A penny saved is a penny earned.
Such is the case this year for the Rams football team and the cash-strapped athletics department at CSU.
Thanks to a schedule drafted by the Mountain West Conference and three non-conference games played within state, the team is saving thousands of precious dollars from its travel budget, investing some of the extra money in recruiting as part of the program’s rebuilding efforts.
Because the Rams played road games at regional foes Air Force and Colorado earlier this year, along with a quick jaunt up to Wyoming this Saturday, all accessible with a two-hour bus ride, the team has only made three plane trips this season, compared to the five it made last year.
With a travel party of 130 – consisting of players, coaches, trainers, media, videographers, senior department staff members and donors – the bill for a plane trip adds up quickly.
Each flight carries a $75,000 price tag. Room and board costs an additional $12,000 to $18,000. A bus ride to and from Denver International Airport is $3,000, and an occasional highway patrol escort from the hotel to the stadium goes for another $1,000. Add it all up and the cost of traveling to an away game can reach nearly $100,000, according to Jeff Collier, the Athletics Department’s business manager.
Though Collier said the department budgets accordingly, he also said the team has saved money this year because of the Rams’ travel-friendly schedule.
And because of the savings, an extra $50,000 has been put toward recruiting this year. The program has also invested the extra money in video editing equipment, renovations to the locker room at Hughes Stadium and football supplies, Collier said. The rest has been put toward savings.
The extra funds came as a delightful surprise for assistant coach Greg Peterson, the team’s recruiting coordinator.
“I wasn’t even aware of it. That’s good news,” Peterson said. “But you think about it, and it makes sense. When you have monies within your program, you’re going to put it where you need it most. And right now, as we’re going through the season, pretty soon you start traveling, that’ll be great to have a few more resources.”
Peterson’s sentiments were echoed by first-year head coach Steve Fairchild, who on multiple occasions this year preached the importance of improved recruiting.
Since 2004, the team hasn’t had a recruiting class ranked higher than fourth in the conference, according to the recruiting Web site Rivals.com. In 2002 and 2003, CSU ranked second and third, respectively.
Collier said the program has already put some of the extra money toward a database that will help Fairchild and his staff organize their recruiting efforts.
As the recruiting season heats up with Thanksgiving break nearing, Peterson is anxious to make use of the extra funds.
“That’s a big difference,” he said. “And you think about it, too, with the price of fuel and airline tickets and what it costs to travel, and that means we can get out more and cover more ground and continue to improve this program.”
Schedule helpful for players, too
While having fewer plane flights is more cost efficient, it’s also preferable for the players.
After CSU defeated the San Diego State Aztecs 38-34 at Qualcomm Stadium on Oct. 25, a heavy fog fell over San Diego International Airport, and the Rams were unable to board their scheduled flight back home. Instead, they had to travel two hours north to Ontario, Calif., in order to fly back to Fort Collins.
When it was all said and done, players and coaches weren’t home until 5:30 in the morning.
“Honestly, getting back that late … it kind of threw my whole week off,” Rams senior wide receiver Dion Morton said. “I’m not going to lie to you, I was kind of tired through the week.”
A delayed flight is just one reason why players like Morton aren’t particularly fond of traveling long distances for away games.
“It seems like it’s a little more time consuming when you have to take a flight, especially when our flights this year have been to California, which have been a couple hours,” Morton said. “It seems like it kind of throws your day off a little bit, because we’re coming (to campus) in the morning for a walk-through, then eat and take a bus ride, then a plane ride. So it seems kind of long.”
“I’m just glad when it’s over most of the time,” he said.
So with the games against Colorado, Air Force and Wyoming all just a bus ride away, Morton welcomed this year’s travel-friendly schedule requiring only three plane rides.
In addition to a less-demanding itinerary, playing away games in close proximity allows players to feel more comfortable playing in what sometimes can be a hostile environment, coach Peterson said.
“I think it’s great from an expense standpoint, but it’s also great for our team,” the first-year offensive coordinator said. “You know, you’re not flying across the country to play a football game. You’re playing close to home by your fans, and that’s a benefit too.”
Another benefit of these away games is a higher per diem for the players.
For games that require a plane ride and a night in a hotel room, food is often combined with the cost of the hotel. In this case, players’ per diem is only $15. But when only a bus ride is required for travel, the per diem is raised to $35, which is an increase from $25 from last year, Collier said.
Players receive a higher per diem after games with bus trips so they can purchase their own food when they get back to Fort Collins.
This year’s $10 increase in per diem hasn’t gone unnoticed, Morton said.
“I definitely have (noticed the increase),” he said. “Any time you’re looking at money, you definitely see an increase. I thought maybe it was because my scholarship was being raised and they were being nice to me or something like that … but I’m thankful for as much money as I can get.”
The icing on the cake for Morton: The $35 per diem allows players to eat whatever they want, offering a greater variety.
“I’ve had the same thing for four years now after every game — chicken and hamburgers,” he said.
Athletics budget for CSU still lagging
While this year’s schedule is travel-friendly and cost efficient, the savings from taking two fewer plane trips is hardly enough for the athletics department to close the gap between CSU and the other eight schools in the Mountain West in terms of overall spending.
The department is slated to spend approximately $21.5 million this year, according to the university’s operating budget summary. While that would be a record amount, it’s projected again to be the lowest in the conference, Collier said.
“As of fiscal year ’08, which was last year, we were in last place in the conference by $3 million,” he said.
Texas Christian and Brigham Young, which are both private institutions, have the conference’s biggest budgets, outspending CSU by $14 million to $15 million a year, Collier said.
Part of the dearth of money at CSU stems from the state’s funding for higher education. Colorado ranked dead last in the country in 2007 for total revenue per student, according to a report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers.
However, CU-Boulder, the state’s other Division I public school, outspends CSU significantly.
CU’s athletics budget for 2007 was $33.5 million, according to a report by from the university’s budget office. That’s nearly double the money spent by CSU.
After increasing student fees the previous two years, Collier said the department is actively seeking numerous other sources to increase its budget, including the university’s institutional fund, donors, advertising, ticket sales and contributions from the community.
The department also expects to receive a boost in revenue through its partnership with the conference’s television network, The Mtn.
With a 5-6 record with and only one game remaining, the Rams are looking for a strong finish to their season in hopes of earning a bowl game berth, which would also generate money.
But don’t ask coach Fairchild to give you his opinion on his team’s chances of securing one of the conference’s four bowl games. Like most coaches, Fairchild is cautious about offering a look too far into the future, particularly with the intensity of this weekend’s rivalry.
“(Wyoming) would like nothing better than to spoil our outlook on things right now,” Fairchild said. “There’s no question that they’re going to play their best game on Saturday and we’re going to have to match it to even be in the game.”
Sports writer Sean Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.