Bill Maulsby has a hard-learned piece of financial wisdom: “You can’t get rich off the NCAA.”
Maulsby offers his forlorn, if debatable, assessment as the founder of the motor coach logistics company, Go Ground, which the NCAA began contracting in 2011 as its exclusive consolidator of championship ground transportation.
Over the last decade, the only way a team could get the NCAA to cover its tournament bus travel expenses was to go through Go Ground. That was until late last summer, when the NCAA quietly decided to opt out of its Go Ground contract, prompting the business to declare bankruptcy.
Despite that, Maulsby insists Go Ground consistently exceeded expectations in stewarding the NCAA’s “Bus Operator Network,” which was implemented to establish higher, uniform safety standards and save the association money and hassle. “That is quantifiable and all part of the record,” Maulsby said in a recent telephone interview.
Transportation comprises the NCAA’s biggest individual championship expense category, costing the association more than $60 million per academic year. Of that, about $10.5 million has traditionally gone to ground transportation reimbursements for schools. So it was that Go Ground became, in recent years, one of the NCAA’s highest-paid independent contractors, joining the ranks of the white-shoe law firms that have fed at that trough.
But now, Go Ground’s exclusive role is that of debtor in Case No. 20-19706, currently winding its way through the federal bankruptcy court in Chicago. In its Chapter 11 filing late last year, Go Ground listed assets of $143,000 and liabilities in the millions. Its biggest creditor: the NCAA, with an unliquidated claim just north of $1.7 million, which Go Ground has disputed.
The NCAA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
It might seem odd for Maulsby to lament the NCAA’s commercial appeal, given what appears on the association’s IRS filings from September 2015 to August 2020. Over those five tax years, the NCAA reported paying Go Ground nearly $50 million. But Maulsby says this figure is misleading, as the money was mostly passed along to the bus providers Go Ground subcontracted, and belies a financial imbalance that his company could never sustain.
By Maulsby’s telling, Go Ground toiled for years, under-compensated by the NCAA, having only agreed to the lopsided terms based on a shared understanding that the association would eventually support the company’s efforts to tap into other revenue streams in college sports. Maulsby pegs the overall collegiate athletic ground transportation market at “somewhere to the tune of $1 billion,” making the championship component a relative drop in the bucket.
Over time, Maulsby says he repeatedly pitched the association on ideas for other revenue-generating projects—from association-wide regular season travel networks to fan transportation—only to be consistently rebuffed. All the while, Go Ground was asked to take on greater responsibilities and overhead in order to manage the Bus Operator Network, he said. The deal also restricted his ability to do other business. In September 2019, Maulsby said, he prevailed upon the NCAA to increase Go Ground’s yearly management fee to $900,000, up from the $500,000 it had been since the start.
“They finally gave us fair due for what we were doing,” he said, “and unfortunately, along came the pandemic, and it all fell apart.”
There was another fly in the ointment, according to Maulsby: In July 2019, and without the NCAA’s blessing, Go Ground had struck an arrangement with the LEAD1 Association, which represents athletic directors of Football Bowl Subdivision institutions.
Maulsby said the NCAA was angry with Go Ground for this perceived act of betrayal, suggesting it was the proximate cause for the relationship’s premature end. LEAD1 Vice President Mike Brigante said Maulsby had never apprised him of any issues with the NCAA, believing the divorce more likely owed to “convenience meeting necessity,” and the fact the association was “not going to have a 2020 postseason in any event.”
The news of Go Ground’s demise—and the corresponding end of the NCAA Bus Operator Network––has been greeted warmly by those in the regional carrier industry.
“All in all we are very pleased that, basically, things have returned to normal,” said Ken Presley, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at the United Motorcoach Association (UMA).
At the time it filed for bankruptcy, Go Ground was facing three separate lawsuits claiming that it had been delinquent in paying providers—two from regional bus companies and one from Coach USA, which alleged that Go Ground had carried a past-due balance of nearly $480,000. (An attorney representing Coach USA declined to comment.)
In March 2020, the North Carolina-based charter company, Holiday Tours, sued Go Ground, alleging that the broker had refused to pay a $250,000 tab for trips it conducted the previous year. Holiday Tours won a default judgment after Maulsby attempted to represent himself in the matter despite not being a licensed attorney.
“The concern we have with Bill Maulsby going forward is that this will repeat in the future with the funds mysteriously disappearing before the actual providers of the service can be paid,” Jonathan Moody, Holiday Tours’ assistant general manager, said in a statement.
Maulsby declined to address any of the specific litigation against Go Ground, but suggested much was out of his control.
“I can honestly say I did my very best to honor every commitment we made,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am dependent on other institutions, and things just don’t always work out.”
This is not the first time that a Maulsby enterprise has found itself in bankruptcy—or controversy.
In August 2009, a previous charter transportation company Maulsby founded, BusBank, filed for Chapter 11, following an $80 million settlement of a lawsuit against it and six other defendants filed by the residents (or their families) of a Houston elder-care facility, whose bus caught fire while being evacuated during Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Maulsby insists BusBank “never did anything wrong,” and said the litigation killed a promising investment deal that forced the company into debt. But a 2010 article in Bus & Motorcoach News, a publication produced by the UMA, described Maulsby as a “frequent target” of critics within the industry, “many of whom threatened never to do business with the company again.”
Maulsby exited BusBank just prior to its bankruptcy proceedings but, within months, filed paperwork for the creation of a new entity, Ground Options, LLC, Go Ground’s legal name. (BusBank subsequently rebounded under new leadership, reportedly earning $20 million in annual revenue by 2018.)
Soon, Maulsby partnered with the NCAA to create a centralized charter bus pilot program for a handful of its 2010-11 championships.
The NCAA had been seeking ways to improve and streamline tournament transportation for at least three years. In 2007, a bus carrying the baseball team for Division III Bluffton University crashed in Atlanta, killing seven passengers, five of them players. The fatal accident and the 2008 financial crisis pushed the NCAA to contemplate ways of raising the bar for passenger safety while lowering expenses.
Up to that point, schools would handle their own travel arrangements to NCAA post-season competitions and then send the association their receipts for reimbursement. In 2009, the NCAA led a sports travel task force, in conjunction with the National Business Travel Association, chaired by an association staffer named Nikki Watson.
In announcing its Go Ground-led program in the fall 2011, the NCAA boasted that its safety standards would now rival the Department of Defense’s as the national “gold standard.”
The certification process would necessarily shrink the pool of eligible carriers, an intended effect of the program, but one that also caused strife. At issue was the requirement that bus providers pay each year for pricey, independent safety inspections, in order to be part of the NCAA’s network.
“There was a disconnect with the fact that one carrier may carry a team for an entire season and then be foreclosed from carrying that same team during tournament play,” said Presley, noting that universities and athletic departments also raised complaints. “A lot of college teams don’t just have their favorite bus companies, but their favorite drivers. You know how superstitious these players and coaches are.”
Maulsby says that Go Ground, as the middleman, bore the brunt of the industry’s frustrations with the NCAA program.
But despite a 2018 meeting between the NCAA and bus operators to address numerous complaints about Go Ground, Presley said the NCAA gave the company its vote of confidence. Evidently, that would last for only two more years.
In agreeing to go on the record with Sportico, Maulsby repeatedly stated that his only interest was to set the factual record straight, not to “throw dirt” at the NCAA. And despite their falling out, Maulsby continues to tout the organization’s sincere concern for passenger safety, something that he prides himself on as well.
“He comes with an honest reputation there,” said Presley.
For better or worse, Maulsby is willing to leverage that reputation once more, devising a return to the nine-figure college team travel marketplace. This past April Fool’s Day, not long before Go Ground converted its Chapter 11 bankruptcy to Chapter 7, Maulsby birthed a new business with a strikingly similar name: Ground Game.
A website for that company, which intends to focus on working directly with athletic departments, hailed Maulsby as a “serial entrepreneur.” Missing was any reference to Go Ground or anything about the last 10 years of Maulsby’s professional life.
“It is disappointing to say the least that it had to happen this way,” Maulsby said of his partnership with the NCAA. “But it has not deterred me. I frankly think that ground transportation has a far better future than prior to the pandemic.”
Ground Game’s website noted that Watson—who left the NCAA in 2014 and later worked for LEAD1 during its Go Ground partnership—would also be part of its “Leadership Team,” although it’s unclear what this entails. Watson declined to comment for this story, and Maulsby did not respond to a follow-up message sent earlier this week, inquiring about her role in the venture. However, minutes later, GoGroundGame.com went offline.