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Travel Distances and Scheduling Considerations

Publication Date: February 15, 2005

Dang, That's a Long Way

So, last time we talked, lo these many days ago, we discussed who had scheduled the toughest opposition. This time, I want to talk about some of the reasons why. Now, in a perfectly funded world, travel costs wouldn't matter. The Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies, for example, don't care all that much that they spend more on travel than the Chicago Cubs do. In the world of college baseball, though, the answer is that it usually (although not always) matters. One of the big dividing lines in the game is how much plane travel the budget can handle. Sometimes, the answer is none, so the team is limited to opponents within driving range (usually interpreted as 300 miles, although there's some variation in that number). Often, the answer is once or twice a year, so you get the canonical Southern trip for a Northern team, with the rest of the schedule being the nearby teams. Interestingly, I've been told by one big-conference team that the travel budget is basically not a consideration, but the NCAA limits on missed class time (and those are a good thing, remember) serve as a limitation. In short, the closer you are to good opposition (or any opposition for that matter), the better off you are in some ways.

With that in mind, here are a couple of links to lists:

What those lists show is the number of teams within varying radii (all distances are driving distances according to Mapquest) of each team, along with a more complicated number we'll talk about in a bit. Most of what's in there isn't that surprising, especially if you look at the list sorted by ZIP code. There are large clusters of teams in the New York/northern New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, and there are smaller but quite sizeable areas scattered around the Southeast, Midwest, Texas, and California. Here, though, are the orphans -- the teams who have three or fewer opponents within 300 miles:

                           50  100 200 300

Minnesota                   0   0   0   0
Texas Tech                  0   0   0   0
New Mexico                  0   0   0   1
North Dakota State          0   0   1   1
Northern Colorado           0   0   1   1
Air Force                   0   0   1   1
New Mexico State            0   0   0   2
Arizona State               0   0   1   2
Arizona                     0   0   1   2
Oregon State                0   1   1   2
Washington State            0   1   1   2
Gonzaga                     0   1   1   2
Portland                    0   1   2   2
South Dakota State          0   0   1   3
Texas-Pan American          0   0   1   3
Utah Valley State           2   2   2   3
Utah                        2   2   2   3
Brigham Young               2   2   2   3

The Big 10 is in the Midwest, right? So they don't have travel problems, right? Well, mostly. It turns out that it's a surprisingly long way from Minneapolis to anywhere else that they play baseball -- Milwaukee's about 350 miles, and it goes up from there. Similarly, Texas Tech is located in Texas, but Texas is a darn big place, and they're really all on their own out there. Most of these are neighbors to others on the list: Air Force was on their own until Northern Colorado came along, NDSU is only close to SDSU, Arizona State is really only close to Arizona (Mapquest shows it as 298 miles from Tempe to Las Vegas, but who needs the aggravation). Most, but not quite all of these, are either big-money football schools with a little money to go around, or they're new to Division I (which, I think, is a positive step; the more Plains States teams that join, the easier it gets for all of them).

Now, there's another factor that I'm still ruminating on but which is worth mentioning: The US airline system is increasingly moving towards what we in the energy industry refer to as a "postage stamp" style of pricing. In other words, most flights under about 2000 miles or so cost more or less the same unless it's a straight flight on a discount carrier or something. The last time I checked, for example, it was slightly cheaper to fly from Phoenix to any of New Orleans, Raleigh, or Orlando than to San Francisco. What that means is that once you cross the threshold where you're going to fly, you're no longer really limited by distance. That means that the Arizona State RPI-buster model of scheduling -- scheduling good Eastern teams instead of equally good Western teams (or vice versa for Eastern teams), is quite practical from a travel budget point of view, although you still have the missed class factor to deal with.

Now, if you look at the other end of the spectrum, you'd think that those Northeastern teams would have an easy time generating a good schedule. Well, yes and no, and that brings us to the last column on those lists, something I call the Good Schedule Travel Index (GSTI). In order to actually fill out a good schedule, you can't just grab the nearest 25 teams and pencil them in. You have to actually schedule someone who's good, and those teams turn out to be kind of thin (in a relative national sense, of course) in the most densely populated areas. The GSTI is based on a lot of simplifying assumptions, but it goes like this: For each team, use their three-year 2002-2004 ISR as a guide to how good they are. Then, to compute the GSTI for a team, take the six closest top 25 teams, the six closest in the 26-50 range, the six closest in the 51-100 range, and the six closest others, and add up the distance to all of these. That simulates the distance required for travel for what I'm classifying as a good schedule, one which wouldn't look out of place for a national contender. As I said, there are a ton of simplifications in there, but it should work fairly well.

By these standards, some of those isolated Western teams don't have it quite so bad in trying to schedule good opposition, because the teams that are nearby are quite good, while some of those crowded Northeastern teams would have to go a long way to find someone with some national credibility to play. Here are the ten highest and lowest GSTI's:

Team                       50  100 200 300   GSTI

Maine                       0   0   4  14   15276
Vermont                     0   1   4  24   13404
Dartmouth                   0   1  14  34   12951
Minnesota                   0   0   0   0   12623
Northeastern                3   7  19  39   11388
Harvard                     3   7  19  40   11376
Boston College              4   8  21  40   11323
Brown                       3   8  30  46   10940
Holy Cross                  5  11  31  47   10919
Massachusetts               0  10  31  49   10872

Loyola Marymount            8   9  12  15     381
Southern California         8   9  12  15     434
UCLA                        7  10  13  15     485
Cal State Northridge        6  10  13  15     524
Pepperdine                  6  10  13  15     548
Long Beach State            8  10  12  15     651
Santa Clara                 5   6  10  12     699
San Jose State              3   6  10  12     730
San Francisco               4   8   9  11     743
Cal State Fullerton         7  11  12  15     749

Now, there's admittedly a chicken-and-egg problem here -- Northeastern teams aren't that good because they don't play good opposition, which they can't do because there aren't any good Northeastern teams -- but the travel requirements for someone like Maine to put together a good schedule at this point is quite bothersome. USC West certainly deserves credit for playing a tough schedule, but they'd really have to go looking to find bad teams to play.

I'm not sure yet what all of this means, and I don't know what should be done about it if it does mean anything, but I do think it's a valid and interesting way to look at the scheduling problem in a different light. Next week, if I can get some responses from the SID's, I'll have a look at how this is affecting actual practice.

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