league, and he sees the financial challenges mounting.

The thing that Richardson says frightens him the most is not the notion of money drying up for luxuries; rather, it's finding the wherewithal for the necessities.

"There's a difference between an organization that has everything, that's looking to just make a trip -- 'Hey we want to do this tournament in Iowa; we'd like to go to this tournament in Illinois, and that's gonna be our big thing,'" Richardson says. "But when the money stops coming in, it isn't the trip to Iowa or the trip down to Illinois. It's how we gonna get little Johnny a bat, how we gonna pay for umpires and how we gonna pay for the field maintenance?"

About 10 minutes down the road from Janesville is Beloit, a town on the Illinois-Wisconsin border that just two years ago was hailed by a national beautification group as the best-kept secret in the Midwest. Beloit is still beautiful, but now about one in six of its adults are unemployed.

One of them is Gary Hill, an air conditioning technician who lost his job about a year ago. His company's No. 1 client: GM.

"I went into work like a regular day and didn't have a clue," Hill says. "And they pulled me in the office at 8:30 in the morning and said we're letting you go and that was it.

"… I have been looking for work, but there's nothing here."

Hill and his wife, Michelle Ferger-Hill, have reversed roles -- she is now the primary breadwinner through her job as finance director of Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Badgerland Council, which covers the western and southern part of the state; he is the primary caretaker for their three school-age boys, 17-year-old David, 12-year-old Devin and 10-year-old Drew. Michelle recently began a daily, 100-mile roundtrip commute from Beloit to Madison for her job, and she's also going to school two nights a week.

Disposable income has evaporated for the Hills, as it has for lots of families in the area. Help has come in varying forms -- from a Little League mom who took pictures of the Hill boys because Gary and Michelle decided they couldn't afford team photos this year, to the friends who have handed down clothes from their older kids.

"I have people that have older kids who say, 'Here, this might fit Drew, this might fit Devin,'" Michelle says, "so I have not even bought the necessary clothes for the kids. I have not even gone summer shopping for the kids."

The Hill boys all play baseball, and a lot of it. Between league fees and assorted other costs, the Hills figure they spend between $1,500 and $2,000 a year so the boys can play ball. Suddenly, with Gary losing his job, baseball was on the table as a possible budget cut this season.

"We almost said this year, 'We can't do it, boys,'" Michelle says.

They did cut out participation on traveling teams; and certainly, the Hills are not alone. Mike Ace, the head of the Beloit YMCA, which administers youth baseball in town, says about 15 percent of families now receive scholarship assistance. That's more than double the number of families who sought help last year.

Many more are on payment plans to cover the $200 per child fee, and some parents work off the fees by helping out as umpires or in the concession stands or on field maintenance.

The Hills, though, remain steadfast in their desire to keep their kids on the field. Michelle talks about how she uses it as a carrot so they'll stay on top of things in school -- no good grades, no baseball -- and she notices the confidence that playing elicits in each of the boys.

Says Gary, who coaches in the league: "It may come to a point where you have to [cut baseball]. But until I absolutely have to, I will always do what I can for the kids. If I have to go out and mow lawns for their fees, then that's what I'll do."

Says Michelle: "These are the experiences that they are only going to be experiencing once, and I want to be able to provide that for them. So if I have to put up a pop-up tent in the back yard here and become homeless, then that's what I am going to do."

Arty Berko, a producer for ESPN's enterprise unit, contributed to this report. Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter for ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.