The Most Expensive Sport in America: Inside the Rising Costs of the Marching Arts

The marching arts isn’t just a varsity sport. It’s the NFL, the Olympics, and American Idol all in one.

What does all that cost? A lot. In many cases, a marching season costs several times more than any sports team’s budget.

Let’s take a look at what’s driving these costs.

Before we start

Before we start, it’s important to point out that this price tag doesn’t apply to all marching arts ensembles— there are thousands who perform every year on shoestring arts education budgets.

And, of course, the same could be said about sports teams: compare any high school football stadium in Texas to those in Maine, for example. Vastly different.

So with the general disclaimers out of the way, let’s compare the high end of a nationally-competitive marching ensemble with that of a comparable athletic program.

Let’s dig in.

High Overhead

Your average high school band keeps an aggressive performance schedule - but that's only part of the equation.

Consider for a moment the multitude of different line item expenses that most performing ensembles need to account for:

  • Bus & truck rental
  • Props, scenery, staging
  • Uniforms, costuming
  • Show design
  • Educational staff

It might not sound like much, but let’s take a closer look—

Bus/Coach Rental

Bus/motor coach rental is usually the first thing that comes to mind for many directors.

Travel is a necessity for these groups, and it’s always disproportionately expensive. Some bands will actually FLY to national-level competitions.

Truck Rental

Once the admins have figured out how to transport their members and staff to a show, they have to move their gear— that means renting a truck for instruments, equipment, etc.

Some programs might own at least one full-scale tractor trailer, but they still need to hire CDL drivers for each show.

Props, Scenery & Staging

Many groups “set dress” the field just like a movie set. We’ve seen tarps that cover the whole perimeter of a football field—that’s more than 1,000 cubic yards of tarp fabric.

Bluecoats 2014, anyone?
Bluecoats 2014, anyone?

And then there’s the time the Blue Devils literally built a diner in the back of Side 1. Or the Mandarins’ hydraulic-powered turntable platform.

To say nothing of the moveable scaffolding, mirrors, walls, cages, staircases, and other structures that adorn DCI, BOA, and WGI performance spaces these days.

Love it or hate it—it’s here to stay. And it’s expensive.

Uniforms & Costumes

While some programs are still utilizing a “classic” band uniform for most performances, others are quickly migrating to show and theme-specific costuming that changes every season.

This has been true for competitive color guard and indoor percussion groups for decades, but it’s quickly spreading to the musician performers of bands and drum corps, too.

Maybe The Cadets opened the floodgates with 2005’s “The Zone,” in which their uniforms featured inverted colors from the back. Maybe it was the Bluecoats in 2016 with Down Side Up’s “unitard” look.

No matter where it started, the yearly uni is all the rage—and expensive.

Show Design

At the highest levels, ensembles will commission musical arrangements that are customized to their own instrumentation and performance level, while drill/visual design must be written for the groups’ numbers each year (because it changes).

These arrangements typically start at 4-figure numbers, and can often reach into the 5-digits. There are likely to be at least 3 if not 4 or 5 of these 5-figure commissioned pieces in a single season:

The winds, battery, front ensemble, drill/staging, and color guard each need their own design written by a professional. And for nationally-competitive groups, each of these designs will be in the 5-digit range, guaranteed.

Educational Staff

This might be the biggest slice of the band budget pie. It’s no longer enough to have a single dedicated band director.

Specialists in every discipline of performance for brass, woodwinds, marching percussion battery and front ensemble, and color guard specialists to cover flag, weapons, movement, and everything in between.

Some ensembles are now employing elaborate sound amplification systems with studio engineered sound programs, and a few are employing vocal coaches to help students SING and SPEAK portions of the show that might call for it.

Staff fees represent one of the most surprising and significant outlays of funding for the modern marching ensemble, but it’s also one of the most important aspects to becoming (and staying) competitive.


Keep in mind, we haven’t even considered instruments or repair at all at this point.

That marching band that has 10 tubas in their sousaphone section? That’s an easy $70,000 right there.

That flashy looking drumline? That’s at least $40,000 for nice equipment.

When you compare the list above to outfitting a football team, or a cross country squad, or any other sport you can think of – there’s no comparison.

Rising Costs

As a high school student in the 1980s, I recall my own band trips costing just a few hundred dollars (for a nice overnight trip). 

My first DCI tour fees in 1990 were $650. That same drum corps now charges students $4,200 per season.

The costs to participate in the marching activity has far outdistanced the inflationary rate.

According to – that $650 that I paid in 1990 to go on tour with a World Class DCI corps should come in at just under $1,300 based on the rate of inflation.

So why is that DCI tour now costing kids over $4,000?

Many things are now exponentially more expensive, but some of the additional financial stress comes from things like fuel prices, supply and demand (fewer groups are competing in Drum Corps International than there were in the 1990s), and the additional costs of liability insurance.

There are fewer manufacturers of high quality instruments than there were previously, and that allows supply/demand economics to influence the price of goods and services even more.

What Can Ensembles Do?

In short - marching ensembles need to get creative and work both HARDER and SMARTER in order to make ends meet.

Here at FansRaise we have assembled what might be the most comprehensive list of potential fundraisers – and you can download that list for free right here.

On our blog we’ve discussed at length how your group can turn rehearsal time you’re already spending into a THON fundraiser that can raise thousands of dollars without hardly any additional work. 

In fact, here’s an account of a small marching percussion ensemble that raised over $11K in just a couple of weeks.

Do you direct, lead, or support a committed and top-echelon performing ensemble?

Are you looking for an easier and more efficient fundraising method than everything else you’ve tried?

Then you need to be taking a close look at FansRaise and our $10,000 Blueprint that helps performing arts ensembles raise thousands of dollars each week. Download our 10k blueprint!

Download our 10k blueprint!

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