Image: Valentino Pascucci
Jake Schoellkopf  /  AP
The Pacific Coast League is spread out among 16 teams in three time zones, and the league's 144-game schedule makes bus travel nearly impossible. Here, Valentino Pascucci, of the Albuquerque Isotopes, part of the league; exchanges bats.
Associated Press Sports
updated 8/6/2008 5:41:27 PM ET 2008-08-06T21:41:27

A trip to play in Hawaii sounded like the perfect reward for the seniors on the Longwood University baseball team. The school had made the jump to Division I, and coach Buddy Bolding thought the Lancers deserved a memorable end to the 2009 season.

Phone calls were made. Prices were gauged. Money was raised. Then airfare from Virginia jumped $600, to $1,300 a ticket. Suddenly Longwood was saying "aloha'' to paradise - and not as in hello.

"It's a damn shame, that's all there is to it,'' Bolding said. "It's really a bummer.''

The sky-high price of oil is wreaking havoc on athletic travel budgets, particularly for minor league teams and smaller schools.

Oil prices are up more than 60 percent from a year ago, and a gallon of gas is 82 cents more expensive. The problem goes far beyond cross-country farewell trips: It's forcing teams to re-evaluate how, why and where they play all their games.

Longwood, about an hour west of Richmond, has spent much of the decade making the jump to from NCAA Division II to Division I, preventing the baseball team from being eligible for postseason play and leaving it without a conference.

Life can be lonely as an independent, particularly when it comes to scheduling. Help appeared to be on the way this spring, when the Great West Conference decided to expand beyond football and invited Longwood to join.

But with teams spread from New Jersey to Seattle to southern California to Texas, travel would just be too expensive.

"We know we're missing out on a quality experience for the student athletes, but it's too big a load to bear,'' said athletic director Troy Austin. "All the benefits inherent with the conference situation were not enough for us to forget about the travel costs.''

Consider the problems for minor league baseball: The Pacific Coast League is spread out among 16 teams in three time zones, and the league's 144-game schedule makes bus travel nearly impossible.

Big-league partners pitch in
Though some teams receive financial help from their big-league partners, it's not nearly enough to offset the soaring cost of getting a group of about 30 players, coaches and support staff across half the country.

"We are irrevocably married to commercial transportation,'' said PCL president Branch Rickey. "There is no room for divorce. We can't get into Priuses or onto buses and solve our problems.''

Most teams were able to lock in good deals for the current season before the recent price surge, but they weren't prepared for the new baggage surcharges some airlines began imposing to offset jet fuel costs.

Tacoma Rainiers president Aaron Artman estimates the baggage fees will cost his team at least $100,000 this season. Some teams may even ship equipment overnight next year rather than throwing it on the plane with the team.

The league is considering extensive changes beginning with the 2010 season to cope, including a heavily unbalanced schedule that would focus more on regional travel or on realigning divisions to cut down on lengthy road trips.

And as struggling airlines trim flight schedules, teams have fewer options for getting from one city to the next, said Albuquerque Isotopes general manager John Traub.

"Airlines don't have marketing people now, so we're dealing with some 800 number or getting some group desk,'' Traub said. "You hope to get a deal, but it's something that is never going away.''

Minor league baseball bills itself as an affordable, family-friendly experience and can't afford to raise prices too much. Fans could just easily stay home or go to the movies.

So far, the economic downturn hasn't hurt the PCL at the gate, but don't be surprised if the price of nachos and a cold one goes up 50 cents.

"We're just trying to stay one step ahead,'' Traub said.

Sometimes even that isn't enough.

This spring, administrators at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero had a bus company locked in to take the Eagles on short road trips, but it got squeezed out of business in the middle of the season. The replacement wasn't cheap.

Many colleges like FGCU fly commercial for longer trips, turning coaches into part-time travel agents.

"We have coaches online just about every day trying to book flights at reasonable rates and they're nowhere close to where they were before,'' said athletic director Carl McAloose. "It's a guessing game. You don't know whether to lock in a rate. You just hope you get lucky.''

The pressure is on to sell tickets
Of course, travel luck isn't a consideration when it comes to the postseason. The NCAA puts an emphasis on quality of competition, and that can make things tough for some so-called mid-major conferences.

The Sun Belt Conference received its first at-large bid in the men's basketball tournament in 14 years this season when South Alabama made it, thanks in part to an ambitious nonconference schedule.

If coach Ronnie Arrow had decided to keep the team close to home rather than play an early season tournament in California, South Alabama might not have made it.

The bid was a sign that less prestigious conferences, even ones that stretch from Colorado to Florida like the Sun Belt, will likely have to continue to go the extra mile to get to the tournament, no matter how much it costs.

"In sports where you wish to be competitive, you're still going to have to find a way to do it,'' Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said. "There's going to be more pressure on selling tickets, more pressure on fundraising.''

One silver lining for schools such as Longwood: More expensive travel makes it harder for big schools to pad their schedule with home games against smaller schools that get paid for making the trip - "guarantee games'' that are usually easy wins.

That's no consolation for the Longwood baseball team. Bolding's backup plan after the Hawaii trip - a postseason tournament for independent schools in Texas - has also fallen through.

Now there's just a big hole in the schedule after exam week, and a season Bolding hoped would end with tropical breezes seems destined to wrap up in the sometimes chilly spring of central Virginia.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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