While some question millions spent on home-game hotel rooms, schools say it benefits players
Many of the nation’s top college football teams spend tens of thousands of dollars a year lodging their players in hotels the night before every game played in their own home towns.
The practice, defended by some schools as a necessary expense, was criticized by others as a waste of money in a sport that already gobbles an outsized share of universities’ resources.
Some teams spent as little as $14,000 annually on home game hotel room bills. Others paid much more — at least one racked up more than a quarter million in such expenses, according to a GateHouse Media investigation.
A reporter filed public records requests with 109 public universities competing in college football’s top echelon, the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. Of the 101 schools that fulfilled the requests, 93 booked hotel rooms ahead of home football games, records show.
All together, they spent $4.91 million on home-game hotel rooms in 2018 — or a median of $44,000 per team — though some said they use donations to defray costs. Most teams played five to seven home games each year. The average was $8,200 per game on rooms alone.
At the University of Missouri, records showed home-game hotel costs totaling $39,145.05 for seven home games last season which averaged $5,592.15 per game.
Most of the top spenders ignored or declined requests for comment. But several schools defended the practice and its associated costs.
They “eliminate the distractions for the players in a college town the night before a football game,” said Rob Wilson, associate athletic director of Florida State University, which spent nearly $96,000 on home-game hotel rooms in 2018.
UC Berkeley, which spent $106,000 on rooms last year, added that hotels provide players space to hold meetings, review film and perform walk-throughs.
Ohio State University, which spent $93,000, said hotels provide a venue for camaraderie, structured team meals, the ability to monitor hydration and a “restful night of sleep” thanks to bed checks and a set lights-out time.
But it’s unclear players reap an advantage from the practice. In fact, they might suffer.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies have linked the first night in a strange environment, such as a hotel room, to poor sleep and ultimately poor next-day performance.
“I can't speculate the reasons why they're doing this,” said Kimberly Hutchison, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University. “But from a medical perspective, all other things being treated equal, I would opine that sleeping at home would give them the best night of sleep and the best sleep quality in order to best prepare them for the game the next day.”
Among the institutions that provided records, home-game hotel expenditures varied widely. Schools competing in the “Power 5” conferences — Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 — collectively spent more than double the per-game amount of schools in less prestigious conferences.
Coastal Carolina University of the Sun Belt Conference spent the least at just over $2,800 per game.
Texas A&M University of the SEC shelled out the most. It spent nearly $40,000 per game for a season total of $278,000 — more than Clemson University and the University of Alabama, the second- and third-biggest spenders, combined.
Hotel folios show Texas A&M paid about $346 per night for each of its more than five dozen rooms at the Stella Hotel. That rate alone would have put Texas A&M atop the list of spenders. But the team doubled its invoice by booking two nights per game.
The Stella Hotel requires a two-night minimum, said Texas A&M athletic department spokesman Alan Cannon. The team doesn’t stay on the second night, though, he said.
Room costs represent just a fraction of the hotel bills for some schools, records show. Tens of thousands of dollars also went toward catering, conference rooms and audio-video equipment.
University of Utah, for example, spent $276,000 on home-game hotels last year, but less than a fifth of that — $46,000 — was for lodging.
Some schools incurred expenses that would have cost less if purchased elsewhere. Take Auburn University: The school paid $267.62 for six dozen 20-ounce water bottles for the bus ride before each of its seven home games. The season total was $1,873.34.
At Walmart, the same size and amount of bottled water cost $11.94 before tax, a season total of less than $84.
Risk of sleep loss
If you’ve ever suffered poor sleep your first night in a hotel, you may have experienced a phenomenon called the “first-night effect.”
Sleep researchers first observed the effect decades ago. Study participants consistently took longer to fall asleep and their sleep was interrupted more easily during their first night in the lab.
In a Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine study published in 2007, doctors tested whether the first-night effect could be reduced if subjects stayed in a hotel-based sleep center instead.
Results showed no significant difference.
Hutchison, the Oregon Health and Science neurologist, said staying in hotels puts players at a higher risk of sleep loss, which could negatively impact their mental and physical performances during the next day’s game.
“When we educate people on proper sleep hygiene, we recommend routine, routine, routine,” said Hutchison, who was the lead researcher on the 2007 study.
Former Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M University running back Gerald Hearns recalled some poor nights’ sleep in hotels. Bed quality was crucial, he said, and sometimes he woke up if the room got too hot. But the biggest variable was whether his roommate was a snorer.
“I had some great experiences, don’t get me wrong,” Hearns said. “But it all depends on the roommate.”
All things considered, Hearns said, he preferred hotels to home before a big game.
‘Hard to justify’
To some, the high costs of home-game hotels represent a waste of money at a time when many athletic departments rely on student and taxpayer dollars to stay afloat.
The Rutgers athletic department, for example, received nearly $30 million in subsidies in 2018 — more than a quarter of its reported operating revenue, according to its financial disclosure that year.
But the Rutgers football team spent more than $66,000 dollars on rooms ahead of its seven home games, records show.
Rutgers declined to comment.
Mark Killingsworth, an economics professor who has worked at Rutgers for four decades, said the money would be better spent serving the university’s academic mission.
“I can think of about 100 different ways to spend the $30-million-dollar-a-year deficit that would do lots of good for the academic program,” Killingsworth said. “It’s just a symptom of the kind of anything-goes fiscal atmosphere of big-time college football.”
The other schools that chose not to stay in hotel rooms in 2018 cited cost, logistics and a lack of necessity as reasons.
Georgia Southern associate athletic director Bryan Johnston said the Eagles have no need to stay in hotels because they already have a 192-40 record in home games at Paulson Stadium.
“We have never done this and have an 83% home winning percentage,” Johnston said. “Our coach feels that we've been successful at home. Why change?”