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Pioneer League offers NCAA football on a budget
Campbell University’s football team will spend plenty of time in airports and on buses this season, with trips scheduled to Iowa (Des Moines), upstate New York (Poughkeepsie) and Indiana (Valparaiso).
And that’s just its conference schedule.
Toss in a bus trip to nearby Davidson, and it all adds up to roughly 2,700 miles on the road this season in league games alone for the Camels. In just their second year of existence, they’ve already learned that long trips are a fact of life in the nonscholarship, under-the-radar Pioneer Football League.
The lower-tier conference in the Championship Subdivision of Division I is made up of nine private schools and one public institution in eight states. It stretches from California to Florida to New York _ an unusual geographic setup that creates considerable transportation costs.
Yet its members insist that, compared to what it would cost to fund scholarships at those private schools, it’s a welcome bargain in a time when the economy is still stressed.
“There is an investment in travel,” league commissioner Patty Viverito said, “but I think you’ll find that in every other aspect of the program, it’s far less expensive than any other model.”
The numbers seem to bear that out.
A full scholarship to Campbell _ a private, Baptist school of about 6,800 located an hour’s drive south of Raleigh _ is worth roughly $24,000, which means that meeting the FCS standard of 63 scholarships would cost the school about $1.5 million, athletic director Stan Williamson said. The Camels’ football travel budget is a fraction of that, ranging between $100,000 and $150,000, he said.
“Travel is expensive, but you’re only traveling five or six games a year _ compare that to the cost of a scholarship at a private school. That’s a whole lot cheaper,” Williamson said. “A tenth of ($1.5 million) is certainly a lot cheaper, even if you have to fly to San Diego or Drake or places like that, than it is traveling shorter distances (in a scholarship league), which would save you some money but not near the $1.5 million it would cost to fund the scholarships to compete at that level.”
Still, both the conference and its schools have gotten creative in their efforts to pinch pennies on the road.
The St. Louis-based league allows visiting teams to bring only 55 players, and the schedule-makers don’t give teams more than two plane trips per season. When schools do fly, they generally don’t take private planes or chartered flights _ they sit in coach class, carry their own bags and sometimes take inventive routes to their destinations.
For San Diego’s trip to Morehead State in November, the Toreros will save $200 per plane ticket by flying to Columbus, Ohio, and then busing roughly 4 hours to eastern Kentucky. They did the same thing last year before their game at Drake, flying to Kansas City and busing three hours north to Des Moines, Iowa, to trim each $600 plane ticket to about $400.
“We’re smart with our money,” said Dan Yourg, San Diego’s associate athletic director for business and football supervisor. He declined to get into specifics about his school’s football travel budget except to say, “it probably would be a lot less than someone would think.”
Indeed, saving money seemingly has been a fundamental mission of the league ever since it formed in the early 1990s in response to the NCAA’s decision to require schools in Division I to field all of their sports teams at that level. That ruling put schools like Dayton in a bind. It was in Division III for football only and jumped to the Pioneer Football League right from the start.
“Dropping football was not the preferred course, so they had to jury-rig a conference, had to find like-minded schools,” Viverito said. “We’ve been the umbrella organization for any program at Division I that wants to offer nonscholarship, low-cost football, and we’ve not let geography be a deterrent to folks that want to follow that model.”
But forget downsizing. Instead, this far-flung league plans on getting bigger.
This season, Marist will become its 10th member after its primary league, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, folded its football league in 2007-08.
Why expand? Getting to 12 teams would allow the league to split into divisions and further reduce travel costs.
By JOEDY McCREARY