SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/In Depth

West Virginia adjusts to $2M spike in travel costs

West Virginia University’s travel costs shot up $2 million in 2012-13, the Mountaineers’ first season of competition in the Big 12, school officials said.

When West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12, the school understood that it would need to make significant adjustments to its travel schedule. While the Mountaineers flew to many of their games in the Big East, they could take a bus to Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Georgetown, which helped to save costs.

The move to the Big 12 made for long-distance destinations such as Lawrence, Kan.
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There are no bus trips in the Big 12, where WVU’s nearest rival is Iowa State — 870 miles away.

“We certainly knew going into the Big 12 that we would face some longer trips,” said Mike Parsons, WVU’s deputy athletic director. “We’re working with the conference on some ideas that will help scheduling, possibly do two games in one trip.”

The $2 million increase in travel costs was the result of longer flights and more of them, Parsons said.

West Virginia, which uses an in-house travel coordinator who is an athletic department employee, travels by charter flights for its football and men’s and women’s basketball games. The Olympic sports fly commercial.

Without an airport with a long-enough runway in Morgantown to support larger jets, the charter flights originate out
of Clarksburg, about 30 minutes away. WVU takes commercial flights out of Pittsburgh, about 80 miles away. Both require the additional expense of busing to the airport.

The move to the Big 12 also has led some of the Mountaineers’ squads to broaden their recruiting territories. West Virginia increased its recruiting budget last year by $700,000 — on top of the $2 million increase in team travel — to account for longer travel on recruiting trips.

Some sports, like men’s basketball, already were recruiting on a national basis, but some of the other Olympic
sports have begun to recruit new territories, Parsons said.

Adjusting to additional travel costs and new scheduling is part of the conference realignment game. West Virginia isn’t the only school going through it.

Colorado, for example, was new to the Pac-12 last season and had to make adjustments of its own as it sought efficiencies for life on the road. However, in the school’s first season in the Pac-12, the Buffaloes found travel costs to be flat in 2012-13 compared to the Big 12 the year prior.

Colorado largely chartered flights for its team travel in the Big 12. That was mostly out of necessity because so many of the schools in Colorado’s former league are in rural settings.

“We’re doing a lot more commercial flying now in the Pac-12 because we’re flying into larger cities,” said Cory Hilliard, Colorado’s associate AD for business operations.

The ability to fly commercial has presented Colorado with some savings that it didn’t anticipate. On the flip side, the Buffaloes are spending more on hotel rooms, which tend to cost more in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles than they do in Manhattan, Kan., Ames, Iowa, and Stillwater, Okla.

Colorado travels farther now that it’s in the Pac-12, but going to major markets such as Los Angeles allows for the use of more affordable commercial flights.
Photo by: Getty Images
“It’s been relatively balanced, ironically,” Hilliard said. “We tried to forecast it as much as we could, but things leveled out for the most part.”

Like West Virginia, Colorado hoped that scheduling arrangements could lead to some cost savings. Each Pac-12 school has a travel partner to make each trip more efficient. For example, when a Colorado team travels to Los Angeles, it often plays Southern California and UCLA on the same visit within a day or two.

That makes sense, but the evolution of the Pac-12 Networks and the need for live programming across all sports has created some conflicts. If television needs a game on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday, that could change travel plans.

“The TV schedule has increased the gaps between games and made us re-evaluate the travel schedule,” said Hilliard, whose school has a contract with Christopherson Business Travel to handle flights, hotels and buses.

The Buffs still charter quite a bit for football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, typically on 30-passenger planes for basketball and volleyball, and larger jets for football.

The distance to other Pac-12 schools also has eliminated any possibility of busing to a game, something Colorado did on occasion to Nebraska or Kansas, especially for the Olympic sports.

“All in all, I’d say our student athletes are spending a little less time on the road,” Hilliard said. “It’s worked out pretty well.”

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