On Saturday, the curtain for the upcoming FBS college football season will rise with a Big Ten matchup between Nebraska and Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The event, dubbed the Ireland Classic, is set to take place after the previous two attempts at holding the across-the-pond series were stymied by COVID-19. In 2020, the Classic between Notre Dame and Navy was canceled, while last year’s scheduled contest between Illinois and Nebraska was preemptively relocated to Champaign, Ill.
While the burden of these interruptions fell hard on the teams and the host country, perhaps the biggest loss was endured by the Classic’s co-owner, Anthony Travel, the Dallas-based college sports travel agency acquired in 2016 by On Location Experiences and subsequently swallowed into the Endeavor entertainment enterprise three months before the pandemic.
John Anthony, the company’s eponymous founder and enduring CEO, describes the canceled 2020 Classic as the “greatest event that nobody ever saw.” Among its planned pageantry, the game was supposed to play host to ESPN College GameDay’s first production on foreign soil.
Instead of a multimillion-dollar boon, the occasion commenced what became one of the largest refund operations in the Anthony Travel’s 33-year history, with at least 10,000 people having made game-related purchases through the company.
All this has only raised the stakes for an event that is at the center of Anthony Travel’s growth ambitions: converting college sports followers into general travelers.
Of the 30,000-plus fans expected to be in attendance Saturday, Anthony Travel estimates that as many as 16,000 of them will have in some way engaged the company’s services as part of their trip. That involvement could range from the simple booking of plane tickets to purchasing an eight-day, three-city, all-inclusive Irish tour package.
“This is just the next and biggest evolution in that entire lifecycle, if you will, because it’s a global world, and universities tout their global presence,” said Anthony, who has spent much of the past month in Dublin, participating in logistics meetings in anticipation of this weekend’s festivities.
This year’s Classic heralds an expected return to a degree of normalcy for college sports travel, which has dealt with constant disruption for the past two and a half years. For the two companies that have come to dominate the college sports travel industry—Anthony Travel and the Iowa-based, family-owned Short’s Travel Management—this forthcoming academic year will showcase their diverging approaches to both servicing and profiting from the space.
Anthony Travel gained a foothold in the early 1990s by taking on the university athletic travel needs of the University of Notre Dame, John Anthony’s alma mater. The company currently contracts with nearly 90 Division I athletic departments, provide nearly all of them with on-site account managers, for an annual fee typically around $75,000 per staffer per year. This is one of the aspects that makes Anthony Travel a more expensive option for athletic departments, although the company insists that is more than made up for with its volume discounts and agility.
Indeed, where COVID once appeared to be an existential threat to the travel agencies, Anthony says the pandemic has ultimately solidified its business: Over the last 12 months, 47 athletic departments have renewed their contracts, and 10 new departments have signed deals.
“Our value is at the highest when somebody is in a time of need,” Anthony said.
The Ireland Classic builds off Anthony Travel’s long-running endeavor—pun intended—to pursue college sports fan travel, in addition to handling the nitty-gritty of moving teams between competitions.
To that end, many of Anthony Travel’s deals with athletic departments have included specific terms granting the company the rights to serve as the school’s exclusive fan travel agency. Anthony Travel also separately engages in specific fan-travel arrangements with university alumni and booster organizations, as well as with main campuses or entire university systems to service faculty and staff travel needs.
While it has continued to grow its university operations, there have been hiccups. Earlier this spring, the University of Pittsburgh’s faculty protested the school’s pandemic-era policy requiring all university travelers to book through either Anthony Travel or Concur, the online expense management tool. In April, after several faculty leaders complained to the school’s administration about their experiences with Anthony Travel, the school backed off the policy to allow for alternative booking options in the event university travelers can find a better rate.
“From an Anthony Travel standpoint, service levels have returned to what they’d deem a high standard,” a company spokesperson told Sportico.
While Anthony Travel has persistently tried to grow beyond the athletic department, its main competitor has kept its ambitions in check.
Short’s Travel Management, founded in 1946, made its foray into college sports in 2003, when it won the NCAA travel management contract for all the association’s end-of-season championships. Two years later, the company began approaching individual schools about regular-season travel needs, which now forms the core of the business.
Then, about a decade ago, Short’s made a strategic decision to focus more on the corporate client side, thereby ceding much of the college sports industry to Anthony Travel. Ryan Dohmen, president of Short’s charter airlines division, attributes Anthony Travel’s customer boom in the late aughts and early 2010s to his company’s unilateral disengagement. Short’s eventually returned to the intercollegiate fray about five years ago and, following the pandemic, made college sports its dedicated focus.
“We decided that the corporate side of the business wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” Dohmen said.
Short’s currently holds around 70 travel management contracts with athletic departments but, unlike Anthony Travel, has declined to pursue fan or other kinds of university-related travel.
Last year, the company made waves when it won back the Florida State athletic travel account from Anthony Travel. Rosey Murton, FSU’s chief procurement officer, said that amid the financial pinch of COVID-19, the school was motivated to find cost savings, particularly on charter flights, which it did by moving its business.
Contrary to the Anthony Travel norm of physically embedding its employees into athletic departments, Short’s handles almost all of its university accounts remotely, believing that this enables the company to attract a better talent pool.
“One of our slogans is we were remote before remote was cool,” Dohmen said.
In the case of FSU, however, Short’s agreed to maintain an on-site agent, per the school’s request.
Anthony Travel contends that, even with advancements in technology, the constant contingencies involved in college team travel are still best tended to by having an agent down the hall from coaches and athletic directors. Anthony says that since just the summer, a dozen of its schools have requested an additional on-site agent as part of their ongoing relationships.
For now, the travel agencies are in D-I customer acquisition mode, creating some notable jostling in SEC country. Last year, Anthony Travel announced a deal to serve as the conference office’s official travel partner and this past January won the competitive bid for Vanderbilt athletics, which had previously been a Short’s client. At the time, the Commodores gave Anthony Travel its sixth SEC program, along with Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Missouri. Six months later, however, Short’s pried Missouri away from Anthony Travel; Short’s also holds the contracts for Mississippi and South Carolina.
Florida and Georgia currently handle their team travel in-house. Tennessee uses World Travel, Kentucky uses a local agency, while LSU and Alabama both employ the corporate travel management company, Christopherson.
In the Big Ten, Anthony Travel holds sway, servicing every conference athletic department aside from Minnesota’s—a loyal Short’s client. Anthony Travel also contracts with anticipated 2024 Big Ten members USC and UCLA, and rumored hopefuls Stanford and Oregon.
Anthony told Sportico the consolidation of wealth in college sports will likely guide his company’s future partnerships. In time, the company may see fit to limit its contracts to only certain kinds of college football powers.
“We want to be where it makes sense,” Anthony said. And where it makes sense might include more overseas destinations.
Anthony told Sportico that he has been in serious discussions with at least one other foreign city about hosting an early college football matchup, in addition to the one in Ireland. He declined to provide additional details.