When Mike Turk approaches the task of scheduling for the upcoming season, the Illinois men’s track and field head coach will have more than a few hurdles he needs his team to overcome.
He knows that he has the smallest budget in his sport in the Big Ten and one that does not even crack the top 50 nationally. He understands that his team cannot play close to home in the early months of the season because of the long winters in the Midwest. He realizes that cost-effectiveness is part of his job title. Cheaper flights. Scheduling meets that don’t span as many days. Possibly facing lesser competition. Eliminating opportunities for his team.
“Something I work on every day is reducing costs,” Turk said. “It is a constant battle for everyone in our department.”
Track and field isn’t the only spring sport that endures the travails of travel because of cold weather in the early season. Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb and Illinois softball head coach Terri Sullivan migrate their respective teams to warmer climates almost every weekend in February and early March. Tallying up the airfare, food costs and hotel fees for each weekend jaunt adds up to an expensive total.
According to the 2011 financial report filed by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to the NCAA, the baseball team’s travel expenses totaled to $218,463, roughly 19 percent of the sport’s total expenses for the year. Softball’s $131,169 in traveling expenses represents 13 percent of their total spending, while men’s track and field, which also includes men’s cross-country, spent $163,018 on travel.
These expenses aren’t substantially higher than other Illinois sports, but their bottom lines are. Outside of women’s basketball, baseball and softball lose the most money annually for the athletics department. Baseball lost $534,370 in 2011, and softball was in the red $437,640. Men’s track and field wasn’t far behind, with $321,869 in total losses in 2011.
Revenue sports like football and men’s basketball cover these losses in order for the DIA to turn an annual profit, but the perpetual travel and relative lack of home events for outdoor spring sports translate to fiscal blows that the athletic department is forced to swallow.
Innovative measures to combat these costs are the subject of offseason meetings and discussions for coaches in northern United States schools. Sullivan said the softball season starts two weeks later than it did when she began coaching at Illinois in 2000, and the next logical option would be to push back the start of the season another month. That notion hasn’t gained much traction from other coaches and administrators, though, as summer housing and food costs would have to be arranged.
The headaches of Thursday-to-Sunday trips are routine nowadays for Hartleb and Sullivan, but one facet of the travel still irks them. When it comes time for the NCAA tournament committees to select at-large postseason teams, teams from the cold-weather regions are often overlooked, and months of games played away from home go unrewarded.
“I think if you look at statistics in athletics, there’s always a home-field advantage,” Hartleb said. “I think there are a lot of quality northern teams that don’t get the same looks as some of the southern schools get.”
Rating Percentage Index, a tool used across many collegiate sports to distinguish the best teams in the nation, is being weighted differently this year in baseball to reflect the amount of away games some teams play. Hartleb doubts that it will be weighted enough to accurately portray the disadvantage of so much travel, but the revision is a start.
For track and field’s upcoming season, Turk has structured some scheduling changes to stay within his meager budget. The team will compete in meets closer to home, and on one occasion he will divide his team, sending some runners to a meet in New York while others will participate in a meet at Notre Dame University.
“It’s an unavoidable hassle with no easy fix and one that must be met headlong with spurts of creativity,” Turk said. “Sometimes, it’s a struggle. The rigors of travel can get a little old and taxing on us. So we try to be thoughtful while we’re scheduling.”