July 2011

Coach Carriers Find Stable Work in Sports Contracts

by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

Whether transporting professional or college athletic teams or their fans, motorcoach operators have found the work can be demanding, due to dealing with contracts that prohibit use of GPS units, extensive driver coordination, financial negotiation and long workdays. But, it can be rewarding as well, for the constant work it brings and free media, television in particular. Having well-trained, personality-plus drivers and the ability to coordinate events around the big game make the jobs easier to maintain and more fulfilling.

Being on your game

Having a corner on the sports team market for several years, John Hartley, president/CEO, Gold Coast Tours, knows the benefits and challenges of the business well. The operator, based in Brea, Calif., provides service for all 30 major league baseball teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, 30 National Basketball Association teams and 27 National Hockey League teams. With 95 percent of the market, athletic team transportation comprises a total of 20 percent of the operator's business, or at least $3 million annually.

Gold Coast transports players from the airport to their hotel; to the practice field and the games, back to the hotel and to their charter planes.

Serving professional sports teams requires new, top-of-the-line equipment; and professional drivers who are well-trained in handling sports teams, extremely knowledgeable of the routes, entrances and exits of all the venues and charter terminals, and which route has the least amount of traffic.

Drivers ideal for the job are also patient. Since 9/11, all buses and drivers are subjected to a precautionary search and must be screened. The buses are checked before the players board at the airports and venues.

"They use mirrors and get underneath and inside the buses, to make sure there aren't suspicious packages or tracking devices," Hartley says.

For sports team jobs, Gold Coast puts its drivers through a rigorous 30-day training process. Drivers start by learning the routes for different teams, and then go on ride-alongs.

"We really can't take the chance of sending a new driver out and having them get lost, or going to the wrong gate," Hartley says. "There are so many different private charter terminals. At Los Angeles International Airport [alone] there are three or four."

The buses pick up players right at plane side. The pro and big college teams are met by the airport police buses. The coaches are inspected before being allowed on the tarmac and drive right out to the wing of the plane. The players step off the air stairs right onto the bus, always with an escort.

"Going to the hotel, you have to know which entrance they want the [players] to use," Hartley says. "If it's a really big deal, they'll bring them to a private entrance so that the public can't get to them for autographs."

A driver must be very familiar with the cities that they're traveling to. In Gold Coast's case, the coverage area ranges from San Diego to Santa Barbara, a distance of more than 200 miles. Local sports arenas include the Staples Center, Nokia Theatre, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Honda Center and San Diego's PETCO Park, to name a few.

"You can't get lost. You can't use a GPS because the team doesn't want to hear [the noise]," Hartley says. "If you get lost with a pro sports team, first off, you're going to lose the business right away. Second, you're going to be on ESPN, [as] the wayward bus...In my 37 years, obviously, one of my drivers has made a wrong turn."

Hartley notes that anything out of the ordinary that happens gets sensationalized by sports talk channels.

"If you do anything wrong, it's very high profile," he adds. "We never hear the end of it, if a driver takes a freeway and gets stuck in traffic, even if it was the right way yesterday."

Additionally, most teams have a one-page rider with stipulations, including guarantees that drivers will know the routes, won't ask for autographs and will refrain from using cell phones.

"It's very regimented," Hartley says. "Most of the teams request certain drivers. They know them. We've been doing it so long, they have [our drivers'] cell phone numbers."

Financial challenges

Potential monetary obstacles for operators new to this type of work include leveraging and competing against substantially low bids.

Some small market teams have started leveraging carriers to take sponsorships. For example, the L.A. Galaxy soccer team, according to Hartley, doesn't have the budget for advertising that a team like the Dodgers has.

"They're trying to survive in a tough economic world, so they're saying, 'You want to be our bus company, we want you to buy a suite program for four season tickets,'" Hartley explains. "They may be doing $20,000 in transportation in the course of a season and they want you to spend $7,000 on a marketing ad, season box or seats."

Does that type of arrangement cancel out the monetary benefit of the business? According to Hartley, it can.

"Their thinking is that you get the benefit of the advertising promotion with that sponsorship for the business, but it usually doesn't work that way," he explains. "My advertising with the L.A. Galaxy would net me nothing; it would just be an expense against the cost."                                       

However, depending on the operator, that might work in their favor. "Sometimes buying a sponsorship can get you in the door, and then get you connected to where you might be able to take the next step," he adds.

Leveraging also can be a challenge, when dealing with big corporations, such as sports and entertainment company AEG (Anshutz Co.) Entertainment Group — owner of the Nokia Theatre and the Staples Center — that own teams.

"It's changing a little, but AEG leverages every way they can for everything," Hartley says. Specifically, with sports jobs, Gold Coast typically avoids wrapping buses, because the teams don't use them enough to warrant the investment.

"You can't send a [wrapped] Dodger bus to the Anaheim Angels," Hartley says. "If somebody wraps a bus to make it their own, then they've got to pay for it every day. That's not very cost effective."

In addition, college teams, due to recent budget crunches at both state schools and private universities, such as University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and California State Polytechnic University are turning to larger operators. "They can't just choose who they want. They take the best bids. It's very competitive," Hartley says. "They're going to underbid and make sure that they're getting the best deal."

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