The Sun Belt Conference has eight schools bunched together in the Southeast. One resides in the middle of Texas, with another not too far west in New Mexico — and 1,455 miles north is the University of Idaho.
At just under four million square miles, the U.S. is the third largest country in the world, and traveling it gets very expensive.
With an average cost of $133,000, the Idaho Athletic Department will spend approximately $800,000 on charter flights for Idaho’s six road games this season.
“If we didn’t have those travel cost then we wouldn’t be able to participate in the Sun Belt Conference,” Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear said. “There is significant revenue from our membership in the Sun Belt.”
In 2013, Idaho and the Sun Belt agreed to a four-year commitment, with football as the lone athletic program joining the conference. The school will receive upwards of a million dollars from television revenue and money distributed from the new college football playoff, Spear said.
The other Vandal athletic programs now play in the more regionally friendly Big Sky Conference. Spear said it helps offset the high travel cost associated with football.
The Vandal football team will fly more than 31,000 miles this season, which puts them ahead of most schools. Hawaii, however, tops the list with 36,000 miles, but also starts 2,000 miles away from the closest school.
“Awesome, that’s a good record right there,” said linebacker coach Eric Brown of the travel. “It’s more opportunity for us to be with them (players) and continue to get a grasp of the game plan.”
Brown said the length of a flight doesn’t matter, and it only becomes an issue if players talk negatively about it.
The charter flights make it possible for the student-athletes to miss minimal class time. Spear said the team leaves the day before their game and makes the return flight right after. It makes it easier on the student-athletes and their studies, he said.
The Vandals have quite a few players who hail from the South. During fall camp, Bradenton, Florida native Jacob Sannon said he is looking forward to the away games in the Sun Belt.
“It’s motivation for me, because I was down South and no one recruited me,” he said.
Brown said most of the southern players on the team were overlooked. He thinks it’s a good thing they’ll play with a chip on their shoulder.
“If they look at it as an opportunity to go back and show some people that they should have been recruited there — I think that’s a great thing,” he said “We got great players from the south that were definitely overlooked … so it would be nice for them to show out in the Sun Belt.”
While some players get to go home during the season, Vandal fans are finding it difficult to travel with the team. Spear admits it’s hard for fans to attend the conference away games. He said it’s extremely important to schedule future non-conference games on the West Coast.
The 2016 schedule is more regionally friendly. The Vandals non-conference away games are against Washington State, Washington and UNLV.
Spear asked fans to be patient, because even more change is on the horizon.
“At the end of the day, I’m in agreement that it would be great to play in a geographic friendly conference,” he said. “There has to be a lot of movement for that to happen and I think there will be in the future, which will be good for the University of Idaho and our fans.”