Scientists say the millions spent on home-game hotel rooms may be harming players’ sleep.
Two orange and blue University of Florida buses pulled into Gainesville’s Best Western Gateway Grand behind a police brigade of five motorcycles and one SUV, lights flashing.
It was 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6. Twenty-five hours before the Gators played their first home game of the football season.
Players and coaches descended the bus and, followed by police officers, entered the hotel. There, the team would spend the next 15 hours feasting on catered food, hanging out in the lobby and finally sleeping in rooms that fetch as much as $299 the night before a home game.
Police vehicles returned the next morning and escorted players to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, 7.7 miles away.
If the Gators’ lodging bill matched those it incurred during its 2018 season, it likely topped $6,800, minus taxes and fees, for some four dozen rooms across two floors. It’s one of the more modest bills racked up by the dozens of college football teams whose players sleep in hotels the night before every game played in their own towns.
Some 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, the 93 schools 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.
Most of the top spenders — including the University of Florida, Clemson University in South Carolina, Oklahoma State University and UCLA — ignored or declined requests for comment.
Several other schools, however, 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 almost $96,000 on home-game hotel rooms in 2018. “FSU’s upperclassmen are spread out in private housing all over the city, including large apartment complexes that often have loud, late-night parties.”
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 and what they may be avoiding by recommending that the team spends the night away,” 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 obtained by GateHouse Media show Texas A&M paid about $346 per night for each of its more than five dozen rooms at the Stella Hotel, located less than 5 miles from Kyle Field.
For a one-night stay, that rate alone would have put Texas A&M atop the list of spenders. But the team doubled its invoice because the Stella Hotel requires a two-night minimum, even though the team doesn’t stay on the second night, Texas A&M athletic department spokesman Alan Cannon said.
Other schools paid for two nights only when they missed checkout deadlines. Florida Atlantic University, for example, paid an average of $6,800 per game. But bills climbed to $12,400 each of the three times its players left late.
Room costs represent just a fraction of the overall home-game hotel bills for some schools, according to a review of the records. 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 outside the hotel. Take Auburn University’s bottled water. The school paid $267.62 for six dozen 20-ounce water bottles earmarked for the bus ride before each of its seven home games. The season total: $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 a poor night’s sleep on 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, spent more time awake and less time asleep, and their sleep was interrupted more easily during their first night in the lab. It’s so common that scientists often toss the entire first night’s worth of data to allow subjects time to adapt.
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.
“If sleep parameters associated with the first-night effect are the same in both a hotel and a hospital room, perhaps the effect has more to do with sleep away from home or the testing procedure itself,” the study concluded.
A later study by Brown University linked the phenomenon to a network in the left hemisphere of the brain that stays alert during the first night in any unfamiliar environment.
Hutchison, the Oregon Health and Science neurologist, said staying in hotels puts players at a higher risk of sleep loss, something that particularly affects the brain’s frontal lobe. It governs decision-making and emotions — both essential functions for a sport requiring intense preparation, memorization and critical thinking skills.
The effects can be exacerbated at the college-level, Hutchison added, because the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until about 22 or 23 years of age.
“You’re taking kids and then you sleep-deprive them,” she said, “and then their decision-making capacity can be even more impaired by not getting a good night’s sleep.”
That could negatively impact 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. “You go to bed at the same time, you try to wake up at the same time, you do the same wind-down routine, and all of that allows your brain to sort of prepare for sleep.”
Ohio State officials said Hutchison’s views endorsed their practice.
“We believe we would be breaking sleep routine if we did not stay in a hotel before a football game,” said OSU Associate Athletics Director Jerry Emig. “Ohio State has stayed in a hotel the night before every road game and every home game for more than 50 years.”
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.”
The hotel helped Hearns escape the distractions of a college town, he said, though it didn’t stop everyone. He recalled one night when about a half dozen of his Florida A&M teammates snuck out of the hotel to party about an hour away. They got caught after posting videos of the revelry on SnapChat, he said.
“Staying in a hotel doesn’t mean that guys won’t sneak out or make certain decisions,” Hearns said. “It just minimizes the distraction.”
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. Of that amount, about $12 million came from student fees and $15 million from the university’s operating budget, which is comprised primarily of tuition and state money.
A handful of FBS schools elected not to stay in hotels in 2018, often citing the high costs as a factor, but the Rutgers football team spent more than $66,000 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. “They could use it to cut tuition. They could use it cut student fees, which are basically tuition in disguise. They could hire more faculty. They could have a merit-raise program.”
Killingsworth said the large sum of money spent on hotels is “pretty hard to justify” when the football team has its own facilities on campus that could serve the same purpose.
“It’s just a symptom of the kind of anything-goes fiscal atmosphere of big-time college football,” Killingsworth said. “Nothing is too good for our student athletes.”
The University of New Mexico football team was one of eight schools that opted not to stay in hotels ahead of home games as a cost-saving measure. But in August, the school announced it would resume the practice this year.
Assistant Athletic Director Frank Mercogliano said the savings were minimal and largely outweighed by logistical hassles.
“Due to the stadium being set up for the game the next day, the team could not adequately meet the night before or the day of the game,” Mercogliano said in an email. “And the team didn’t have anywhere to eat a pregame meal or a Friday night meal after meetings because any area that would have been used was not available due to the game.”
According to The Albuquerque Journal, the decision to resume the practice was made at the urging of head football coach Bob Davie, who became worried about the safety of his players after a New Mexico baseball player was fatally shot in May.
“That is a dangerous, dangerous thing to be not keeping a college football team in a hotel the night before a game,” Davie is quoted as saying.
No hotel room accommodations are being made for the university’s baseball team, however. Only the school’s football and men’s basketball team get home-game hotel rooms, Mercogliano confirmed.
The other seven schools that chose not to stay in hotel rooms in 2018 — Appalachian State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State — 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?”