For USC Women’s Lacrosse And Other College Teams, Travel Costs Dominate Scheduling


“I think that you’ll see a demand for increased teams at the Santa Barbara Shootout,” said Gabe Valenzuela, head coach for the University of Southern California women. “I know that the Second Annual Lindenwood (Mo.) Invitational is something that a lot of clubs might go to because you get three or four games for the price of two.”

Sept. 2, 2008

by Jac Coyne, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

When John Paul, head coach of the Michigan men’s club lacrosse team, was crunching his budget numbers in preparation for the coming spring, the cost of traveling these days became painfully clear.

He knew the price of fuel, which is up nearly a dollar from the same time last year, would force the cost of his team’s four plane trips to skyrocket, but he hadn’t counted on the indirect impact of gas prices. Flying out of Detroit, the Wolverines travel almost exclusively on Northwest Airlines, and because of Northwest’s recent decision to charge $15 for one checked bag and $25 for a second, the program is about to absorb a budget hit that Paul estimates will be near $25,000 for the team’s four excursions.

$25,000?

For luggage?

“It’s definitely a hit, no question,” said Paul.

For Paul and Michigan, the defending Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) champions and a program operating with the “virtual varsity” label, this kind of unforeseen cost is merely a nuisance. With the help of some generous donors, UM doesn’t need to cut corners. And Paul estimates that the Michigan athletic department’s recent all-sports contract with Adidas, which equips his players from head to toe, will save his program an amount in the six-figure neighborhood.

The Wolverines will survive any fuel spike. But as the president of the MCLA, Paul has serious concerns about how travel costs will affect the rest of the teams.

“I see a problem with all of our programs. Even our top programs live off dues. If you’re talking about spending another 25, 30, or 40 thousand dollars, then that’s a thousand dollars per kid and that’s not insignificant,” said Paul. “Fuel costs are getting passed onto the consumer and, in the case of the MCLA perhaps more than any other league, it is going to get passed on directly to the kids.”

Paul said the MCLA has talked about the elevated travel costs at the executive level, but has found there is no way to mitigate the problem. While he admits most of the 200 MCLA teams don’t come close to the $3,000 to $5,000 in yearly dues that Michigan and many of the traditional league powers require, Paul believes there will either be an increase in dues for many programs or they will rein in the amount of inter-regional travel from previous seasons.

 

 

This gives rise to two problems for the league. Because the MCLA stipulates that a team must play three non-conference (which typically means non-region) games to be eligible for the postseason, teams will likely compete against the most cost-effective squads, not the best ones.

“If I’m in Colorado and it costs me $600 per player to fly to Michigan and $200 per player to fly to Florida, maybe I’ll be going to Florida,” said Paul.

Without the multitude of inter-conference match-ups as in years past, selecting the tournament for the MCLA Divisions I & II championship will become more difficult. The at-large selections in the MCLA are determined by poll placement (not a selection committee, like the NCAA), which increases the importance of inter-regional head-to-head match-ups to sort out the most worthy teams. If there are fewer inter-conference contests, the more of a guessing game it will be for the pollsters.

The increased cost of travel is not limited to the MCLA. While NCAA teams will have to deal with the issue as well, it will be the smaller schools in lacrosse-remote areas that will feel the pinch this spring. Colorado College, D-III independents in both men’s and women’s lacrosse, must travel extensively and attempt to lure opponents to Colorado Springs in order to be viable come tournament selection time.

“Seventy-one percent of our budget is travel related, so when you see an increase in fuel prices and an increase in airfare, it has a drastic effect on the bottom line,” said Colorado College AD Ken Ralph. “We’ve seen into certain destinations from Colorado Springs the airfare has almost doubled. We’ll buy 1,500 flights for our students this year. If you multiply the differences in the airfare by 1,500, you can see the drastic effect it’s going to have for us in terms of budget implications.”

The Colorado College men’s team is taking five flights this year – two to Ohio to play NCAC teams, one to Florida for spring break (Salisbury, Kean), one to Virginia (Washington & Lee, Lynchburg) and one to St. Louis (Fontbonne), according to head coach Dave Zazzaro. Ralph has yet to put the brakes on scheduling trips that require airfare because the Tigers have just joined the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which will require traveling to Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama simply to fulfill league obligations.

But Zazzaro wouldn’t be surprised if his AD is forced to tighten things up.

“It’s going to be a serious issue with our athletic department, I just don’t know when it’s going to come together,” said Zazzaro. “I don’t know if it is going to pinch the teams this upcoming academic year, but I definitely think it will the following year when we see how much everything was impacted.”

Ralph shoots for a zero-sum budget every year, but he realizes that he’ll likely operate in the red by the time his fiscal year expires. He expects a scenario where he’ll have to tap donors to make up some of the difference and lean on the school to absorb the remaining overages. In the meantime, Ralph says his staff has become experts in using Kayak.com to schedule flights as cheaply as possible.

Zazzaro has also noticed a downtick in the number of schools willing to visit Colorado Springs for a game. He has already canceled his annual Invitational due to lack of interest and has managed to coax just handful of teams to campus, many of them brand new programs.

“We have some teams that are kind of waiting and seeing if they can do it. Usually by this time, they’re already committed,” said Zazzaro. “That’s made it a little nerve-wracking. I don’t know if that is in direct response to the gas prices or people just not wanting to come to Colorado.”

For teams in the Women’s Division Intercollegiate Associates – the women’s equivalent to the MCLA – the solution to any increase in travel costs will be the expansion of an already utilized tool: in-season tournaments.

Playing multiple games in one day is not a viable option on the men’s side because of the safety issues inherent with a “contact sport,” but for the WDIA it is a common practice.

“I think that you’ll see a demand for increased teams at the Santa Barbara Shootout,” said Gabe Valenzuela, head coach for the University of Southern California women. “I know that the Second Annual Lindenwood (Mo.) Invitational is something that a lot of clubs might go to because you get three or four games for the price of two.”

“People are jumping on it,” confirmed Jack Cribbin, Lindenwood’s coach. “Any time they can get four quality teams in a weekend, they’re all over it.”

Along with playing multiple games on road trips, Valenzuela says there are plenty of ways to make club dollars go further.

“You have to do what you have to do in other areas,” said Valenzuela, who is also the director of USC’s 53-sport club program. “For instance, this might be the year we don’t get new uniforms. Maybe we don’t need the new pennies and we can probably make due with the balls we have. And what you’re going to see more and more is travel squads.

“Personally, I just think that gas prices are a little bit of an excuse.”

USC typically takes personal cars to away games and Valenzuela estimates a majority of WDIA teams do the same. Lindenwood, however, takes charter buses to 95 percent of its away games, according to Cribbin. Recently, the Lindenwood field hockey team, which is also coached by Cribbin, stopped to fill up its charter bus.

Final receipt: $1,200.

With the Lions leaving the Central Plains Women’s Lacrosse League and moving to the Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse League – comprised of teams mostly from the Upper Midwest and as far away as Buffalo – there may be a need to increase the player’s dues this spring.

“We have not set them for the year, but we’ll sit down and look at the trips the girls want to take and then outline what it’s going to take to do it,” said Cribbin. “If we have to do that, we’ll definitely have to address it.”

The cost of travel is going to play out one of two ways.

At the club level, either teams are going to significantly increase their dues or they will be left in the wake of teams that do. Michigan’s Paul, for one, feels many programs aren’t maximizing their dues structure.

“Teams will have to see how they are going to fund this as the prices go up, and they will go up,” said Paul. “I think that there are a lot of MCLA teams with a lot of room in their dues structure to go up. The top teams are paying in the $3,000-to-$5,000 range and the vast majority of MCLA programs aren’t even close to it. The top teams are already at that level and are tapping kids and families out about as far it can.”

At the small school, D-III level, especially out West, institutions must tap into their endowments to give their student-athletes the best opportunity to compete at the highest level, or have their programs relegated to the second or third tier.

There is some good news: the price of fuel as dropped nearly 65 cents at the pump since its apex of $4.15 on July 7. Whether this drop will continue or be just another blip on the petroleum EKG is unclear.

What is clear is that teams need to make some changes in order to keep up with, as Valenzuela put it, “the cost of doing business.”

http://laxmagazine.cstv.com/sports/outloud/spec-rel/090208aaa.html

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