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Colleges add luxury touches to new stadiums

Posted: August 19, 2014 - 6:35pm

AP SPORTS WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Lining the brightly lit hallways of Populous, one of the leading architectural firms behind college sports, there are hundreds of scale models and graphic renderings of college football stadiums in various stages of renovation and construction.

There are blueprints for Kyle Field at Texas A&M, in the midst of a $420 million redevelopment. There’s a model of TFC Bank Stadium at Minnesota, the recent replacement for the Metrodome as home of the Golden Gophers. And there are pictures of McClane Stadium, the glitzy new home for Baylor.

Each project showcases ways Populous is helping schools to lure fans to their next-generation stadiums in an era where good seats are not enough: enhanced Wi-Fi, better video boards and party decks for socializing. The results are twofold: The flashy facilities offer a better game-day experience while also generating more revenue than their predecessors.

“When you do a stadium, it’s not a normal building. It’s a building, but it has to wrap this big stage where all this athletic drama takes place,” explained Jeff Spear, a senior architect at Populous who’s been responsible for many of the projects, including the Baylor stadium. “What they want is a reflection of their university and a stadium that sells their brand.”

When it comes to trends in stadium design, the folks at Populous are experts. The Kansas City-based company traces its roots back more than three decades, and has been responsible for everything from Reliant Stadium in Houston to the main Olympic stadiums in London and Sochi, Russia.

“The thing about college football is it’s this big event where you’re rooting for your alma mater,” Spear said, “and now your alumni are returning to campus and spending money.”

That’s the hope, anyway.

Flat-screen televisions have made the home viewing experience better than ever, and the rising costs of tickets and travel have sent many fans to watch games from the comfort of their couch. It’s a problem that has plagued professional sports for years but has trickled down to colleges, where the prevailing notion was that the alumni would always show.

At Tennessee, in the heart of the football-crazed SEC, attendance sagged for years before a modest bounce-back last season. Yet empty seats still abound at cavernous Neyland Stadium, even with recent improvements that reduced capacity, improved premium seating and offered other enhancements, such as LED signage, better restrooms and wider concourses.

In the Big Ten, eight schools showed a decline in average attendance last season.

“We’re grateful that we continue to sell out our stadium during some times in which it’s not as easy as it once was,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “People have chosen to allocate their resources somewhere else. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are less interested in following their favorite sports team. There are other demands on their resources.”

To counter those demands, Oklahoma recently announced a $370 million renovation to Memorial Stadium that will hardly add a seat. Instead, it will create new plazas — “fan cooling areas,” for example — improved team spaces and the kind of sizzle that appeals to recruits.

Elsewhere, stadiums are being tricked out with wifi that allows fans to not only stay better connected but also access replays, statistics and other information on mobile devices. Schools are adding bigger high-definition video boards and better sound systems. And they’re going away from traditional grandstand seating in favor of clubs, loge boxes and other priority offerings.

Many schools are flush with cash from the recent round of TV contracts, so they are pouring into upgrades that offer a return on their investment. And well-heeled donors not only have the disposable income to spend on loge boxes and luxury suites, they also can use them as a tax deduction because they are classified as contributions to the school.

Baylor is a good example of these trends. When school officials met with architects from Populous, they could have asked for anything; they were building from scratch rather than renovating. And what they asked for was a capacity of about 45,000, making McLane Stadium one of the smallest venues in a major conference.

Yet school officials believe the stadium will produce more revenue than Floyd Casey Stadium, the Bears’ aging home a few miles away, because of its myriad of seating options: Pay a bit more to go from bench seating to chair backs, a little more for the club level, a little more yet for loge boxes, and still more for premium suites that feature private entrances, food and beverage services, flat-screen televisions and other perks for the highest level of comfort.

“We have a different seat with a different price point to sell to whatever interest level,” said Todd Patulski, Baylor’s associate athletic director for finance and administration.

“With TVs and other reasons that fans have for staying home, you have to create differences for them. They don’t want to sit on a bench and hope they don’t get rained on.”

All of that planning appears to be paying off.

Buoyed by its Big 12 title and the allure of a new stadium, Baylor sold out its season-opener in minutes. Tickets for the rest of the season have been snapped up at a rate unseen in years.

“They sold all their suites, and then they sold out all their loge boxes. They had 73 of them,” Spear said, clearly delighted by the response. “And then they call us up and they’re like, ‘Can we add more?’ And we’re like, ‘No! You didn’t charge enough!’”

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