SBJ/October 15-21, 2012/In Depth

Teams get early jump on travel planning

Major League Baseball hasn’t yet crowned this season’s World Series champion, but most teams have already started work on 2013. Not just with roster moves and managerial shuffling, but with travel plans, too.

Even before next season’s schedule came out in September, teams began to get an idea of how their itineraries would shape up. That, in turn, led to the first order of business: gathering bids for specific dates and hotels for all of the cities on the schedule. By the end of the 2012 regular season, many teams had already finished or largely completed hotel reservations for next year.

By the end of the current calendar year, similar arrangements will be in place for each team’s flights, with most using commercial charters for between 35 and 40 team flights. The Los Angeles Angels next season will log 53,000 miles and, like most teams, will take 50 to 60 people on the road, adding 10 to 15 more due to expanded player rosters during the latter part of the season.

Chicago Bears players and coaches board a United Airlines flight this month after their game in Jacksonville. The team’s partnership with the airline goes back more than 40 years.
Photo by: Bill Smith / Chicago Bears
While baseball boasts the lengthiest travel log with 81 away games per season, all of the major sports leagues and franchises face a host of on-the-road-again challenges, from costs and logistics to security and limiting fatigue and distractions.

“I want to make sure their focus is on the field and not, ‘I had a bad bed and my back’s killing me,’” said Tom Taylor, traveling secretary for the Angels. “[My goal is], they don’t have to worry about anything.”

In baseball, players long ago lost the excuse of snore-happy teammates keeping them awake. In the mid-1990s, the players union successfully negotiated single rooms for every player. That, in turn, led top-performing players to shift from pushing for their own rooms as a contract perk and to seeking suites instead, said Roger Riley, senior director of team travel with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It should come as little surprise that teams in all of the leagues have upgraded their accommodations on the road in recent years. Bob Eller, vice president of operations with the Baltimore Ravens, said the trend makes sense because it’s “what players are used to. They’re coming from multimillion-dollar homes and training facilities.” As a result, the Ravens have housed players at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

Labor contracts and other league mandates establish some of the parameters for team travel. In the NFL, for example, teams must be on the ground for an away game no fewer than 18 hours before kickoff, Eller said. Teams leave on Saturday for a Sunday road game, spending one night and returning after the game. Coast-to-coast travel, fraught with longer flights and time changes that can affect players’ body clocks, often convinces coaches and teams to leave on Friday instead. Eller said that teams in the NFL will spend about $2 million each during the season for travel.

When it comes to flying, sponsorships sometimes go along with travel decisions, but airlines and teams say the
agreements stay separate. More than anything, fuel costs drive charter rates, which explains why most agreements between teams and airlines run one or two years and include language on fluctuations in fuel prices.

In 2012, the Diamondbacks flew charters with US Airways, a Phoenix-based airline and sponsor for many years. Earlier, even with US Airways as a sponsor, the Diamondbacks flew on a private charter through an arrangement with minority owners. Riley said the private charter offered small perks such as catering and all first-class seats. The plane also stayed with the team wherever it played, making weather delays and rainouts less problematic if travel schedules needed to be adjusted.

In Baltimore, the Ravens remain a longtime customer of Delta, chartering 767s to carry traveling parties of as many as 190 people to away games. Despite the relationship with Delta, the airline doesn’t, and hasn’t, had a major sponsorship contract with the Ravens. For many years, AirTran did, but the sponsorship lapsed when Southwest bought the airline. A lack of galleys and space on AirTran jets made a charter agreement impossible, Eller said.

Other teams espouse a strong connection between travel arrangements and sponsorships.

“We wouldn’t have one without the other,” said John Bostrom, vice president of business administration with the Chicago Bears. United Airlines and the Bears have a partnership that goes back more than 40 years, but Bostrom said the sponsorship and travel agreements are separate.

The Bears and most other teams in the major pro leagues enjoy perks beyond charter planes and luxury hotels. Since 9/11, with increased security requirements, the Transportation Security Administration has worked with many stadiums and arenas to establish checkpoints for players and coaches before they board the bus to go to the airport, sparing them the inconvenience of schlepping through terminals.

Marc “Sparky” Sipolt works with seven pro and college teams as part of his job in United’s charter operations division. Using the Bears as an example, he said the team typically departs at 2:30 p.m. on the day before a road game, with a precise schedule leading up to departure. Equipment managers load the plane several hours before departure while players, coaches and others traveling with the team go through a TSA checkpoint at the club’s suburban Halas Hall headquarters beginning at noon.

By 1:15 sharp, the screening ends and five buses load up for the 30-minute drive to O’Hare International Airport. At 1:45, soon after 89-year-old Virginia McCaskey and other members of the Bears ownership family have boarded the plane from a VIP area, the five buses arrive. Three buses unload near the front of the plane and two in the back. By 2:05 the doors close and the pilot prepares for takeoff.

“It just needs to be consistent,” said Sipolt, who accompanies the Bears and White Sox on their travels. Baseball players tend to be more laid-back while NFL teams spend much of their time watching game film on iPads and maintain a business-first demeanor, he added.

College teams have started taking a more focused approach to team travel as well.

John Anthony, CEO of Anthony Travel, has 45 schools under contract, including Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Texas, Purdue and UCLA, among others. The company took 10,000 people to Ireland for the Notre Dame-Navy football game Labor Day weekend, a combination of team travel, alums and other fans. Anthony Travel has company representatives working on client campuses at 22 schools, an example of the staggering arrangements necessary to shuffle teams at a university to road games in a variety of planes, buses and trains.

“It’s turnkey,” Anthony said. “Our job is to make it as simple as possible. It can seem complicated if coaches or operations people [handle travel] while also working on [other things]. No school on their own can get the leverage we can.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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