Paying to Play
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Lakers’ travel budget is stretched thin. In recent years, it has even stooped to asking some of its own athletes either to supplement or to pay entirely for their airfare to several away contests. No, this is not the plight of the Los Angeles Lakers, the National Basketball Association team worth more than half a billion dollars. It is the budgetary reality for the Lakers of Grand Valley State University, in rural western Michigan.
Given the effects of the recession on nearly all sectors of higher education, it's hardly surprising that the athletic department of Grand Valley is not alone. At a workshop Wednesday on travel budgeting at this week’s National Collegiate Athletic Association convention, a number of athletics directors expressed concern about their current practices and a desire to trim their teams’ travel. Most could relate to the story of Grand Valley.
Lisa Sweany, senior associate director of athletics at Grand Valley, said her institution has occasionally asked certain athletes to pay for their own travel on expensive, long-distance trips for at least four or five years. As a Division II institution, Grand Valley has the luxury of playing a majority of its games either in-state or in nearby Illinois, Indiana or Ohio. Division II conferences are typically much more regionally centered than Division I conferences, and most of Grand Valley’s in-conference away games can be reached by bus.
Spring sports such as golf and tennis, however, often require lengthy trips further south for training and early season match-ups in warmer climates. Sweany said it is often these sports teams that must help fund their own way. Often, she said, these teams hold fund raising events to help subsidize the cost of their travel; but even after these efforts, most athletes will end up paying $100 to $200 for a ticket that might cost $400 or $500.
“It’s more prevalent than we like,” Sweany said of the pay-to-play practice, noting that this extra financial burden makes it especially difficult for athletes from low-income families. “But we’ve tried to find other ways to cut our travel expenses.”
Grand Valley has stopped buying new uniforms, is planning to play more of its away games in its own region and now asks its coaches to book shorter hotel stays on long-distance trips. All of these steps are essential in order to stay within this year’s budget, Sweany said, noting that -- while her athletics department’s appropriation from the university has remained relatively static -- its travel expenses have gone up 25 percent since last year.
The NCAA has even had to tighten its own belt. Juanita Sheely, its assistant director of travel and insurance, reported that travel expenses for administrative staff went up 25 percent last academic year -- amounting to more than $8 million. If the trend continues, she said the group may be looking at an additional $10 million in travel expenses alone for this academic year.
With respect to the concerns of some institutions, Sheely said the NCAA had thought about altering the method by which it places teams in championship playoff brackets in order to take into consideration the amount of travel required for each team. The idea has not generated much traction, however, with some officials who worry it would water down the athletic competition. Still, Sheely insists the NCAA is discussing other options to lower travel costs, especially for championship events, for which it often helps pay teams’ travel expenses.
The outlook on the state of athletics travel was a little less dreary from the perspective of the University of Texas at Austin, a perennial Division I powerhouse and one of the few NCAA programs to actually generate a profit. Kevin Maguire, the university’s travel manager for intercollegiate athletics, was present at the workshop to offer advice.
“It’s a confusing time for everybody,” said Maguire, who is also the president and chief executive officer of the National Business Travel Association. “But, it’s also an opportunistic time.”
No matter whose dollars pay for athletics travel – whether it is funded by the university or by private donors -- Maguire said his program is under intense scrutiny from the state to ensure that such funds are “spent prudently.” Texas consolidates its expenses by bargaining for a managed travel program -- an all-encompassing deal on everything from air travel and car rentals to charter buses and hotel reservations. Maguire said such deals can easily result in 40 to 50 percent savings per sporting season.
While a fully formed travel program works for a major institution like Texas, it can often be difficult to implement at a smaller institution like Grand Valley. For example, according to many Division II delegates at the workshop, individual coaches and assistants often book travel for their own teams.
For these small programs, David LeCompte, president and chief executive officer of Short’s Travel Management -- a company that manages travel expenses for more than 150 NCAA institutions -- offered more practical advice. He said some of the more cash-strapped institutions he works with have begun sending athletics materials and personal baggage on buses separate from teams that are flying to an event. This helps some avoid and in most cases save on the cost of newly-introduced baggage fees on most major airlines. Other smaller programs, LeCompte said, have even ditched planes altogether, noting that more and more teams are putting up with long bus rides to save money.
Bob Somers, Delta Airlines’ managing director of corporate sales, echoed a similar story about some athletics program shying away from flying. He was optimistic enough, however, to make one joke at the NCAA’s expense.
"The airline industry," he said shaking his head about its troubles. "And you thought the BCS was screwed up," he said, referring to the controversial system that chooses the Division I football champion.
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