The first time I attended a high school football game in Arizona was on a date.
It was 19 years ago, and I was making my first trip to Phoenix with the girl that I'd eventually divorce and squabble over custody with. We went to Mountain Pointe High School to watch her alma mater, St. Mary's, a powerhouse program that routinely drew a large crowd full of student supporters.
None of whom actually watched the game. Hard to do so when you're either facing the skank to your left or fronting the poseur behind you.
That was my first experience with the concept of high school football as nighttime social gathering, a concept foreign to me due to most New Jersey schools playing their games on Saturday afternoons.
Over nearly two decades of covering prep football, I grew used to seeing hundreds of students fork over a few bucks to be seen (rather than see) at the games, and though I didn't fully understand the motivation, I just rolled with it. It's what kids do.
But in the past few years, while hitting a high school game here and there on a freelance gig, I started to notice a completely different kind of mass gathering of game attendees: the sideline entourage.
Unlike in Phoenix, where the high school stadiums have actual press boxes—not just a roofed-in cubicle with barely enough room for the public address announcer, like it is down here—the only way to effectively cover a prep football game in Tucson is to roam the sidelines, hoofing it up and down the field to accurately track down-and-distance, length of punts, scoring plays, yadda yadda yadda.
It used to be that this Family Circus-like trek I'd make for the better part of 21/2 hours each Friday required circumnavigating the teams' huddled masses of sweaty players, a handful of coaches and maybe a half-dozen or so administrators and the like who'd staked out a piece of turf along the sidelines. No sweat.
But in the last few years the sidelines have become more and more crowded, as additional school-related people and even a few influential parents and boosters have filtered down from the bleachers in search of a closer view.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than at Salpointe Catholic: Its home sideline isn't just crowded, it's infested.
I was at Salpointe last Friday for the Lancers' game against Tempe Marcos de Niza, a matchup that looked great on paper but quickly became a walkover win for Salpointe, which remains unbeaten. It drew a nice crowd, both in terms of home fans and visitors who made the drive down south.
And on both sides of Salpointe's team area—which is designated as between the 25-yard lines—were a couple of dozen people with makeshift "sideline passes" tied to belt loops or purses by pieces of string.
Who the heck are these people?
The short answer is, they're mostly members of Salpointe's Quarterback Club, a booster organization that supports (read: gives lots of money) to a football program that right now is heads and shoulders above all others in Tucson, both in terms of talent and resources.
According to Salpointe's website, Quarterback Club membership is limited to 100 spots each year, with the annual cost ranging from $125 (for parents of varsity or JV players), to $325 for those interested in purchasing the Quarterback Club "Package."
These memberships get you two seats to each Salpointe home game—freshman, JV and varsity—VIP parking to all varsity home games, a snazzy Quarterback Club polo shirt and a special team roster inserted into each game's program.
And, apparently, a sideline pass. Though that's not listed on the flier.
My rough estimate from Friday was that about 50 pass-wearing nonfootball people were on the home sideline, which was fewer than I expected. After being at Salpointe playoff games the last few years and seeing the sidelines run two or three deep with members of this odd posse, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't need to weave through the hangers-on.
I can sort of understand the allure of being on the field for the games. Like with celebrities who show up along college or NFL sidelines for no reason other than because they can, it's got a level of status and flash to it. Like Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee from their NBA courtside seats, but minus most of the overzealous superfandom.
But the view from field level is, by far, the worst sightline for a football game. I'm down there by necessity; if I didn't have to, I wouldn't. I'd much prefer to be in the stands, preferably with a seatback, armrests and an appropriately sized cup holder. (I fully expect that to be fixed in my Section 35 seat come the next UA football game, Greg Byrne ...)
Beyond that, having so many people so close to the field is a security nightmare. Salpointe athletic director Phil Gruensfelder wouldn't outright say that, but it's easy to see he wishes his sidelines weren't so ... occupied. It would mean paying fewer off-duty police officers to work the game, not to mention lessening the chance of some unsuspecting, inattentive sideline fan getting steamrolled by a lumbering defensive lineman as he chases after the ball carrier.
A solution could be in the works, though. Gruensfelder noted his desire to get some 3-dimensional sideline advertising pads that could, in effect, create a barrier between the Salpointe entourage and the field of play.
But would it still be cool to stand on the sidelines if you're 15 feet back from the field? Probably not. Sounds like a first-world problem if I've ever heard one.