Getting to the Final Four won't be as costly for the parents of many players this week, thanks to an NCAA pilot program that is helping pay for families of athletes to travel and see their sons and daughters play in the biggest college basketball games of the season.
The family travel program was approved in January. It allowed the College Football Playoff to pay for the parents or guardians of Ohio State and Oregon players to travel to Arlington, Texas for the national championship game and for the NCAA to pay for family members of the basketball players participating in the men's Final Four in Indianapolis and women's Final Four in Tampa, Florida, this weekend.
The next step is for the NCAA to decide whether to make it permanent — and some, such as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, want to expand it to the championships for all sports.
Under the program, the College Football Playoff and NCAA were allowed to provide schools $3,000 per player per team to cover travel, food and hotel costs for two parents or guardians.
Smith said 87 of 110 Ohio State football players took advantage of the benefit that was implemented through an NCAA waiver just days before the national title game.
NCAA rules prohibit schools from directly paying for travel expenses of players' family members — though it is allowable in some instances for schools to use the student assistance fund — but officials determined it could be done if event organizers paid.
Smith and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens were instrumental, along with NCAA executive vice president for championships Mark Lewis, in making the pilot program happen on short notice. Now the ADs are endorsing making it permanent, which would take legislation passed by the full Division I membership.
"The finances are there," Smith said.
Television and media contracts for the College Football Playoff make hundreds of millions of dollars annually for FBS conferences and the NCAA tournament's TV deal pays the association more than $700 million per year.
Expanding the program to other sports is not so easy. No other championship brings in that kind of revenue.
"The challenge with the expansion of this in going to all sports is that it reduces the pile of money that can be distributed back to the schools for them to use as they see fit," Smith said. "That will be one of the challenges getting it past 351 (Division I schools) and for all sports. I think football, men's and women's basketball will be pretty easy."
Smith said expanding the program by allowing individual schools to make the payments could be a matter for the five most powerful conferences to take up now that they can make some of their own rules under autonomy. But even Mullens was more cautious when it came to the idea of schools paying the for parents travel beyond football and basketball.
"I think that's a great goal," he said. "I think we'd have to learn more. We'd want to understand more about the impact of that."
Because the pilot was launched so close to the College Football Playoff championship game, Oregon and Ohio State were forced to play catch-up on how best to distribute the money.
Mullens said Oregon is still trying to work through a few issues.
"Some parents had already booked their airline tickets using frequent flyer miles. So how do you handle that situation? We're still trying to figure that out but I think there will be a solution, yes," he said.
With plenty of time to prepare, the Final Four teams are in better shape.
Wisconsin associate athletic director Justin Doherty said each player had to designate a family member who will be authorized to pick up the money when they get Indianapolis.
"We're going to have that person the student-athlete designated show up with an ID. We'll distribute the money, re-emphasize what it's for and kind of go from there," Doherty said.
Doherty said the family is not required to provide proof the money is going to cover travel-related expenses.
Each family will get the maximum $3,000, he said, and Wisconsin dipped into its own coffers to make sure every player was covered. The rule allows for up to 15 players to split up to $45,000 equally. The Badgers have 16, so Wisconsin covered the extra $3,000 with money from its student-assistance fund, Doherty said.
Smith would like to see the process streamlined so less cash has to change hands.
"I think in the future what we ought to do is set up a way, when the teams are selected, the families can use the same travel agency that the schools use for their team," Smith said.
Lewis said discussion among NCAA membership is still needed to determine whether the travel payments for families will become permanent if it can't be expanded.
"Being quite honest there was some reaction from the membership that it kind of came out of the blue and there wasn't as much debate as some members wanted. That's the nature of waivers," he said. "I think everyone is supportive of the fact we're trying to do more for families who want to watch their kids play and there are questions about why don't you do that for more sports and all divisions."