Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Sports Facilities

Places to Play

campus sports facilities

For college athletics-facilities managers, competition is not just on the field or court—it is the field and the court. Once confined to fight songs, mascots and sports teams, school rivalries are now manifest in the ever-escalating amenities and architecture of campus stadiums, arenas and training facilities.

It’s a robust business that to a large extent has proved recession-resistant. Over the course of the past decade, many athletic departments in the Power Five conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific 12 — have built or renovated football and baseball stadiums, volleyball courts, soccer fields, golf practice facilities and hockey arenas. The Chicago Tribune reports that from 2004 to 2014, spending on athletic facilities at these schools nearly doubled, growing from $408 million to $772 million.

Sports directors know that when deciding on stadium and arena improvements, there are multiple audiences that must be served by the new design: the players/athletes, the fans (both students and alumnae, who are often big financial boosters of the school) and — with increasing importance, given their unspoken role as potential financial rainmakers — recruiters for high school prospects and professional teams.

campus sports facilities

PHOTO COURTESY OF SCHAAFCW

Making Sense of Dollars

The economics of university sports facilities is a complex equation, involving broadcast agreements, sponsorships, a variety of funding sources, student fees and more. Because of this complicated scenario, a realistic understanding of the budget is critical, and must be determined well before the architectural design phase begins.

Responsive cost modeling is a planning tool that can bring much-needed clarity to the process. An algorithm-based method of estimating the complex expenses of a construction project by analyzing fixed and variable factors, cost modeling can provide the direction that gets a project off on the right financial foot, putting college athletic facility development on the road to success.

Because of its dynamic nature, responsive cost modeling offers the ability to see how changes in one area of a project can affect the entirety. Here’s a simple, hypothetical example: At face value, expanding a stadium’s capacity by 8,000 seats would increase the facility’s revenue. Running that idea through cost modeling, though, might reveal that the expense of adding so many seats would outweigh the income they would generate; in other words, the return on investment would not be realized for several years. Further adjustments to the model could lead to the conclusion that the optimal economic solution would be to construct 4,000 new seats.

As illustrated in the accompanying chart on page 38, which illustrates the basic cost breakdowns for an “average” stadium, there are elements of facility design that are common to virtually all projects. The façade, framing and interior partitions are standard structural components, while furnishings, finishes and equipment are unique to each building. Cost modeling each of these attributes can streamline the design process and open up new possibilities for the functionality and the aesthetics of a sports structure.

That said, of course, every stadium or arena is destined to be different, often owing to circumstances of geography or climate. The heat in Arizona or Texas, for instance, can be so oppressive that open-air stadiums in those regions are inconceivable; roofs can be retractable or fixed. This in turn impacts utility expenses for the facility. Passive heating and air conditioning systems consume less energy than conventional HVAC systems.

Incorporating sustainable materials and mechanical systems in athletics buildings is a popular practice on higher education campuses. With many colleges adopting ecofriendly policies regarding facility construction, a school’s reputation as an environmentally conscious institution has proven to be even more important than its official compliance with regulations. That fact, coupled with decreasing prices for “green” building materials, makes it easier to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification or satisfy sustainability initiatives dictated by the institution.

campus sports facilities

Appealing Assets

High on the list of essential features for both new and renovated stadiums is wireless service, which has become central to a satisfactory fan experience. From using mobile apps to track the shortest lines for refreshments and bathrooms to live-tweeting the game, attendees require a hefty amount of bandwidth. Cutting into existing structures to install IT pathways is time-consuming work, which makes retrofitting facilities with tech upgrades expensive. For new-build projects, it’s wise to design with the future in mind, anticipating innovation by including ample conduit channels. “Ample” can be quantified: To supply WiFi at speeds up to 30 times faster than at other facilities, Silicon Valley-proximate Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers) used approximately 31 feet of fiber optic cable for each of its 68,500 seats, for a total length of more than 400 miles.

Another must-have amenity are concession stands. On a square-foot basis, these relatively small areas are responsible for producing an impressively large amount of revenue. While typical hot-dog-and-beverages counters suffice for most areas in an arena, that proletarian menu changes in the vicinity of the VIP sections. Occupants of luxury boxes have higher expectations for food and beverage services, and catering to them accordingly is one way of enticing these patrons to renew their highly profitable suite licenses.

campus sports facilities

COUNTING DOLLARS MAKES CENTS. A Washington Post review of the athletic departments’ financial records from 48 schools in the five wealthiest conferences in college and university sports revealed that money spent on facilities is one of the main reasons why otherwise profitable or self-sufficient athletic departments run deficits. With this in mind, savvy administrators can keep their eye on the ball, and the larger picture of their budgets and bottom line, by using planning tools such as responsive cost modeling before a shovel ever breaks ground on a new project.

Supplementing these core features are the behind-the-scenes design options that schools use to set themselves apart from others. Perhaps not surprisingly, these features have a more niche appeal, geared to impressing prospective student-athletes. Football players at South Carolina’s Clemson University will be able to choose between unwinding with a round of mini-golf or taking in a movie — just two of the recreational amenities to be found at their new training complex, currently under construction and slated to open in 2017. An in-house barbershop ensures that athletes from the University of Oregon are ready for their close-up come game time. At Eastern Washington University in Cheney, WA, the recreation center features a bouldering wall that simulates ascending an ice-covered cliff, among other terrain challenges. The University of Southern California’s John McKay Center boasts a digital media production center and a two-story video screen.

Confronting a Fickle Fan Base

However efficient cost modeling can be at forecasting the physical reality of stadiums, though, it can’t predict human behavior — a fact that’s underscored by more than a few high-profile case studies of college athletic facilities that didn’t live up to expectations. In 2009, the University of Akron in Ohio completed construction of a $62 million stadium. While the facility seats 30,000 people, average attendance at games in 2014 was disappointing, with below 10,000 in the stands. Such a shortfall on the anticipated revenue generated by ticket sales contributes to the school’s debt, which has led to higher fees for students as well as staff layoffs.

Applied to more concrete aspects of a sports building, cost modeling provides athletic facilities managers with a clear view of the future, allowing them to control costs without sacrificing creativity.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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Has interest in sustainability initiatives—from alternative energy and water conservation to “green” landscaping, recycling, fossil-fuel divestment, local sourcing, and more—waned on your campus?


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