Colleges Add Stadiums to Game Plan

More university stadiums now come equipped with luxury seats and private clubs designed to attract wealthy fans.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Frank Broyles, athletic director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, knows to win at college football, a school must play the game.

Winning in the 1990s, though, hinges on more than a star quarterback. College football has become a thriving business where image is everything and money no object in a game of one-upmanship.

"In this day and age, you have to keep up with the Joneses," says Mr. Broyles. "It is an established fact that playing in a top-notch place decides who wins and who loses. In the end, a nice stadium not only benefits the fans, it gives us an edge in recruiting."

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Colleges are spending millions to build palatial stadiums to lure alumni and their checkbooks. Meanwhile, chasms are forming between the haves and have-nots - women athletes and academics. "The whole picture seems out of bounds," says Tom McMillen, a former college athlete, congressman, and member of the defunct Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "It is troublesome because colleges are going down the commercial lane.... You are going to have a big earthquake at some point. Players will want to get paid. The Internal Revenue Service will want to start taxing this income. Women will demand equity. It's a hot football, so to speak."

From plush alumni clubs to cushy theater seats, colleges are spending millions to create country-club atmospheres for wealthy fans rather than for students.

"It's all about competing for the entertainment dollar," says Jim Kier, a director of sports architecture at HNTB Sports Architecture in Irvine, Calif. "Alumni supporters want the same accommodations on the college level as they do in pro venues."

IN 1996, the University of Texas in Austin began a $90 million project to refurbish the Longhorn athletic facilities, including the 74-year-old Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial football stadium.

The school has added nearly 6,000 "prime" seats in key locations, as well as 52 luxury seats. In a few months, a 24,000-square-foot private club, which will offer year-round catering services, opens. On game days, the club will be an exclusive retreat for fans who buy certain seats.

"You can't keep increasing ticket prices," says Chris Plonsky, associate athletics director at the University of Texas. "When you add prime seats, you are able to sell tickets at a higher price.... When you add a club that alumni will visit year round, you get additional support."

Ohio State University in Columbus also believes it takes money to make money. The school started its $150 million athletic renovations last summer, incorporating sky boxes to cover the costs of the project, which will be finished in 2001. "There are no general operating funds of the university for this project," says Jill Morelli, university architect and assistant vice president. "We have to get money from donors, bonds, and ... athletic revenue."

Revenue is crucial these days in the college sports arena. Traditional sources - ticket sales, broadcasting, and philanthropy - simply don't pack the financial punch they once did. By taking notes from professional teams, schools are offering lavish perks and hoping for huge returns.

Suites at some schools range from $20,000 upward to $50,000 a season. Club seats sell in the low thousands. But creating a pro-football setting isn't for every school. An initial multimillion-dollar investment is required, and a large fan base must exist to support the plan.

But when it comes to the bottom line, colleges have a clear advantage. With a professional team, "owners have to pay employees - the football players," says Paul Lawrence, an economist at Price Waterhouse in Washington and author of a book on the NCAA. "You don't have to pay a college team." But, he adds, colleges are always looking for ways to increase already-impressive profits. "It's about wanting more, more, more."

The need to attract top recruits and TV air time jump-started Arkansas's Broyles to initiate a plan. Recruits looking at Arkansas are left to compare Razorback Stadium with facilities like the University of Tennessee's 107,701-seat Neyland Stadium, the largest in the US.

"It's frustrating to see other teams in your conference with bigger and better places," says Broyles. "It affects your game."

Arkansas is one of only five schools in the Southeastern Conference with fewer than 80,000 seats. Broyles plans to add 15,000 seats to the 50,000-seat stadium, as well as a restaurant, sky boxes, and premium club seating. He is prepared to spend $50 million and has asked renowned architects to create designs that will stand out among the competition. For example, New York architect Peter Eisenman's design uses huge lollipop-red ramps that curl around the stadium's rim.

Some mid-size schools are trying to get more renovation for their dollar. Montana State University in Bozeman overhauled its stadium this year for $10 million. Contractors built new grandstand seats, 32 sky boxes, and a club that seats 200. "We got a lot of bang for our buck," says Bill Lamberty, sports information director at MSU. "The sky boxes create an unbelievable revenue source for us."

While such elite trappings may seem less collegiate than the old days of bleachers and hot dogs, stadium advocates say the money made also helps fund less popular sports such as soccer, swimming, and women's sports. Broyles says Arkansas's expansion will almost double football earnings, from about $6 million to about $11 million per season.

But as athletics continue to become a big business, some wish for simpler times when the focus was students instead of the bottom line. "There's a purist in me that would like to have college sports more pristine," says Jim Livengood, president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.

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