The Trouble with Travel for NCAA Division I's Smallest Schools

7 Mar, 2018

By: Michael Popke

If you’ve ever wondered what the travel arrangements are like for college basketball players from less-glamorous programs, a recent Associated Press article about Northern Arizona University’s basketball team should be required reading.

“It’s pretty hard travel after a game,” NAU coach Jack Murphy told AP basketball writers John Marshall. “You want to get home, get the guys some rest on their day off, but it’s a long day of travel on their ‘day off.’”

While major Division I programs charter flights to games — which allows for quick trips — smaller programs must fly coach, with big players cramped in tiny seats. But sometimes that’s only half the trip. Games in remote locations require flights on regional jets or prop planes, and/or long bus rides.

“The Big Sky could be called the Big Bus Conference,” Murphy writes. “Stretching from Eastern Washington to North Dakota, down to Flagstaff, around to Sac State and Portland State, the Big Sky covers nine states and roughly a third of the United States. … Try riding from Bozeman to Missoula during a snowstorm. A prop plane in winter can have passengers locating the ‘sickness bag’ in the seat-back pocket in front of them. ‘Some of these trips can be a nightmare,’ said Idaho State coach Bill Evans. ‘It’s a tough business.’”

Perhaps stories like this is one reason why The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., recently ran an editorialclaiming that college athletes “collectively miss classes by the thousands” and calling for administrators to find ways to curb travel for members of non-revenue sports.

The Duke women’s soccer team had a game at Notre Dame on a Thursday night. So the team left Wednesday morning via a plane, and rode a bus to Notre Dame. They played the game, rode a bus back to Chicago and caught a plane home. They got back Friday.

The huge money that college athletics bring to schools is undeniable. But is it wagging the dog? The Atlantic Coast Conference rewards 14 member schools with an average of more than $26 million annually. That makes it, practically speaking, highly unlikely that ACC schools are going to cut back schedules or traveling when it comes to the big money sports of football and basketball. 

But what about those so-called Olympic sports, those such as lacrosse and soccer and others that, because they’re part of “big-time” programs, also require extensive travel? Participation in those sports is valuable to students who love them as part of their college experience, and there’s nothing wrong with schools expanding their scholarship offerings.

But why not, instead of treating those athletes like all others in terms of the expected travel, form regional conferences-within-conferences that would confine travel to more manageable areas? Have one region confined to North and South Carolina and perhaps Virginia. Have another that would include South Bend, Louisville, Boston College. Make the travel more sensible, and make the competition make sense. 

Such an arrangement might not only make travel easier on athletes and athletic department budgets, but also create new opportunities for more destinations to host more events in the form of tournaments and invitationals. The idea makes sense. But will ACC officials and those from other conferences even consider it?


Subscribe to SDM