Washington, D.C. notebook: Same game, different rules
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 15, 2006
Halfway through a seven-and-a-half-hour drive to the University of Maine earlier this season, the charter bus carrying the Albany men's basketball team stopped at an Olive Garden in Portsmouth, N.H. – and took its food to go. According to Brian DePasquale, media relations director for the Great Danes, the players and coaches dined on the bus to keep on motoring and get the trip over with as soon as possible.
Such is life on the road for a small conference team with a similarly proportioned budget. "These days, our trips are defined by how many movies we watch," DePasquale said. "The guys will ask, Is this a two movie trip or a three movie trip?'"
Of the 16 teams in the Washington, D.C. region, Albany generates the least revenue – about $156,000 – while spending $781,000 to run its program, according to figures reported this week that were provided by schools to the Department of Education for the 2004-2005 season.
Albany's revenues are a rounding error for the big programs in the region, such as North Carolina, which generated $15 million last year – second most in the nation behind the University of Arizona's $16.6 million. Kentucky brought in $12.9 million, followed in the region by Illinois ($11.4 million) and Michigan State ($11 million).
The teams that bring in the most dollars also tend to spend the most, but remain quite profitable despite rising costs associated with travel and coaches' salaries. Here's a look at the Washington region and the extent to which, as the Wall Street Journal put it in a recent special report, universities "Pay for Playoffs."
The way a team travels during the regular often indicates the status of its program and conference. Russ Dlin, manager of sports market sales for Marriott International in Greenbelt, Md. near College Park, said his hotel typically hosts ACC teams but not those from smaller conferences.
"Most of the ACC teams stay here," Dlin said. "The out of conference teams go to the Courtyard (by Marriott) or Fairfield Inn because the rates are less expensive and they just don't have the budget."
Operating expenses for men's basketball programs in the NCAA tournament range from $7.4 million at Duke to $470,000 at Northwestern State (teams seeded 1st and 14th incidentally).
In the Washington D.C. region, the range varies from a high of $6.3 million at Michigan State, to a low of $739,958 for plucky Winthrop of the Big South – tournament qualifiers in six of the last eight years.
Budgets obviously impact how a team travels and whether they get on a bus, commercial plane or private charter during the regular season, though the NCAA foots the bill for travel during the tournament.
"Our league is basically a bus league," Albany's DePasquale said of the America East. "We do get in the airplane sometimes. It depends if we get a good rate, like on Southwest to Baltimore [to play UMBC]."
Once in a while, Albany will fly, such as for a West Coast trip earlier this season, but never on private charters.
Kentucky, one of the most profitable and well-funded programs in college basketball, takes private charter flights to most of its games and typically brings a traveling party of 50 people. This rather large group includes players, coaches, coaches' wives, the radio crew, media relations staff and representatives and guests from Coach Tubby Smith's foundation, said Kentucky assistant A.D. for media relations, Scott Stricklin.
"I think we're on the high side," Stricklin said in reference to the travel party, adding that Kentucky greatly benefits from its fanatical following in the Bluegrass State. "We are very fortunate in that everyone in the state takes a lot of pride in what we do. We are the state team, and very fortunate where we can afford to put that kind of money back into our program."
By contrast, Utah State from the Western Athletic Conference, spent $1.3 million to run its program last year but took in only $760,000, or about $12 million less than Kentucky. The team travels with a relatively lean party of only 20, and flies commercial out of Salt Lake City, a 1.5 hour bus ride from campus in Logan, Utah.
Teams like Michigan State, Illinois, North Carolina and Kentucky spend millions to run their programs because they clearly can afford it. At Michigan State, for example, the Spartans have sold out their 15,000 seat home arena 126 times in a row. Also, like most quality teams in quality conferences, the Spartans benefit from lucrative regional and national TV deals.
North Carolina fits this mold and also sells out its 22,000 seat Dean Dome regularly. Throw in the bounty from winning the national championship, and the Tar Heels raked in $15 million last season – second-most in the NCAA behind Arizona's $16.6 million.
As a result, the Tar Heels travel in style. Steve Kirschner, director of communications for the athletic department, said the Tar Heels charter flights to conference games at Maryland, Florida State, Miami and Boston College, but take buses to in-state rivals and sometimes to Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
"I think because you can't pay your players, you want to travel as well as you can without being frivolous," Kirschner said. "When you play an 8 p.m. game on Sunday night in Miami, I don't know if you can get a commercial flight back to Raleigh at midnight."
DePasquale of Albany noted that no matter how long the trip, the team typically arrives the night before a game and stays at a "decent" hotel.
"We're not looking for a Red Roof Inn," he said. "We try to stay in a hotel that's going to be able to provide us with team meals and make sure the guys are comfortable."
Here's a look at a few other D.C. region teams and how they get around during the regular season.
Back on the road, Albany coach Will Brown called from the team bus heading to Philadelphia and said the team had just finished watching "Miracle," the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and was getting ready to pop in a few episodes of "The Family Guy."
"We just had our inspirational movie, now we're going with some comedy," he said, adding that "Old School" is on deck.
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the tournament exclusively for Yahoo! Sports from Philadelphia this week and Washington, D.C., next week.
Updated on Wednesday, Mar 15, 2006 4:38 pm, EST