If You Build it, They Will Come
Football season has ended, the bowls have all been played and we have a new national champion. For the Utes, the focus now turns to winning the recruiting battle and looking ahead to the 2017 season.
Generally, the offseason is the time when projects are announced around the athletic department. Room, meet elephant. The elephant I am referring to is the fact that Utah has the second smallest stadium in the Pac-12. The stadium seats a quaint 45,017 people, beating out Washington State’s Martin Stadium by roughly 10,000 seats. Compare this with USC’s Coliseum at 93,607 or the Rose Bowl at 92,542 people. Am I saying that Rice-Eccles needs to seat 100,000 people? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that some expansion is definitely in order as the program continues to gain traction in the national picture.
It pains me to see that while we finish another season nationally ranked, BYU has LaVell Edwards Stadium that seats 63,725. In a recent statement, athletic director Chris Hill said that he didn’t want to “lose sell-outs” because the stadium has expanded. I understand Hill’s concerns, seeing that the Cougars have a hard time filling their arena week-in and week-out, but the Utes rarely play an FCS team on a Thursday night at 9 p.m. With the schedule Utah plays, adding 12-15,000 seats would be no problem. I’m sure those who are stuck with standing-room-only would be extremely grateful for a place to sit between quarters.
We like to claim the MUSS as the best student section in college football. I hate to break it to you Ute fans, but 6,000 students is nothing. In 2014, Texas A&M set an NCAA record for student attendance with 39,800 students. Their student section could nearly fill Rice Eccles Stadium. Penn State, ranked the No. 1 student section by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, boasts 21,000 students who sold out the section in six minutes. In order for the MUSS to be truly great, the stadium has to grow. Utah has 32,061 students, meaning about 20 percent of the student population is able to join the MUSS.
On all of the forums that I browse, blogs I follow and Facebook fan groups I’m a part of, there are fans week-in and week-out begging for tickets. Every story you can imagine comes up. From parents coming into town to long lost friends to servicemen and women coming home from deployment wanting tickets. These people either don’t get their wish or they are forced to spend $120 plus per ticket in order to attend the game.
Is Hill really concerned about the stadium not selling out? Or is this about keeping ticket prices high? The stadium is packed every week and the standing room is three to four people deep at the top of the stadium. People are willing to pay a small fortune for tickets and we don’t think we could sell out the stadium? Keeping the stadium small keeps demand high and keeps tickets a hot item.
If I were the athletic director, I would expand the stadium, even if it were only by 10,000 seats or so. I would fill in the south end-zone with seats and, to create an original feel, I would put seats at the top of the Fieldhouse, like at Wrigley Field. This would add to the MUSS, give those fans who are looking for last minute miracles a chance and fill the small remainder up with a few visiting fans. We pay coaches and build facilities to match the top one-third of the Pac-12 and I think it’s time our stadium reflects where our goals align.
Bigger is Not Always Better
You know what I hate? Keeping up with the Joneses. It is unnecessary and it leads to pointless arguments and headaches. In the end, this philosophy of doing what everyone else does only leads to more problems than solutions.
Why do I bring this up? Because there are so many Ute fans who want to pursue this philosophy by expanding Rice-Eccles Stadium. Let me give a caveat here: expanding the stadium isn’t necessarily a bad idea — in the future.
Too many fans believe that we need a stadium expansion to fit in with the rest of the Pac-12. After all, Rice-Eccles Stadium is one of the smallest venues of all the schools in the conference. But it’s a bad idea.
First, we have to look at the cost of expanding, which would be millions of dollars. While there isn’t an exact figure, the number would be astronomical. The money has to come from somewhere. Either it would have to be bankrolled entirely by wealthy donors or the university would have to raise fees and who wants to add more expenses?
If we expand the stadium, we also have to look at expanding parking areas. Either you have to build new parking garages or raise the fees for parking permits and have more people take TRAX. But the second option won’t work, because TRAX is already jam packed every single home game and it wouldn’t be able to handle the extra capacity. That leaves us with building a new parking structure, something incredibly expensive. By way of comparison, the new parking garage located east of the south medical tower cost about $13.6 million to build.
All it takes is one walk around campus to see how much work the U is already doing. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere on campus without seeing some type of construction. There are so many projects happening now that you have to wonder about the university’s priorities. It seems like expanding the stadium isn’t a top priority, and it shouldn’t be. There are many other projects that could and should be worked on before the stadium.
In addition to all of this, one has to take into account the fact that Rice-Eccles is one of the better venues in the conference. When the Olympics came to town in 2002, they left saying that the stadium was one of the nicest venues they have ever used. Out-of-towners repeatedly say how Rice-Eccles is better than their own. There have already been several investments into the stadium, the most noteworthy being the new video board at the south endzone.
Extra seats don’t do anything if they aren’t being used. Utah may have a great streak right now of selling out home games, but just a few short years ago that wasn’t the case. They only sellout when the Utes have a shot at having a good season.
We also need to look at what expansion would look like. The most common belief is that the work done would be to connect the south endzone with the rest of the stadium. It may add a couple hundred new seats, but I see two problems with this. The first is that these seats are cheap corner seats; not exactly the ones that will net a ton of money. The second is that the south endzone is generally where the students sit and students get into the game for free. More seats that attract students aren’t going to pay off financially.
I’m not against ever expanding the stadium, but we have to realize there is only so much money to go around. Every dollar spent on that one project is one less dollar that could be used elsewhere. In a few years, let’s talk about expansion. But right now is the wrong time to have this discussion.