Colleges target new schedule models to save money
East Carolina’s top-25 baseball team played 17 games before the spring season was canceled and never left the state of North Carolina. The Pirates were able to bus to every game, saving thousands of dollars compared to their expenses for league games in the far-flung American Athletic Conference, where every weekend series requires a flight.
AAC members Tulane, Wichita State and Central Florida are in the same predicament — high-level baseball programs that fly halfway across the country to play conference opponents. It applies to other nonrevenue-producing sports like volleyball and soccer, too.
Despite the high costs, schools were willing to accommodate the travel fees until the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging athletic department budgets, forcing members of the AAC and other conferences to identify cost savings with revenue plummeting as events were canceled.
The need to cut costs has led several conferences, including The American, to recalibrate the way they will run their regular seasons and championships. The Mid-American and Atlantic 10 already have implemented changes to the way they’ll run their championship events, and in some cases eliminated postseason tournaments.
The AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt, all with far-reaching memberships that span the Mid-Atlantic across to Texas, are deep into discussions about ways to conduct their championships and regular seasons more efficiently. Most changes would not affect football or basketball, but they would target all other sports.
Several leagues are looking into new scheduling models that would be more geographically friendly and necessitate less travel. Here’s a sampling of longer round-trip driving distances between some conference foes:
El Paso, Texas-Norfolk, Va.
Boone, N.C.-San Marcos, Texas
Conway, S.C.-Lafayette, La.
“I grew up in a time when conferences were regionally based,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “But that’s not the case anymore, so we’ve got to look at doing things differently.”
Aresco’s league is focused on creating a more efficient regular season rather than restructuring the postseason. The American’s schools are studying a new model for sports outside of football and basketball that would enable AAC members to schedule in-season games on their own, as if they were operating as independents.
There would be no regular-season AAC games unless schools specifically arranged them, which they would be free to do. The freedom would allow schools to craft a more regionally friendly slate, cutting travel expenses.
The AAC still would conduct postseason tournaments to crown a champion.
ECU’s baseball schedule, flush with in-state road trips, provides an example for how the Pirates could keep teams closer to home and travel by bus rather than plane in the regular season. ECU also cut men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s and women’s tennis last week to save money.
Trips by air can cost in the ballpark of $30,000 for commercial flights and $75,000 or more for charter, compared to $5,000-$10,000 to charter a bus. Some schools fly commercial on the front end and charter home to get the athletes back on campus in a more timely manner.
School administrators already are concerned about the viability of commercial air because airlines have reduced flight schedules for now.
“The geographic spread of our league in these times really calls for something other than the traditional model,” Tulane Athletic Director Troy Dannen said.
The American has been discussing a new regular-season model for about three weeks, so the concepts are still in the infancy stage. Given that many schedules already are set for 2020-21, new scheduling formats might not take effect until next year.
But the depth of the conversations and willingness to consider new concepts shows the importance ADs and commissioners have placed on finding efficiencies in the traditional college season.
“There’s definitely more openness and receptiveness to talking about regional scheduling,” Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. “That’s something that we could see more of.”
The Mid-American has been among the most aggressive, eliminating eight postseason tournaments starting in 2020-21. Men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be reduced from 12 teams to eight.
The Atlantic 10 will reconfigure six of its championships to reduce the number of teams involved, and its regular-season schedule will be condensed with more regional opponents.
The Sun Belt and Conference USA, two leagues whose footprints match up well, have talked about everything from a scheduling alliance to a full-on realignment with the 24 schools being split into geographically friendly divisions. No one in either conference sensed much momentum for a partnership between the two in recent weeks, although that could change.
“If there’s a game that makes sense within Conference USA and the Sun Belt, we can just schedule it. We’re already doing that,” North Texas AD Wren Baker said. “So, I don’t know that there needs to be anything formal. … We’ve been asked for forever why we have volleyball teams flying from Huntington, West Virginia, to El Paso, Texas, but these things are driven by football and your schedule just becomes based on that.”
Baker, however, did see some potential in revamping the regular season, like the AAC has discussed.
“There are multiple leagues having that discussion and there are things about scheduling regionally that might make some sense,” he said.