The National Collegiate Athletic Association recently notified member institutions they no longer will be required to use Go Ground for postseason championship ground transportation. As the NCAA ends this requirement, it frees colleges to choose the companies they have traveled with during the regular season.
Go Ground attributed NCAA’s decision to the disruption of ground transportation caused by the pandemic.
“Due to the 2020 cancellations of winter and spring championships, including March Madness, and then fall championships, the NCAA discontinued its centralized ground transportation program with Go Ground. We will shift our focus to the institutions since, as far as we know, teams will be handling transportation on their own,” wrote Kira Goodale, the company’s Senior Director of Operations, as part of a letter to Bus & Motorcoach News.
The Program’s History
The Go Ground program has garnered criticism since instituted in 2011 because charter operators were required to pay fees for third-party inspections and certifications. Two years ago, several state motorcoach associations formally opposed the NCAA program, complaining that third-party inspections unnecessarily increased their costs.
Goodale contends that Go Ground was blamed for things beyond its control. During the nine years the company managed the NCAA’s ground transportation program for championships, it worked with more than 200 operators a year and contracted more than $100 million in business for the industry.
“Go Ground was and is loyal to our regional operators; 98% of the top 50 operators we used for NCAA Championships in year one were still used in year nine. Of these, we provided more than $10 million in revenue to the largest operators and $500,000 to $1 million to almost all,” she wrote.
The NCAA didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bus & Motorcoach News.
‘Good for the bus companies’
For the 2020-21 championships, colleges will work directly with bus companies or use their regular-season providers, as long as they meet NCAA safety standards.
The NCAA administers 90 championships in 24 sports for member colleges and universities. It coordinates and pays for team transportation to those playoffs. It does not cover sports travel during conference seasons when each school makes charter arrangements independently.
“Hopefully, it’s good for the bus companies that wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with Go Ground now that schools can go directly to them, so they may receive some additional trips,” said Mark Keyser, Director of Collegiate Business Services at Anthony Travel Inc. in South Bend, Indiana.
Anthony Travel has contracts with 86 universities and colleges to manage their sports teams’ travel arrangements, whether commercial or charter air, hotels, or buses.
Previously, bus companies did not contact school travel agents directly but had to work with Go Ground for travel to the March Madness preliminary college basketball games for the men’s and women’s teams.
In 2018, Anthony Travel took over motorcoach travel for the Men’s and Women’s Final Four teams. Keyser attributed the change to the NCAA’s need for increased resources as that was the year several state motorcoach associations voted to opt-out of the NCAA plan.
NCAA’s relationship with Go Ground began in 2010 with a year-long pilot program coordinating the transportation of college athletes to sports tournaments. That led to a long-term contract for the Chicago-area ground transportation management company to oversee the NCAA’s Bus Operator Network Program.
Under the program, only motorcoach companies that passed safety inspections required by Go Ground were allowed to take sports teams to tournaments, playoffs and championship games sponsored and paid for by the NCAA.
Operators that joined the program and provided charters for teams during the high-demand periods of November, March, and May were given priority for high-profile championship events.
The new arrangement allowed motorcoach operators that were transporting college sports teams to their regular-season games and other activities to continue without joining the program. But during postseason play, the schools were prohibited by the NCAA from using charter companies that were not part of the program.
The NCAA requirements applied to member college and university teams that sought reimbursement from NCAA tournament play. If a team did not seek the NCAA reimbursement, they were free to use the motorcoach company of their choosing.
More stringent inspections
The NCAA requirement could result in a college team using the same motorcoach company for a whole season but not being able to use them to travel to NCAA tournaments, according to Ken Presley, United Motorcoach Association Vice President, Legislative & Regulatory Affairs.
“These colleges and universities were often small and served by smaller fleet operators,” Presley said. “The number of postseason trips usually meant the math did not work for many motorcoach companies, large or small. There was no guarantee a motorcoach company could at least capture the money spent for the inspection. Large and small motorcoach companies frequently complained of losing money by going along.”
To become certified for NCAA-Go Ground, carriers had to pay for and pass a new inspection conducted by Transportation Safety Exchange, a newly formed bus safety marketing and sales business with ownership ties to Consolidated Safety Services. For 20 years, CSS managed a bus inspection program for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Standards of NCAA Requirement
The inspection standards developed for the NCAA program by TSX were more stringent than those used for bus inspections conducted by either CSS or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Among the upgrades was the inspection of a company’s entire fleet, instead of only the specific coaches that might be used for team charters, full-fleet inspections every two years and monthly reviews of each carrier’s operations using data gathered by federal transportation regulators.
Operators were required to pay a $500 application fee to join the program and then pay an inspection fee based on the size of their fleet. Annual fees were $6,500 or higher, depending on the number of buses.
The industry’s concerns about NCAA Requirement
In 2018, leaders of the country’s largest motorcoach operator associations met with NCAA travel administrators to discuss industry concerns about working with Go Ground. The meeting came after the NCAA announced a five-year extension of its contract with the transportation management company.
During the meeting, NCAA officials made it clear that outside certification was their requirement and would be for the foreseeable future, according to industry officials who attended the meeting.
Goodale notes that Go Ground reported to the NCAA’s risk management department, whose focus was to mitigate risk by independently validating operator safety profiles. The NCAA established the measures out of concern that FMCSA had a spotty record for inspections and reporting.
“While Go Ground took the heat by enforcing the NCAA’s standards and were often positioned as ‘forcing needless and expensive inspections’ on operators, that is not true,” she wrote. “Multiple times we tried to work directly with the industry to establish attainable, affordable standards that would also meet the NCAA’s needs, but unfortunately that did not happen.”
The heightened focus on safety was in response to a deadly 2007 bus crash involving an NCAA college team. An investigation revealed that some motorcoach operators had not undergone mandated U.S. Department of Transportation inspections for five or more years.
Goodale contends Go Ground did a lot to help the industry, noting that in the past couple of years, as FMCSA made significant improvements in how it reports data and, in early 2020, the NCAA adopted new safety standards based on third-party reporting of FMCSA data.
“The fact is that Go Ground pushed back on the NCAA and fought for operators with these new standards. The NCAA wanted to rely solely on that data ‘snapshot’ without context … Because of our counsel and intervention, dozens of operators became eligible under the NCAA’s subsequently modified standards where they wouldn’t have been if Go Ground had not repeatedly advocated on operators’ behalf,” Goodale wrote.
Under the NCAA contract extension, Go Ground said it would charge operators a flat rate of $4,500 to maintain inspections of all vehicles based at one location.
After Go Ground and NCAA announced that the NCAA ends the relationship through the 2021 athletics season, members of the Motorcoach Association of South Carolina voted to opt-out of the program and formally oppose the plan.
They expressed concern that costly third-party inspections could spread through the industry, noting that motorcoach operators already undergo routine state, federal, and insurance company inspections. Unlike the practices of a decade ago, carriers now undergo mandatory USDOT compliance reviews at least every three years.
Other state associations adopted similar statements.
Now that operators can choose whether or not to work with Go Ground, the company is focused on showing why it is a good partner.
“As we all move into a new era,” wrote Goodale, “we see this as an opportunity to independently work with operators to continue to provide excellent service to athletic teams in a manner that’s beneficial for everyone.”