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As crisis persists, could college sports adopt regional schedules?

As a cost-cutting measure, some teams rarely would leave the state during the regular season.

His athletes rarely ― if ever ― fly coach, much less a charter. Yet veteran Saint Leo athletic director Fran Reidy has watched some of his sports go first-class.

In 2016, the Lions men’s golf program won a Division II national title, and seven other teams won Sunshine State Conference regular-season and/or tournament crowns. In 2017, senior Marie Coors won a women’s individual national golf crown. In 2018, the softball team advanced to the Division II World Series.

Yet all those teams and individuals reached those unprecedented heights by keeping their collective wheels mostly on the ground. As a general rule, Saint Leo’s teams rarely board a plane during the postseason, and never during the regular season.

“Ninety-nine percent is bus,” said Reidy, who has spent more than 30 years at the tiny school nestled on northern Pasco County’s rolling hillsides. “We’ll do a van maybe to (Tampa), depending on the sport. … But for the most part, charter bus everything.”

So how is this relevant during these unsettled times? What is the correlation between a global crisis threatening the very fabric of college sports, and the travel habits of a Division II non-football school?

Plenty, perhaps. The Lions, whose conference is composed exclusively of Florida schools, may possess the competitive/logistical model the big boys attempt to replicate as the coronavirus’ effects wreak havoc on athletic budgets nationwide.

Related: A 2020 college football season is a step closer to reality after NCAA vote

One cost-cutting idea gaining significant traction is transitioning some sports (Olympic sports, baseball, softball) from conventional conference play to more regionalized schedules, to reduce travel. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick acknowledged the idea’s merits Wednesday.

“Every option has to be explored: roster sizes, number of scholarships, number of programs, regionalized scheduling, length of the season,” Swarbrick said. “At this point, there’s nothing you can exclude as a potential strategy in dealing with this circumstance.”

It should be noted at this point that Reidy estimates his total travel budget for all 21 of his sanctioned sports this past year was around a half-million dollars.

USF’s 2019 travel expenditures for baseball and softball alone was $474,126.

If softball coach softball coach Ken Eriksen had his way, Megan Pierro (26) and her teammates would be facing more teams in Florida and hitting the road less during the season. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Also worth noting: Veteran Bulls softball coach Ken Eriksen loves the idea of regionalizing his schedule.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all,” the current U.S. Olympic team coach said. “In fact, I’d like to see the Florida Four basketball tournament (featuring USF, Florida, Florida State and Jacksonville) come back. These were things that we used to do that generated crowd interest. And the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the state line. It’s on the side you water it the most.”

Meantime, college athletic budgets nationwide are becoming parched by the pandemic.

Related: How the Outback Bowl is handling the coronavirus pandemic, college football uncertainty

On Thursday, USF athletic director Michael Kelly acknowledged that he must trim 15 percent of his budget for the 2020-21 academic year. That same day, East Carolina announced it is eliminating men’s and women’s tennis, as well as swimming and diving, to help reduce a budget deficit of nearly $5 million.

No fewer than six other Division I schools also have announced they are eliminating at least one Olympic sport. At South Carolina, football coach Will Muschamp and men’s basketball coach Frank Martin are among the Gamecocks staffers who will take a 10 percent pay cut for the 2020-21 academic year.

If the pandemic cuts into the 2020 football season, more drastic cost-reducing measures likely will ensue. Hence the reason for the ongoing nationwide budget brainstorm among the college athletics hierarchy.

In those brainstorm sessions, the concept of regionalized scheduling continues to surface. Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, mentioned it Wednesday as one of the potential “cost-effective ways to still provide quality competition.”

Veteran Florida Gulf Coast athletic director Ken Kavanagh said he has discussed that topic with peers for “well over a month.”

“We do a lot of that already, within reason,” Kavanagh said. “Our philosophy has always been stay local before you go distant.”

How could such a schedule work? Ideally, at least in this state.

In 2019, USF’s 21-game American Athletic Conference softball schedule included trips to Houston, Connecticut and Wichita State. In non-conference play, the Bulls faced Florida twice (one home, one away) and took a trip to FSU.

In a regionalized season, the Bulls might face the Gators and Seminoles multiple times in addition to Miami, UCF and Florida Gulf Coast, among others. Florida currently is home to 13 Division I programs.

“I realize you’re always gonna have Florida playing in the Southeastern Conference in football, and that is revenue-driven,” Reidy said.

"But what’s wrong with all those (13) in the sport of women’s golf or women’s tennis or men’s tennis or softball or volleyball? Why wouldn’t they play each other? And boom, right there you’ve got 20 games, all in the state.”

Bethune Cookman's Colton Olasin safely slides into third base on a wild pitch, beating the tag of Florida Gulf Coast third baseman Kyle Machado during a March 1 game in Daytona Beach. It is easier for Florida schools than some in other states to consider a regional schedule because Florida has numerous Division I programs. [PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press]

Hypothetically, the conference regular-season schedule, in turn, would be reduced to a point that would require the Bulls to make only one out-of-state league softball trip.

“I think a lot of other people outside the state of Florida would get a little jealous,” Eriksen said, “for the simple fact that we’ve got so much great competition in baseball and softball in this state, that we’d be packing the stands.”

Therein lies a dilemma. While a regionalized softball schedule would work splendidly in Florida, where competition is robust, teams in the Northeast or parts of the Midwest may struggle to find enough RPI-friendly opponents.

“We might be very fortunate here in Florida in some sports,” Kelly said. “I can not only save money, but I can also maybe even have a better RPI by playing folks closer and seeing how it works out. But that might not be the same for everybody. We might be particularly blessed here in Florida.”

Indeed, a smorgasbord of details must be worked out, and several potential pitfalls navigated, before such a format comes to fruition. Title IX issues could arise, for instance, if a women’s sport is regionalized and its corresponding men’s sport isn’t.

But as the crisis persists, the idea seems to grow more plausible.

“We’re secondary to the bigger picture in society, and within our institution,” Kavanagh said. “But at the same time there’s gonna be sacrifices that are continually gonna be made, and hopefully most of us can avoid having to do the worst thing, which would be cut sports.”

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