I didn’t understand it either until I read this position paper. In particular, the section titled “How does the money flow?”. As in the days of Watergate, you always need to “follow the money”.
I avoid organizational details of how FIRST runs, but this was still a fascinating read. (Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t written by our head mentor.) To summarize, each team in the district paid $5000 for their first two district events. FIRST national kept $4000 of that money and gaves back $1000 to the CHS District to help cover expenses of running all the district events (including the district championship). Each team qualifying for the district championship paid $4000 to FIRST national, who kept all of that money. “Therefore, of the total $877k paid in team registration fees, just $131k (15%) made its way back to VirginiaFIRST to pay for execution of the FIRST Robotics Competition program in 3 states.”
Starting next year, CHS gets to keep all of the $4000 entry fee for teams registering for district champs over some minimum number (possibly 58 or 64). So, for an 80 team district championship, CHS gets a minimum of 49% (or a max of 67%) more money from FIRST. Once you understand the way the money works, you realize CHS is incentivized to pack in as many teams as they can. If the financial relationship between FIRST national and CHS district was more equitable, this incentive might not be as strong. But with FIRST keeping most of the money while CHS has to do most of the work of holding events, that extra money becomes critical.
It also explains why the FIRST Chairman’s award, the highest award in FIRST, is given primarily for increasing the number of teams that register. And also why FIRST wants to encourage the transition from the regional to the district model. FIRST national gets to keep almost all the money those teams pay in registration fees, while the districts have to do almost all the work to hold the events.
When you follow the money, a lot of strange organizational decisions suddenly become a bit more understandable. Unsurprisingly, this is another life lesson taught by FIRST which has wide application in the rest of life, including business and politics.