With Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten Conference came 11 new destinations for Husker teams.
Make that 12, if you count the airport between Lincoln and State College, Pa., where a charter plane carrying the Huskers home from Penn State might have to drop in for a refueling stop.
The girth of Nebraska’s new conference -- it’s 984 miles as the crow flies from LNK to SCE -- has predictably bloated travel expenses for Husker teams. Last school year, Nebraska’s first competing in the Big Ten, the athletic department spent $5.4 million on travel for its 23 teams.
That price tag, which represents 7.1 percent of all expenses attributable to the teams themselves, isn’t covered even by revenues from every ticket sold at Nebraska outside of football.
Ticket sales in all sports other than football bring in about $4.3 million a year. Nebraska spent an average of $4.7 million a year on team travel in its last two years competing in the Big 12.
“We did anticipate and we did prepare for travel costs to go up with the change in conferences,” said Bob Burton, an associate athletic director at Nebraska since 1998.
Some of the added cost -- NU spent about 5.9 percent of team expenses on travel in its final Big 12 season -- is due simply to inflation in the travel industry.
But a sizable chunk is due to the longer distances Husker teams must travel. The furthest spot in the Big 12 -- at 731 miles point to point -- was Austin, Texas. Nebraska’s closest Big Ten opponent, Iowa, is further from Lincoln than old Big 12 rivals Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State.
That said, Burton said last week he hasn’t heard a single complaint from a Nebraska coach about the travel issue. Except for maybe the weather.
“The travel is not as different for us as you might think,” said Rhonda Revelle, whose 21 seasons as softball coach date back to the bus-friendly Big Eight.
“In the Big 12, we bused everywhere but the Texas schools, so we knew every year we would travel by air twice to Texas,” Revelle said. In the Big Ten this year, NU will fly to Purdue and Penn State.
As conference alignments continue to evolve, so do the projections for travel spending.
Nebraska’s travel budget likely will spike again when Maryland and New Jersey-based Rutgers join the Big Ten in 2014-15.
Maryland projects its team travel budget will go from about $3 million in the Atlantic Coast Conference this academic year to nearly $6 million in its first Big Ten season.
With that in mind, Maryland officials shrewdly negotiated a subsidy as part of the school’s deal to join the Big Ten. Although the amount of the subsidy hasn't been made public, sources told the Baltimore Sun that the Big Ten could kick in $20 million to $30 million over several years.
Maryland had more leverage in its talks with the Big Ten since it was not coming from a league, the ACC, that was losing teams and in danger of collapse.
Following Colorado out the door of the Big 12, Nebraska did not receive a subsidy nor did NU receive a full share of conference payouts in its first year of Big Ten play.
However, Nebraska still brought in $16 million in 2011-12 from money distributed by the NCAA and Big Ten. That was up from $12.5 million and $11 million in NU’s last two seasons in the Big 12. And that revenue stream is projected to swell in future years.
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In the economics of conference realignment, additional revenue from renegotiated TV deals -- and in the Big Ten’s case, its own TV network -- more than makes up for added travel costs.
“We were comfortable from the beginning that the revenues are going to equitably address the travel situation,” former Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti told the Baltimore Sun last month. Pernetti was active in negotiating Rutgers’ entry into the Big Ten.
Beyond the numbers is the question of inconvenience for the student-athletes. Although schedules and locations may dictate more time on the road, Burton said the athletic department is mindful of every athlete’s progress academically.
An academic adviser is assigned to each team, and before it’s approved, each team’s schedule is reviewed by a faculty member mindful of missed class time.
“Study hall is a routine part of our travels,” said Revelle, adding, “We are also as accommodating as we can possibly be when we are in Lincoln to allow for students to meet with tutors, study groups and extra-credit events.”
While not necessarily glamorous, travel by bus does have its benefits. Nebraska’s baseball program prefers bus trips over having to split up the team on separate flights.
“We want the travel to be boring so the kids can focus,” said Curtis Ledbetter, NU baseball’s director of operations. “Flights sometimes get canceled or delayed, and that doesn’t make Coach Erstad happy.”
Nebraska uses charter flights for football, as well as men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball.
The men’s basketball team flew by charter plane on all but two trips this season. The team bused to Iowa, and the Huskers took commercial flights to and from a two-day tournament in El Paso, Texas.
Charter flights, which allow teams to return to campus immediately after a road game, are a luxury afforded only the top programs in college athletics.
Before coming to Nebraska, Tim Miles was men’s basketball coach at Colorado State. There, his team had a charter flight for only one trip. For all other flights, the team bused to Denver to catch a commercial flight, leaving campus three hours before the plane’s scheduled departure.
“It was tough from an academic standpoint,” said director of operations Jayden Olson, who came with Miles from Colorado State.
Directors of operations are the traveling secretaries for NU teams. When Nebraska changed conferences, they did their research on the best places to stay and most convenient places to eat in each new stop.
They found advantages in more campuses in larger cities. Columbus, Ohio, for example, is big enough that a home Ohio State football game doesn’t overwhelm the city’s hotels.
“Bigger cities help with costs,” volleyball’s Lindsay Peterson said.
Nearly $800,000 of Nebraska’s estimated $5.6 million in travel costs this school year was spent on the Huskers’ trip to the Capital One Bowl.
Travel spending in football didn’t change much with the change in conferences. Baseball travel, however, is up significantly with more games on the road this season.
Spending was up in almost every other sport.