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Making the madness happen

Coordinating travel for every team in the Division I men’s basketball tournament, while facilitating two dozen other NCAA championships in March, requires a herculean effort.

WATERLOO, Iowa – The madness starts here.

It happens inside a squat brown brick building in a suburban neighborhood in the middle of America. Seventeen travel consultants – most of them wearing telephone headsets, peering into multiple computer screens and tapping on keyboards, work into the early hours of Monday morning, busily booking dozens of plane flights and negotiating a bevy of logistical hurdles, moving teams into position for the first stops of competition in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

It’s a different kind of March Madness than fans will cheer for this week. It’s where NCAA travel staff and Short’s Travel Management – the NCAA’s travel agency since 2003 – work together to create travel plans that move teams, coaches, administrators, cheerleaders and band members safely to the tournament’s host cities, then home again or on to the next round. Before the first tipoffs can occur, they must first win this game.

The NCAA travel staff has worked over the past several months to secure 15 dedicated charter planes that are available for transporting the teams. Carriers will provide a handful of other charters, as needed. But until the bracket was released Sunday night, that staff could not begin assigning teams to planes and buses.

Changes in the airline industry have made this task increasingly difficult in recent years. The declining availability of charter flights, influenced by airline mergers that have reduced fleets and made available seats on commercial flights more rare, have made the task of moving hundreds of people across the country on a tight schedule even more challenging. In addition, new Federal Aviation Administration requirements have shortened the window when flight crews can legally work on an aircraft.

“The logistics involved in planning travel for March Madness require enormous effort and planning,” said Juanita Sheely, NCAA director of travel and insurance, who is based at the national office in Indianapolis but spends several days each March at the Short’s office in Waterloo, Iowa. “We have every reason to believe that the preparations we made for this year’s tournament will pay off.”

In September, NCAA staff who work with championships and travel began urging Division I schools to be prepared to be flexible with travel schedules for the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.           

Because of the NCAA’s contractual obligations to CBS, the staff in Waterloo cannot receive the bracket before the Selection Show broadcast team does. As a result, when CBS was announcing Sunday night which schools had earned spots, the travel team plugged schools into a mileage calculator to tabulate which ones should drive to their first tournament game and which ones qualified for flights.

The NCAA national office staff follows rules established by Division I member schools that call for teams located fewer than 350 miles from a competition site to travel on a chartered bus. So more NCAA staff in Indianapolis and Chicago-based GO Ground Options, the Association’s ground transportation vendor, worked beginning Sunday night to book teams traveling by bus to airports and competition sites.

On Monday, as men’s basketball teams and their travel parties are beginning to arrive in Dayton, Ohio, for the first round of the tournament, the Division I women’s basketball Selection Show will be broadcast.

And the process for the team in Iowa will begin again.

That same team will also arrange travel in March for the NIT and for national championships in all three divisions in all winter sports. So on top of the 68 teams traveling for this week’s men’s basketball tournament, student-athletes competing in skiing, fencing, wrestling, rifle, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, men’s and women’s ice hockey, and men’s and women’s swimming hit the road as well for their own shining moments.

“Pulling off national championship events that give student-athletes a great championship experience is one of our most important functions at the NCAA,” Sheely said. “We have tried to plan ahead for all possible contingencies.”