New-look Big Ten ranks Olympic sports schedules, then travel costs

New-look Big Ten ranks Olympic sports schedules, then travel costs

IOWA CITY, Iowa – With Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten in August, the league has already finalized new scheduling models for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball that prioritize competitive balance, geography and rivalries. The next phase of planning involves Olympic sports with the same key principles guiding the process as their higher-profile counterparts, but cost and travel have an even bigger impact.

On Feb. 19-20, Big Ten officials and school athletic administrators will meet at league headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. to discuss and possibly finalize planning principles for fall Olympic sports. Spring sports will likely settle plans in May. With different priorities driving each sport, scheduling ideas have ranged from true rotations to regional preferences to several sports on the same campus traveling together to save costs.

“As far as some of the efficiencies, I don’t think it’s been discussed as much because you’re talking about principles now and not dates,” Iowa athletic director Beth Goetz said. “So if you’re going to figure out if there can be shared rides, you’re going to have to have the actual schedule in front of you to do that.”

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Cost will be an increasingly important factor in travel now that the Big Ten spans the entire continent. According to financial documents provided by Athletics through open enrollment requests, Big Ten public schools spent between $7.6 million and $16.5 million on travel during fiscal year 2023. Football teams that qualified for the College Playoff or the Final Four spent the most, such as Michigan ($16.5 million), Ohio State ($14.2 million) and Iowa ($12.3 million). The bottom included Illinois ($7.6 million).

Starting this fall, expenses will increase for West Coast newcomers and increase for Big Ten hosts, with teams from every sport likely to head to the Pacific time zone at least once. For some sports, the way to cut costs is to trade some discretionary travel for conference travel.

For example, there is discussion of baseball teams in the Central or Eastern time zones flying west for their spring break and staying for an entire week to play a combination of USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington on back-to-back weekends with a few non-conference games in between. Big Ten baseball clubs now play eight league series – all on weekends.

Softball has additional challenges, in part because USC does not have a softball program. Currently, softball teams play seven three-game weekend series and one two-game midweek series. In 2025, it’s likely that softball will add another series or perhaps a few back-to-back games at a center in Arizona, Florida or Southern California.

“Say we’re playing Washington and UCLA, and then Rutgers is going to come down and play Michigan and Minnesota,” Iowa coach Renee Gillispie said. “We will all be in the same place and we will all play at the same time.

“We just hope they don’t take us to the East Coast and the West Coast in the same year.”

For softball, the current geographically based schedule is subject to change. Iowa, for example, faces Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska every year, all of which are bus trips. This spring, the Hawkeyes will travel to Michigan for the first time since Gillispie took over as coach in 2019 and have yet to play at Ohio State in her tenure. The goal in the coming years is to have every softball player travel to every Big Ten campus at least once in a four-year period.

All of this comes at a greater cost. For sports like baseball and softball, an extra conference flight can eliminate a non-conference flight in favor of a long bus ride to keep the books balanced.

“Is it worth the extra investment in time or resources to get you there, as opposed to, ‘Hey, I can go to Nashville?'” Goetz said. “It might not be sunny and 80, but the opportunity is there.

“We are trying to do this in partnership with a coach. It doesn’t mean ‘Hey, no ride; you must stay in this region.’ But just having more dialogue about why we make those non-conference decisions and programs that we do.”

(Wisconsin volleyball photo: Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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