Friday July 11th, 2008

The number danced in front of Kay Whitley's eyes. Nine thousand dollars? For a bus trip?

Whitley, the athletic director/tennis coach/assistant professor at Sul Ross State, a NCAA Division-III school in Alpine, Texas, couldn't believe the bid one of her coaches recently handed her. A team needed to travel to an American Southwest Conference game at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss., and the athletic department would have to fork over five figures -- assuming the charter company added a surcharge after the next gas price hike -- before even considering how to lodge and feed the athletes.

Welcome to Division-III sports in the age of $4-a-gallon gasoline. Whitley estimates Sul Ross spent 75 percent of its athletic budget on transportation last school year, and she expects that figure to rise next year. The Lobos will have to pay. They aren't the Longhorns; they don't have the cash to charter a flight to games or to put an entire team on a commercial flight, and they aren't close enough to a major airport to do that, anyway. Chihuahua, Mexico, is closer than any decent-sized American city. Instead, Sul Ross athletes take vans or buses everywhere, to Texas Lutheran in Seguin (826-miles round trip) to the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Ark., (1,622) and to Clinton (1,774). Whitley said the rising cost of transporting athletes may force schools such as hers to consider cutting games.

"In Division III, for the schools that are more isolated, scheduling is likely to be an issue," Whitley said.

Other Division-III conferences may want to consider following the lead of the University Athletic Association, a widespread conglomerate of some of the nation's most academically prestigious institutions. In the UAA, the University of Chicago competes against the likes of Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh), New York University and Emory (Atlanta). Travel has always been an issue for the conference, UAA executive secretary Dick Rasmussen said.

"We haven't made any adjustments that are truly out of the ordinary," Rasmussen said. "We've been very cognizant of travel costs since we formed because the schools are so far apart."

Befitting a conference with so much brainpower surging through it, the UAA has devised a system to help defray costs for teams that have to fly to most away games. Men's and women's teams travel together, and each school has a travel partner. For example, Brandeis will travel to Chicago to play a Friday game, while NYU will travel to Washington University in St. Louis to play a game the same night. Instead of flying to the next stop, Brandeis will then bus from Chicago to St. Louis for a Sunday game, while NYU will head the opposite direction on Interstate 55 and face Chicago on Sunday. That system, plus the fact that most of the schools are located near major airports, helps keep costs down.

Still, Rasmussen said UAA schools have felt a pinch. While setting the basketball schedule for its next eight-year cycle, UAA administrators considered changing the travel partners for better competitive balance, but they wound up using geography to lower costs.

Even the big boys have noticed the effect of rising fuel costs on their budget. Last month, The Morning News in Fayetteville, Ark., obtained a list of travel costs for the Arkansas athletic program for the three-year period beginning 2004. Costs jumped each year, from $2.9 million in 2004-05 to $3.6 million in 2005-06 to $4.6 million in 2006-07.

"Certainly, we're concerned about the rising energy prices," Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long told the paper. "But we anticipate that as well, not [to] the extent that we've seen here in the last six months, but we do try to anticipate that. Certainly, you see that when we raise ticket prices."

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