Athletics travel budget: still a costly game
In the program’s last season in 2008, Western was spending a quarter of a million dollars on football travel alone, Steve Card, Western’s former Associate Director of Athletics for business and financial affairs and current Athletic Director, said. // Photo courtesy of WWU Athletics
By Tyler Urke
Amidst one of the darkest times in our nation’s financial history, Western Washington University administrators had to make tough choices.
Although administrators like former President Bruce Shepard and former Athletic Director Lynda Goodrich loathed doing it, the decision to cut the football team was one choice that wasn’t tough to make financially. They said the cut would keep Western’s other athletic teams afloat because the football program was too expensive to maintain. Operating the football program was costing the university $491,687 per year, according to funding requests obtained via a public records request.
The cut had to be substantial due to statewide budget restrictions, according to a statement by university officials five days after the program was dropped in January 2009. It also cited intercollegiate athletics facing reductions in scholarship and operating money from endowments that weren’t yielding support.
But the biggest issues Western faced in continuing to run its football program were the increasing costs to transport an entire football team – more than 100 players, 12 coaches, all of its equipment, etc. – for the 10-to-11 games of its season. The inflated travel costs compounded the expenses and were “outside the control of the university,” according to the statement released by the university.
In the program’s last season in 2008, Western’s former Associate Director of Athletics for business and financial affairs and current Athletic Director Steve Card said Western was spending a quarter of a million dollars on football travel alone.
Card said he was putting together the football schedule at the time and was negotiating deals with the University of North Dakota on how to get Western’s team there. He said the only way Western could make it work was North Dakota had to pay for Western’s charter flight. It was an $85,000 charter that North Dakota paid for, Card said.
Robin Ross, Western’s head football coach at the time, told The Seattle Times he had even tried cutting travel costs for the upcoming 2009 season by scheduling five home games. It still wasn’t enough.
“That was a very dark time for us,” Card said. “Nobody was doing cartwheels over discontinuing the football program. Nobody. Even the people that ended up making that decision. That was a very difficult thing to go through.”
Before being promoted to athletic director, Card spent 23 years analyzing Western’s athletic budget. He’d be the first to tell you the cut had to be made.
“Everyone said, ‘Football made money for you’ and I said, ‘No, it didn’t.’ and I was the money guy and I could tell you that it didn’t make money,” Card said.
At the University of Washington, a Division I football program, the operating athletics budget is roughly $100,000,000 and the football team is responsible for $80,000,000, according to Card.
“It doesn’t cost them $80,000,000 to run their football program so yeah it’s bringing dollars in,” Card said.
TRAVEL COSTS STILL AN ISSUE
In the 10 years since the program cut, Western has properly forecasted how much travel for each of its 15 varsity teams would cost, according to Card.
“There hasn’t been much change [in travel costs] related to the discontinuance of football because we had to make the cuts,” Card said. “You didn’t see much in terms of operational enhancement where you could say, ‘Because we dropped football we reinvested in these programs.’ The reinvestment that was done for programs was done more in terms of scholarships and those types of things. From an operational standpoint, there wasn’t any growth for other programs because we took football money and reallocated it.”
However, inflated costs of travel are still an issue for Western, albeit not at the same magnitude of when the football program was intact. According to Card and records obtained from the university, $95,000 was spent on travel this past year for the men’s basketball team. The softball team spent about $87,000 on travel.
“Travel costs consistently go up whether you are having to travel further or its just inflation,” Card said. “Plane tickets are more expensive than they used to be.”
While that may be the case, Western is spending exponentially more on airfare than it was just five years ago. In 2013 and 2014, Western athletics spent just $4,904.16 on plane tickets for 11 flights, according to records obtained via public records request. In 2015, that number jumped to $38,818.96 for 26 flights. 2015 was Card’s first year as athletic director.
From there, Western airfare expenses continued to skyrocket. In 2016, Western spent $143,325.23 and a year later it spent $259, 031.75. In the last five years Western has spent $543, 916.10 on plane tickets alone, according to the records.
It’s not just at Western that the cost of transporting athletic teams is impacting budgets. At Division II Central Washington University, 51 percent of its athletic budget is dedicated to travel expenditures. And the problem is not going away.
“…There is a growing concern over the rising costs of both air and ground travel, hotels and meals,” a statement from Central’s budget summary said. “Although the athletic department does its best to purchase flights as far in advance as possible, some as far as six months, air travel costs are not going down, nor are ground transportation, i.e., charter buses. Moreover, the meal per diem rate for athletics when traveling, for both student athletes and all staff, is $32 per day in regular cost areas and $37 per day in high cost areas, significantly lower than the university rate.”
Western’s per diem rate for athletics is $26 per day which is funded by the Services and Activities fees or the operational portion of the budget that comes directly from student tuition.
Card was Western’s head men’s golf coach for 20 years and said rather than giving his players the money each day he would take his five players out to eat and just pay the bill. He said whatever he had left over at the end of the trip he would return to the budget.
“Being the budget guy, I was pretty careful about that stuff,” Card said. “I got to say $26 a day is pretty tough to eat on but ya know it’s what we can afford.”
Western men’s basketball player Siaan Rojas said he’s given an envelope with his per diem at the start of each day and is told the money is to be used for food only.
Card said the department does its best to prepare for unexpected expenditures in terms of travel. If a team ends up making the postseason and must fly to the tournament, Western has to be ready to pony up the money.
“You know you do your best to budget and you know where your teams are going to fly, what you’ve got to buy them on an annual basis in terms of their equipment and the needs they have for the program,” Card said. “But, we’re setting budgets now, but when we go to start booking air tickets… we’ve paid anywhere from $400 to go to Alaska up to $1,000 to go. So, you’re doing your best guess if you can.”
This year’s men’s basketball Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament was in Anchorage, Alaska and the Vikings made it as the No. 2 seed. Card said traditionally the tournament has been on the Interstate 5 corridor and it’s only been about $5,000 for Western to send its team via bus. This year it was closer to $15,000, according to Card.
“You hope you don’t have too many of those [unanticipated expenditures], and when you do you’ll have to source the funds that will cover that,” Card said.
WHY THE OPPONENT MATTERS
At the time the football program was cut, another rationale Western administrators gave was a “lack of geographically close opponents” that was important in determining why the cut was made. Western was one of just five Division II schools to have a football team in the western United States, including the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana and Nevada. Western had to play a schedule where it was playing teams twice, once at home and once on the road, with the other four schools in the GNAC, and Western had to fly to any state outside of Washington or Oregon.
“That’s not how college football works,” Card said. “You should be playing 10 or 11 independent games and we’re playing teams twice and then you’re having to travel for some of those other games.”
The University of Washington plays Auburn, Utah, North Dakota, Arizona State, BYU, Oregon, Colorado, California, Stanford, Oregon State, Washington State and UCLA next season and never repeats an opponent.
In Western’s final season of football, it flew to California, North Dakota and Utah twice.
To not compromise the integrity of the athletic program, Card said Western has no choice but to travel outside of its region for some games or tournaments. The NCAA Division II selection criteria for postseason play demands teams do more than just play its conference opponents.
For example, the women’s basketball postseason selection criteria is based on eight separate categories: Overall Division II in-region winning percentage, overall Division II winning percentage, overall Division II strength of schedule, Division II head-to-head competition, results versus Division II common opponents, in-region Rating Percentage Index (RPI), Division II results versus teams with a record of .500 or better and Performance Indicator (PI).
Apply these criteria to Western’s football program and not only would its strength of schedule rating dip due to playing teams twice, but the emphasis on playing teams in-region in a region where three out of the five states are only logistically possible to get to via plane makes things tough.
It’s a dilemma that Western still faces.
“You have to be strategic about who you play,” Card said. “When you’re playing non-conference games, whether that be in volleyball or basketball or soccer, you’ve got to be selecting the right teams.”
To help solve the problem, Card said teams participate in preseason tournaments against quality opponents to show they are playing tough schedules.
“That’s critical for postseason selection, because depending on how your league does, you could be in a strong league or a weak league depending on how those teams are doing,” Card said. “But if you can do well at the beginning of the year you can put yourself in a really good position to advance. Those are huge components.”
For example, the volleyball team has two preseason tournaments scheduled for next season. One is in California against in-region teams and one is in Florida against some of the best teams in the country. It’s a choice some Western teams make to have a better chance at making the postseason.
Athletics Travel Coordinator Sunday McCarty is responsible for the researching and planning for upcoming trips, reconciling a range of trips such as team travel, recruiting and conferences with expense reports turned in by coaches and staff, communication with coaches and the travel desk to assure compliance in all areas of travel and documenting each step and managing the departmental Visa that is used to pay for travel expenses like air, hotel and rental cars.
“When researching and booking travel we are always looking for the most cost-effective way to transport student athletes and staff,” McCarty said.
Card said it’s a discussion he has with coaches before each season.
“We say ‘Okay, how are we going to schedule and how are we going to strategize in terms of positioning ourselves the best to get to the postseason?’” Card said. “Because we want to compete at the highest level. We want to win the NCAA championships because our students are competitive and our coaches are competitive.”
This story is one of a two-part series by Dante Koplowitz-Fleming and Tyler Urke for an advanced reporting course with professor Carolyn Nielsen. A second piece on Western athletic’s increased reliance on student fees can be found here.