Fans flock to football games, but schools feel the travel pinch

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If forced to choose, Chuck Riggs, a CPA from St. Petersburg, Fla., would cancel any vacation so he and wife Linda could take seven weekend trips to a not-so-exotic destination less than three hours' drive from home.

"You're talking about the Gator Nation here," said Riggs, a Florida graduate who tries to attend every home game at The Swamp, even if it means cutting out other leisure activities in a dreary economic climate. Riggs began going to Florida games as a student in 1968. Now, he and Linda trek to Gainesville for home games so they can reminisce with Chuck's fraternity brothers -- they were the ones wearing grass skirts to welcome Hawaii fans to Florida Field on Aug. 30 -- and forget about everything else for a few days.

Riggs isn't alone. Fans of Florida, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama and other successful football programs have sacrificed vacations, new cars and other luxuries to keep packing stadiums at costs that can exceed $1,000 a weekend for fans who drive, and $2,000-$3,000 a weekend for fans who fly. And while other sports could suffer as the economy continues to tank, college football may prove to be recession-proof.

According to figures compiled by the NCAA, 17,095,932 fans have attended Division I-A games this season -- an average of 48,430 a game. Both figures are on pace to break the NCAA attendance records set last season; if attendance remains consistent, 38,211,587 will pass through turnstiles this season.

So schools with big-time football programs probably don't need to worry about their revenue streams, but the economy may still wreak havoc on their expenses. That isn't an attractive prospect for schools outside the two to three dozen that generate enough revenue to stay in the black each year. Rising fuel costs have made budgeting for team travel a nightmare and could eventually alter how programs schedule and recruit.

"There's two choices here -- you become more efficient in resources you have, or you go find more money," said Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh, whose football program has built its reputation because of its willingness to play any team, anywhere. "We will obviously try to find more resources, but that's only going to get you so far. A place like ours, there's very little areas where costs can be reduced. There's probably going to be some tough decisions coming up in a lot of conferences."

Fresno State is a member of the Western Athletic Conference, the most geographically diverse league in the nation. Members stretch from Manoa, Hawaii, to Ruston, La., and programs must find money for teams in every sport to travel within the conference. Most schools rely on football to generate the revenue to pay for all of it, but football travel consumes much of that money. Hawaii is the most extreme example. The Honolulu Advertiser reported in July that the school paid $85,000 last year for a charter flight to send its football team to San Jose, Calif. This year, for a similar flight to Fresno, Calif., the school was quoted a price of $319,000.

Even schools with more pedestrian travel needs have been hit hard. According to The New York Times, officials at Ohio State, the nation's richest athletic department, suffered sticker shock last month when they received a $346,000 bill for two charter flights for the Sept. 13 game at USC. The bill included a fuel surcharge of $24,200. Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson said schools must plan to pay more for everything, from the cost of airline tickets to hefty surcharges for equipment.

"On average, travel accounts for 50 percent of our sports teams' budgets," Pederson said. "Let's say a coach is planning on taking a trip of 30 [passengers], and right now the airline ticket is $300. By the time we actually book the trip, that could jump to $400 a ticket. We don't know what kinds of baggage charges might be added to that. All of a sudden, you're talking dramatic increases in the amount."

Fortunately for athletic directors, they shouldn't have to worry about the double whammy of falling revenues and rising expenses. Football, the cash-cow sport, seems to be the one luxury fans aren't willing to forsake. For that, schools can thank fans such as Florida's Riggs, who will go to Gainesville this weekend to watch the Gators face LSU. Once there, Riggs won't have to worry about the Dow or how much of the federal bailout bill he'll have to foot. For a weekend, his only concern will be whether Florida's offensive line can block the Tigers' dominating defensive front. "It's insulated," Riggs said. "This is where you get to go to relax, blow off some steam and be yourself."

But will those same fans travel to bowl games? In 27 years in the bowl business, Fiesta Bowl president John Junker has dealt with soft economies before. He believes that if the bowl product is good enough, fans will travel.

"If you have a good attraction, people will find it," Junker said. "If it's marginal, it becomes a little softer. ... While it certainly can be expensive to go to a bowl game, we are seen as a special event and that insulates us a little bit."

Attendance figures from last season's bowl games seem to support Junker's claim. Of the 32 bowl games played after the 2007 season, 21 filled their stadiums to 90 percent capacity or better. That number includes all four BCS bowls and every bowl played on or after Jan. 1 except the Gator (88.3 percent) and International (58.8 percent). The bowls that didn't draw well either matched faraway teams with little tradition or took place in a location not recognized as a winter vacation destination.

Did anyone really think fans would swarm Toronto to watch Ball State-Rutgers? Junker said some bowls may have to consider taking nearby teams because fans may not be willing to spend the money to fly, but he said a quality bowl with a quality matchup should still draw interest. "If the attraction is compelling enough," Junker said, "that can overcome sheer locality or regionality."