Thrive, Play Ball

Nike founder Bill Bowerman famously said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” Campus recreation centers are places where all students can let that athlete shine. Be it a pick-up game of basketball, a Zumba class, or just hanging out with friends, rec centers offer students a chance to stay active, connected, and competitive. As schools recognize the importance of recreation as a recruitment tool, centers have grown into a nexus of wellness and development by including medical care, counseling, and lounge spaces. What does this holistic approach mean for the future of the campus rec center?

The role certainly has changed with the times. “In the ’50s and ’60s, the student union was the important, showcase building,” says Michael Thrailkill, project manager, Yost Grube Hall Architecture. “But starting in the ’70s and picking up speed in the ’80s and ’90s, the focus has shifted to the rec center. Now the student union is like a formal living/dining room, while the rec center is the well-used family game room.”

A room that’s high on the list of visiting high school seniors’ priorities. The majority of incoming students haven’t settled on a major yet, but they do know they want a positive college-life experience. That’s where the recreation center comes in. 

The Recruitment Angle
“Recreational sports play a huge role in self image, identifying with a group, and bonding,” says Dr. Donna E. Shalala, president, University of Miami and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. “The most popular place on our campus is the wellness center. It’s a powerful recruiting tool.”

It’s a tool that speaks to all students, no matter their fitness level. “Eighty percent of high school athletes do not move on to the NCAA level,” says Eric Hawkes, director of campus recreation, Florida Atlantic University. “But they still want to compete, stay engaged, and be healthy while on a university campus.”

Rec centers also attract the non-athlete. “Not everybody is interested in Greek life,” continues Tim Stevens, principal, Sasaki Associates, Inc., “but everybody needs a place to call home. The recreation center has become that home.”

Research shows that students agree. The Impact of College Recreation Centers on Enrollment Study, published in the Recreational Sports Journal (October 2010) concludes that, “an institution’s outdated facilities can deter new students in favor of another institution that offers up-to-date facilities with robust programs and services.” The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) also found that three out of four students indicated that they participated in some form of on-campus recreation, in their Consortium Campus Recreation Impact Study (2010), administered by StudentVoice.

More Than Just a Place to Work Out
The smaller the campus, the more important the rec center is. NIRSA found that colleges with fewer than 5,000 students saw 87 percent of the population participating in on-campus recreation, as opposed to 71 percent of participation on campuses with more than 5,000 students. “It’s important to faculty families as well,” says Thrailkill. “Small college towns may not have lots of nearby activities, so families rely heavily on the student rec center.”

School departments themselves are taking advantage of student recreation in a different way. “Post-graduate business schools are hearing that the job market wants better team-building and community organization skills from their graduates,” reports Thrailkill, “so their students practice these skills by administrating recreation programs. We also find that physical therapy students practicing on intramural and recreational athletes.”

But that’s just the beginning of the new ways students and administrations are looking at rec centers. In fact, the word “rec” may soon be obsolete as more schools move to a more holistic approach to health. For instance, California State University, Sacramento has just opened The WELL, a 151,000-sq.-ft. recreation and wellness center that embodies Wellness, Education, Leisure, and Lifestyle (WELL) all under one roof.

“This is one-stop shopping for the everyday student,” says Martin Bovill, AIA, vice president, Business Development for Hornberger + Worstell, whose firm completed the project in association with Ellerbe Becket. An atrium serves as a radial passageway that sends visitors in the right direction. Looking for the pharmacy, lab, or physical or mental therapy? Turn left. Looking for the sports courts, cardio/weight training, or yoga? Turn right.

“Administrations are catching on that the best health care is preventative,” says Colleen McKenna, associate principal, head of Sports and Recreation, Cannon Design. “And students want recreational and social spaces layered into one.” To that end their University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh Student Recreation & Wellness Center features a cyber café and lounge with a fireplace along with the workout areas.

“Breakout spaces become more and more important,” agrees Thrailkill. “If a student is waiting for the rest of her team to show up for a volleyball game she can do homework or check email, or a commuter student can relax between classes and workouts. Students need a comfortable transition zone.”

Outfitting the Facility
What students want once they are ready to work out has changed over the years as well. Free weights, weight machines, and cardio equipment like treadmills and stair-steppers still rank high. The design of these spaces is welcoming, with lots of glass, light, and mirrors. “These spaces are always crowded,” says Stevens. Group exercise rooms are also important. “Yoga, spinning, and Zumba are hot right now,” he continues.

Climbing walls are a dramatic addition, but not always practical. “They don’t have universal appeal,” explains Stevens. “They are expensive and require operational oversight.”

Thrailkill agrees. “In the ’70s, everyone built specialized racquetball courts, but then that fad died down,” he says. “Flexible spaces that can easily accommodate the next big thing are a better investment.”

Sport courts are always important. The trend is to have at least one Multi-Activity Court (MAC) with urethane floors and dasher boards for sports like indoor soccer or in-line hockey along with the traditional hardwood basketball court. “We recently did a small court with turf for indoor soccer,” says Thrailkill. “People questioned it at first, but with a small court you can have a pick-up game with a small group. It’s lots of fun.”

Check the Price Tag
Good health and fun aside, these facilities come with a hefty price tag. The NIRSA Collegiate Recreational Sports Facility Construction Survey 2010 reveals that 82 colleges and universities have just completed or are involved in recreational facility planning, construction, remodeling, and /or expansion projects through 2015. The average expenditure for each new construction, addition, remodel, and/or expansion is $13.2M. These numbers are down since the 2008 survey.

Yet they are still substantial. Traditionally, student rec centers are funded exclusively with student fees, with students voting on increases that range from $40 to $100 a semester. That, however, may change.

“Only five to 10 percent of the student body ever votes on the issue,” says Thrailkill. “Does that really serve the entire student population? There may be different funding solutions found down the line.” 

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