On Saturday, the curtain will rise on the upcoming FBS college football season with a Big Ten matchup between Nebraska and Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The event, dubbed the Ireland Classic, is being held after two previous attempts at holding the cross-the-pond series were halted 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 moved to Champaign, Ill. by default.
While the burden of these disruptions fell deeply on the teams and host countries, perhaps the biggest loss was the Classic’s co-owner, Anthony Travel, a Dallas-based college sports travel agency acquired by Venue Experiences in 2016 and later swallowed up. In the Endeavor entertainment enterprise three months before the epidemic.
John Anthony, the company’s eponymous founder and CEO, described the canceled 2020 Classic as “the biggest event anyone has ever seen.” In its planned pantry, the game would play host to the first production of ESPN College GameDay on foreign soil.
Instead of a million-dollar bounty, the occasion turned out to be one of the largest returns in Anthony Travel’s 33-year history, with at least 10,000 people making game-related purchases through the company.
All of this has only raised the stakes for the phenomenon at the heart of Anthony Travel’s growth ambitions: converting college sports followers into casual travelers.
More than 30,000 fans are expected to attend Saturday, with Anthony Travel estimating that more than 16,000 of them have engaged the company’s services in some way as part of their trip. That involvement can range from simply booking a plane ticket to purchasing an eight-day, three-city, all-inclusive Irish tour package.
“It’s the next and biggest development of the entire lifecycle, if you will, because it’s a global world, and universities claim to have a global presence,” said Anthony, who has spent much of the past month in Dublin, attending 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 faced 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 Iowa-based, family-owned Shorts Travel Management — this upcoming academic year will showcase their divergent approaches to both serving and profiting from the space.
Anthony Travel gained its footing in the early 1990s by handling the university athletic travel needs of John Anthony’s alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. The company currently contracts with about 90 Division I athletic departments, providing all of them with on-site account managers, for an annual fee typically $75,000 per employee per year. That’s one aspect that makes the Anthony Travel a more expensive option for athletic departments, though the company insists that its volume more than makes up for the discounts and agility.
In fact, where COVID once appeared to be an existential threat to travel agencies, Anthony says the pandemic has ultimately strengthened his business: In the last 12 months, 47 athletic departments have renewed their contracts, and 10 new departments have signed contracts.
“Our value is at its highest when someone is in a time of need,” Anthony said.
The Ireland Classic builds on Anthony Travel’s long-standing endeavor — following the journey of college sports fans, while handling the nitty-gritty of teams moving between contests.
To that end, many of Anthony Travel’s contracts with athletic departments include specific terms granting the company the right to serve as the school’s exclusive fan travel agency. Anthony Travel also engages separately in special fan-travel arrangements for the travel needs of university alumni and booster organizations, as well as serving faculty and staff with main campuses or entire university systems.
While it continues to grow its university operations, there have been hiccups. Earlier this spring, University of Pittsburgh faculty protested the school’s pandemic-era policy requiring all university travelers to book through Anthony Travel or Conquer, an online expense management tool. In April, after several faculty leaders complained to school administration about their experiences with Anthony Travel, the school withdrew a policy that allowed for alternative booking options in the event that university travelers could find a better rate.
“From Anthony Travel’s perspective, service levels have returned to their highest level,” a company spokesman said. Sports.
While Anthony Travel has consistently tried to grow beyond the athletic department, its main competitor has kept its ambitions in check.
Founded in 1946, Short’s Travel Management entered college sports in 2003, when it won an NCAA travel management contract for all of the association’s season-ending championships. Two years later, the company began contacting individual schools about regular-season travel needs, which is now 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 to the late 2010s and the unilateral divestment of his company. Short finally returned to the intercollegiate arena about five years ago and, after the pandemic, made college sports his dedicated focus.
“We decided that the corporate side of the business wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” Dohmen said.
Short’s currently has about 70 travel management contracts with athletic departments but, unlike Anthony Travel, has declined to pursue fan or other types of university-related travel.
Last year, the company made waves when it won back the Florida State athletic travel account from Anthony Travel. Rose Murton, FSU’s chief procurement officer, said that amid the economic downturn from COVID-19, the school was motivated to find cost savings, particularly on charter flights, which it was moving its business to.
Contrary to the Anthony Travel standard of physically embedding its employees in athletic departments, Short’s handles nearly all of its university accounts remotely, believing it enables the company to attract a better talent pool.
“One of our slogans is we were away before the remote was cool,” Dohmen said.
In FSU’s case, however, Shorts agreed to maintain an on-site agent, per the school’s request.
Anthony Travel argues that, despite advances in technology, the constant contingencies involved in college team travel are still best tended to by having an agent in the hall from coaches and athletic directors. Anthony says that since the summer, dozens of its schools have requested an additional site agent as part of their ongoing relationship.
For now, travel agencies are in DI customer acquisition mode, creating some notable jostling in SEC country. Last year, Anthony Travel announced an agreement to serve as the conference office’s official travel partner and this past January won a competitive bid for Vanderbilt Athletics, a former client of Short’s. At the time, the Commodores gave Anthony Travel the sixth SEC program, along with Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Missouri. Six months later, however, Short’s Missouri is far from Anthony Travel; Short also holds 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 Christopherson, a corporate travel management company.
In the Big Ten, Anthony Travel wields influence, serving every conference athletic department except for one loyal short client in Minnesota. Anthony Travel also deals with 2024 Big Ten members USC and UCLA, and rumored hopefuls Stanford and Oregon.
Anthony said Sports The consolidation of wealth in college sports will likely guide his company’s future partnerships. Over time, the company may see fit to limit its contracts to certain types of college football powers.
“We want to be where it makes sense,” Anthony said. And where it makes sense it can include more exotic destinations.
Anthony said Sporty He is in serious discussions with at least one other foreign city about hosting the inaugural college football matchup besides Ireland. He declined to provide further details.