Travel woes? Let me chime in from the road I traveled
Xs and Arrows
December 17, 2022
Earlier this year USC and UCLA both announced their intentions to move from the Pac-12 Conference to the Big 10, a move driven by more television revenue for their institutions, a better placement on the national stage and potentially more NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) money for their student-athletes.
While USC is a private school and can do whatever they would like, there has been some opposition to UCLA's move, since they are a public University of California school operating within the confusing and dysfunctional UC system, they must answer to a board of regents. Some are citing travel concerns as a reason the Bruins should not be allowed to switch conferences. Their claims center around the increase amount of airline flights, more time away from class, the "mental impact" of travel and so forth.
Funny, when I was a staff member at Cal State Bakersfield, a California State school and we joined the then reorganized Western Athletic Conference in 2013, nobody seemed to care about our travel schedule. The fake UCLA-outrage spouted many major publications including the Los Angeles Times shows a lack of understanding of college athletics and a desire to point to the Power-Five conference schools with little care for the "little guys." Even the media seems to only care about the teams that generate revenue for their platforms, which ironically is the entire basis for NCAA conference realignment.
After spending years as a NCAA Independent at the Division I level, we would have joined at athletic conference on the Moon to get out of that debacle. When the WAC came calling, first in 2012 for an affiliate membership, and then with a full membership in 2013, we could not sign the paperwork fast enough. Never mind the fact that at the time we were the only "Western" School in the Western Athletic Conference due to conference realignment decimating their conference almost to extinction.
Let me tell you about our travel schedule considering from 2013-17 there were eight core members of the conference in eight different states. There was Cal State Bakersfield (California), there was Seattle University (Washington), there was Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, Arizona), Utah Valley University (Orem, Utah), New Mexico State University (Las Cruces, NM), Texas Rio Grande Valley (Edinburgh, Texas), University of Missouri-Kansas City and Chicago State University. This was the representation for most sports, others had additional affiliate teams in places like Colorado and North Dakota, it was wild.
For a typical basketball conference trip in which we played two games, the itinerary looked something like this: let's say we were playing at New Mexico State and UT Rio Grande Valley. We would leave on Wednesday, if we were lucky, we flew commercial out of Meadows Field in Bakersfield, if not it was a two-hour bus ride, usually leaving around 4 a.m. to LAX. We would then fly to Phoenix, and catch our connector to El Paso, Texas. From there it was about an hour bus ride to Las Cruces, just in time to check into the hotel and get the guys to practice that evening. On Thursday we would play an evening game, return to the hotel and prep for another travel day. Friday it was back to El Paso via bus, then a flight to Houston before we would catch one of the smallest planes imaginable to McAllen, Texas, near the Southern border of Texas. We would then repeat the hotel check-in, practice and meal program from Thursday. Saturday it was another evening game. Sunday mornings we woke up early and repeated the flight cycle back from McAllen to Houston, then maybe Houston to Bakersfield (if we were lucky) if not it meant landing in LAX late Sunday afternoon and a two-hour bus ride back to Bakersfield.
That's a total of five days on the road for two basketball games. The schedule was similar for many other sports except for baseball and softball who would play a three-game series with each team, so they only traveled to half of the destinations each season.
Our annual travel budget was around $3 million, give or take, and then when California got tricky banning state-funded travel to certain states for political reasons (Texas being one of them), we had to use the school's foundation fundraising arm to cover those costs as to not run afoul of state policies. All these trips were done on commercial airlines with student-athletes never even heard of by the LA Times and the like. Where was their advocacy from "concerned journalists," where were my mental health resources when I spent weekends working from 1,000 miles away just to come home and face another work week? Funny, it never came – so if you did not care when the little guys were grinding through it, spare me the concern for UCLA this time around.
Was it hard, yes. Did we have to travel additional academic staff and tutors to help our kids, of course. Did it pay off in the end? In some ways yes, several teams won championships and made NCAA Tournament appearances, something once thought impossible by Bakersfield standards. Frankly it built tough kids all over that conference, none of which at the time had the resources that UCLA or USC has to offer with charter flights, a team of academic staff and even mental health coaches to "monitor" their athletes well-being, we were lucky if the Wi-Fi worked half the time and the food in the many restaurants we utilized was edible (USC/UCLA will also be sending advanced teams to each Big 10 site who will review hotels, restaurants and create itineraries to ensure their athletes are have the best experience possible), we relied on the internet, previous experiences and some luck to make it all happen.
In the changing dynamic of NCAA athletics, the monster of money has changed the game, if the media platforms are not getting their fair share, the least they can do is understand that this happens all over the intercollegiate athletics world, USC/UCLA are not special, they will just be two of the more-marquee programs to experience the long white lines of the road like many of us little guys did in the past. At least they will do it from the comfort of a private plane with their every need catered – in the end, it really will not be that bad and one might be surprised about the quality of student-athlete that is generated from a little turmoil on the long road of competition, and the road of life.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter, broadcaster and athletics administrator. He advocates for the value of athletic competition and serves as the President of the Tehachapi Warriors Booster Club. He can be reached at email@example.com.