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Exclusive: College football teams spend millions staying in hotels before home games

Exclusive: College football teams spend millions staying in hotels before home games

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The contract has 10 pages detailing exactly how the Clemson University football team is to be fed at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel the night before a game.

For $92.78 a person, players dine on steaks, chicken, pasta and an array of sides. The hotel is told to put out light salad dressings, but to label them as regular.

These extravagances are a part of big-time college football, but it’s the location that may surprise the average fan — Clemson, like virtually every other Football Bowl Subdivision team, rents out a hotel the night before home games, not just road contests.

At the Westin in Atlanta, Georgia Tech pays $800 each stay to rent a projector, $25 per extension cord and power strip, and $65 for an easel, paper and markers.

The Yellow Jackets spent $5,328 last year prior to a single home game, renting equipment that the team owns at its facility, less than a mile away.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch obtained hotel invoices for 12 schools, a mix of Atlantic Coast Conference teams and in-state FBS programs. The invoices are for the team’s first October home game of the 2019 season, and combined, the 12 schools spent $328,144.19.

Coaches defend staying in a hotel before home games as a necessary expense. Football weekends are party weekends on college campuses, and well-rested players can perform better the next day.

But aside from tradition, there seems to be little compelling reason to escape at the moment. Later this week, University of North Carolina and University of Pittsburgh plan to take their teams to hotels before their home openers — this despite UNC operating on a mostly empty campus and playing a game where fans won’t be permitted.

Five-figure expenses were a cost of doing business as college programs enjoyed cash windfalls from TV contracts and ticket sales during the past few decades. But with the coronavirus pandemic ravaging budgets, home-game hotels can seem like an excessive expense when players already have dorm rooms, dining halls and meeting facilities available.

Others are hesitant to do away with anything that could put them at a potential disadvantage, either on the field or in a recruiting battle.

Old Dominion University is one of dozens of universities that has been forced to cut a varsity sport this year. On April 2, the school announced it would be discontinuing its wrestling program to save about $1 million annually.

ODU declined to comment for this story, but in a 15-page strategic review presented in March, the athletic department was advised: “Men’s and women’s basketball and football cannot have a reduction in allocation of resources if they are going to continue to be competitive in the competitive world of Division I athletics.”

Beneficial to players?

The hotel stay before a home game is meant to do two things: block out distractions and establish a pregame routine for the players.

Coaches say they trust their players, they just don’t trust the college kids that live around them.

“The major reason we do it is to ensure that our student-athletes are getting a good night’s rest,” said Jeff Bourne, athletic director for James Madison University. “ It’s an evening that’s free of any distractions that we feel if they’re living on campus or in a student housing complex, is very tough to control otherwise.”

Part of controlling their environment means being able to monitor their caloric intake and hydration the night before the game.

The custom has become practically universal at the college level. Former JMU coach Mickey Matthews can think of only one coach he’s known to not sequester his team: longtime Kansas State University coach Bill Snyder, whom Matthews worked for as an assistant coach just out of college.

“His reasoning was that it made no sense for our players not to sleep in the bed they were used to the night before the game,” Matthews said. “He thought it’d be more comfortable for them to stay in the same bed they sleep in all week long.”

Snyder might be right. A 2016 sleep study published in Current Biology claims that the first night sleeping in a “novel environment” is less restful. It’s called the “first night effect,” and it could mean that the logic behind the team hotel stays is flawed.

When Matthews became the head coach at JMU in 1999, he was told there wasn’t money in the budget to put the team up in a hotel, and he didn’t give it a second thought.

“The only problem we ever had was when it was homecoming or parents’ weekend,” Matthews said. “The campus would really be alive and there would be a lot of noise. On those nights, I really wished we were in a hotel so the kids could rest better. Not have so many distractions on Friday night.”

A hefty tab

How much schools spent varied widely, and depended in large part on the level of play.

The average for ACC schools was $31,125.54, while Big Ten programs spent an average of $29,650.16. The average for Virginia’s non-ACC schools was $6,706.96.

Virginia Tech spent $30,775 at The Hotel Roanoke, while the University of Virginia spent $25,916 at the UVA Inn at Darden.

JMU brought only its game-day roster — 65 players — while University of Louisville booked 113 rooms. Market forces can make a difference too — Florida State University, in Tallahassee, paid $279 per room per night.

Clemson came in with the highest total price tag, spending $52,392.47 at the Hilton Garden Inn on Oct. 19.

The lowest was the College of William & Mary, which spent $1,924.80.

The gap speaks to a larger disparity in college athletics. For the 2018-19 season, the Power Five conferences had an average operating budget of $97.6 million, while the “Group of Five” FBS conferences spent, on average, $32.8 million.

Those numbers have trended up for decades, but the good times came to an abrupt halt when March Madness, one of the biggest moneymakers in college sports, was canceled for 2020.

Louisville trimmed 40 positions from its 325-person staff this spring. Many schools, including UVA and UNC, asked coaches to take pay cuts.

University of Iowa has cut four varsity sports, while Stanford University, citing the pandemic, has eliminated 11. Neither school’s conference will play football this fall.

Some schools outside the Power Five are taking a look at their hotel bills.

Last spring, the Southern Conference pulled the plug on the practice — at least for the year — to cut costs. The Mid-American made a similar announcement in May.

“They felt that from a competitive equity standpoint that if everybody did it, then everyone would be on the same playing field,” said Jim Schaus, commissioner of the Southern Conference. “It’s one of the reasons why there are decisions like that, that in theory you could say could be made by each school.”

The athletic directors of the conference’s 10 schools voted to suspend the practice for a year, a decision that will be reviewed for subsequent seasons.

Other schools still think the hotel stays are worth the cost.

Bourne said that when the school returns to play in the spring, JMU likely will be staying in a hotel before its home games. That would follow the lead of the ACC, which will start its season on Saturday.

Expensive meals

The invoices provide a very detailed look into the question, “What do you feed a linebacker?”

Some items are expected. Clemson ordered 260 10-ounce New York strip steaks as part of its dinner buffet.

Some are more bizarre. Louisville specifies that the assorted sodas at the pregame meal “MUST INCLUDE MELLOW-YELLOW.”

Ten of Clemson’s 53 pages in the hotel contract are devoted to precise meal specifications.

On Friday night, the team is served steaks, chicken parmesan, lasagna, meatballs and penne, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, Red Lobster biscuits, a salad bar and roasted vegetables.

No detail was left to chance. It was specified which drinks and condiments were to go on each table. Light salad dressings were to be left at the end of the salad bar, but in all capital letters it’s specified that none should be labeled as “light.”

The macaroni and cheese should not be over-browned. The sundae bar should have “TONS” of Oreo crumbs, and the tops should be cut off the strawberries at the 10 p.m. snack.

Clemson paid $119.15 to feed each player on Friday night alone. The next morning, it paid an additional $49.69 per player for the breakfast buffet and washed it down with a $600 smoothie bar.

An hour-and-a-half later, there was the pregame meal — $61.87 a person — with grilled chicken and beef tenderloin, more macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meat sauce, baked potatoes with low-fat toppings (none of which were labeled low-fat) and dinner rolls.

Before taxes, the Tigers paid $230.71 to feed each player (and coach) in that 24-hour span. The total was $35,136.99. And Clemson wasn’t an outlier. North Carolina State University spent even more — $36,366 — on meals.

The invoices for Virginia Tech and UVA didn’t break down specifics to the same extent other schools did.

Add-ons create higher costs

The teams weren’t just paying for hotel rooms during their stays.

Three of the schools — Clemson, UNC and FSU — listed security, costing between $360 and $737.

For high-profile teams it’s not uncommon for fans to come stake out the lobby, looking for autographs or photos with players.

Four of the bills include charges for audio and visual equipment, ranging from $480 to $4,663.17.

UNC paid $480 for the use of three conference rooms.

Virginia Tech paid $713.48, labeled on its invoice as “Audio Visual,” during its stay at The Hotel Roanoke.

Louisville has said the team brings the majority of its AV equipment to the hotel, but the invoice still included several charges for the Friday night meeting.

The Cardinals paid for six “Meeting Room Projector Packages,” each $450; four white boards at $75 each; two speakers at $85 each and a 55” flat screen for $250. With a 23% service charge and 6% sales tax, that added up to $4,459.01 for the night.

That would add up to $31,213 for the entire season if the rates were the same.

Payment varies

Every school has a different approach to dealing with the hotels.

Some, like UNC, set up multiyear contracts with the same hotel. A representative from the Marriott the team stays at said the Tar Heels have set up shop there for about 30 years.

Some schools like JMU and FSU set up the contracts on a yearly basis.

Bourne said the choice of hotel is up to the head coach. Lots of factors go into the decision, like price, proximity to campus and the available facilities.

All the hotels and teams interviewed for this story said they pay the standard room rate.

Most schools pay for the hotels directly out of their athletic budget, but some, like JMU, fund it through private donors.

“We would not do it unless it was paid for by private funds,” Bourne said. “We feel like that’s the most appropriate way to absorb that expense. It would be a very difficult expenditure to put in our auxiliary budget otherwise.”

William & Mary’s stay is paid for through a sponsorship agreement.

Most of the hotels could probably fill the rooms regardless — especially in a college town the night before a big game — but your average hotel group probably isn’t ordering 260 New York strip steaks.

Post-coronavirus

In every facet of sports right now, there’s one question that inevitably comes up: Is it safe?

Lisa Lee, a professor of public health at Virginia Tech, said it is risky to stay in a hotel, but it has nothing to do with the rooms themselves. Most hotel chains are following stringent protocols on disinfection and cleaning.

“The main issue with COVID is the gathering of people in a small space,” she said.

The biggest concern would be the people the team would encounter in the lobby, in the elevator and in the halls of the hotel.

There are ways to limit contact — especially because teams already stay on their own floor of the hotel — but the risk is still present if players or coaches are interacting with hotel staff.

For teams that go through with playing this season, Lee suggested setting up a single point of contact, meaning all interaction would be between one member of the team’s staff and one hotel employee. Planning will be key.

The National Football League is mandating that teams arrange a secured entry point for teams, away from the general public, and that players and coaches restrict themselves to areas not accessible to outsiders.

(Not) a sign of the times

Football teams have been staying in hotels before home games for at least 50 years, according to longtime staffers.

If a global pandemic and huge budgetary deficits this year don’t shake the habit, it seems like the pregame ritual is here to stay.

Matthews said no football coach will make the decision by himself; it will have to come from above.

“They would [stop staying in a hotel] if they passed a rule that you couldn’t do it,” he said. “They’d have to stop doing it. But, until then, they’re not gonna do it.”

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