Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Jazz players Ronnie Brewer and Deron Williams arrive at Houston's Toyota Center last season. Increased travel costs are hurting the team's bottom line.

Air travel on a budget can be a tricky proposition for even the most frugal and conscientious travelers. And for local professional sports franchises and college teams, rising airfares and fees have become a cause for concern.

The state's largest pro sports organization, the Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment Group, which controls the Utah Jazz and Salt Lake Bees, has found that rising travel expenses have heavily affected the team's finances.

Jazz and Bees President Randy Rigby said that travel costs for the Jazz, who fly by charter jet, have increased by at least 10 to 15 percent in the past year. The minor-league Bees, who just wrapped up their PCL season, travel on commercial flights, and because of increasing airfares and extra luggage charges that many airlines have imposed in recent months, travel costs for the baseball team increased 20 to 25 percent, Rigby said.

The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have union agreements that leave team financial managers with few options to alleviate higher travel costs, Rigby said. The NBA agreement stipulates that players must stay in top hotels, and they usually travel on charter flights.

Finding ways to cut travel costs is difficult, so for now, his organization just has to "suck it up" and look for additional ways to generate revenue, he said.

Faced with soaring fuel costs, U.S. airlines have increased domestic fares between large metro cities by an average of about 16 percent since Jan. 2, while fares between small cities are up roughly 37 percent year-to-date, according to Rick Seaney, head of airfare research site FareCompare.com. The fare hikes have come with a litany of new charges — for luggage, drinks, pillows and other amenities — announced by some airlines earlier this year.

Smaller pro franchises and college teams in Utah are dealing with travel-budget challenges similar to the Jazz, but the smaller organizations don't have the same financial resources at their disposal as the NBA team.

"The tightening of the economy has made us look to stretch a little harder," said Utah Blaze president Jason Jones. "We have to be a little bit more prudent to make sure there is a justifiable return on investment when it comes to expenses."

Because of league rules, his franchise doesn't have the luxury of making cuts on player travel or player housing. As a result, his organization is trying to keep costs down wherever possible in terms of day-to-day operations, he said.

For Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake, travel costs have risen about 15 percent in the past year, said team spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald. Additional baggage fees have been the biggest drain on the team's budget, he said.

The rising travel costs are an issue the franchise plans to consider going forward as it develops various revenue streams through marketing, concessions and ticket sales, he said.

For local colleges, the increasing cost of travel has had a significant impact on the choices they now have to make.

Jerry Graybeal, director of intercollegiate athletics at Weber State University, said the cost of team travel has increased 20 to 25 percent in the past year. Baggage fees for sports like football and even golf are stretching every team's budget, and the university is examining various ways to contain rising travel expenses, he said.

"We need to look at: Do we need cut back on a trip here or there, or can we cut out a night's stay?" he said.

Weber State's athletics department has considered options such as same-day travel for shorter trips made by bus, or late-night flights rather than those earlier in the day, all of which could reduce the hit to the athletics department's bottom line. The men's golf team has decided not to participate in one of the tournaments they usually attend, "because it's not going to fit into their cost structure."

At bigger athletic programs like the one at the University of Utah, increased costs are just as concerning, according to Pete Oliszczak, the university's associate athletics director for internal operations. His university has even tried to work out agreements with airlines in an attempt to keep costs down. Overall, he estimated that expenses this year have increased 6 to 8 percent from last year.

Brigham Young University is facing the same challenges, said associate athletics director for communications Duff Tittle. He said BYU had reconsidered the way it schedules games based on cost efficiency.

"You may have a couple of options to schedule a team on the road," he said. "You may consider the fact that this team is a little bit closer, so it may be more advantageous to do that."

BYU teams might also reduce the number of players who travel, if they are not regulars, in order to save money. And fewer non-essential staff members would accompany the teams on road trips.

The teams all have budgets that are set a year and a half in advance, Tittle said. His department's policy is that if costs rise, then each sport must find ways to cut costs to stay within their budget.

"It's not like if the economy is rough, we're going to bump everybody's budget up," he said.


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