At the University of Arkansas, which already has the best athletic facilities top to bottom of any school in the Southeastern Conference, they are busy expanding Don Reynolds Stadium, increasing capacity from the current 72,000 to 80,000. This is part of a $300 million master plan to upgrade all the facilities over the next 30 years and keep the athletic plant the best in the SEC and at least on par with the best in the entire country. Arkansas will be the first school in the SEC with an indoor baseball training facility.
Texas A&M, whose facilities are right there with Arkansas as the best in the SEC and rank among the best in the entire nation, is spending $450 million to renovate and expand Kyle Field. When the construction is complete, expected before the 2015 season, Kyle Field will hold 102,500, making it the largest stadium in the SEC. Much of the hefty pricetag for stadium expansion will be paid by alumni and boosters, who raised a combined $740 million in 2013 for academics and athletics, and the rest by the increased revenues from the SEC thanks to its new network.
At LSU, an upper deck is being added in the south end zone that will increase Tiger Stadium capacity to more than 100,000 at a cost of $75 million.
Mississippi State is spending $30 million in improvements for Davis Wade Stadium that will include eliminating the north end zone bleachers and turning the stadium into a 61,337-seat bowl.
Ole Miss, which is also building a brand new basketball arena, is turning Vaught-Hemingway Stadium into a bowl, increasing capacity to 71,000 at a cost (for both projects) of $105 million.
Faurot Field at Missouri is increasing capacity to more than 77,000 at a cost of $72 million as part of a master plan to expand the stadium to 90,000.
Kentucky, which is spending $400 million to upgrade Rupp Arena, is downsizing Commonwealth Stadium by 6,000 seats, but the $110 million construction job will include 28 more luxury boxes and offer more and better seats for boosters in the non-luxury areas.
South Carolina has just signed a contract to build a $14.5 million indoor practice facility. For years there has been talk of adding an upper deck to the north end zone of Williams-Brice Stadium, but instead of a new upper deck more luxury boxes will be added and capacity of the 80,000-seat stadium will increase by just 2,500-4,000 seats.
Georgia, which is spending $10 million on expansion and improvements to its baseball stadium, is raising the money to build an indoor practice facility. Georgia is also expected to approve expansion of Sanford Stadium to 102,000.
Outside the SEC but close to home, Florida State just opened up a shiny new indoor practice facility, built at a cost of $15 million at a time when the Donald Tucker Center, where the Seminoles play basketball, is in serious need of $100 million in work and Doak Campbell Stadium needs upgrading to make it more fan friendly.
Meanwhile, at the University of Florida, Jeremy Foley keeps a tight lid on spending. There are no immediate plans for an indoor practice facility even though Florida will probably be the only school in the SEC without one by the time the 2015 season starts and there are no plans to expand Ben Hill Griffin Stadium beyond its current 90,000 capacity. The only major renovation project on the drawing board is one to give the decrepit Stephen C. O’Connell Center a much needed $50 million facelift, a project that hasn’t begun yet because the money hasn’t been raised to
Currently, Florida’s athletic plant would rank no better than seventh in the Southeastern Conference and that could drop a couple of notches in the next couple of years with the widespread expansion and upgrading of facilities that is taking place throughout the league. Currently, the facilities (not just football) in the SEC would rank: (1) Arkansas; (2) Texas A&M; (3) Auburn; (4) Tennessee; (5, tie) Alabama; (5, tie) LSU; (7) FLORIDA; (8) South Carolina; (9) Georgia; (10) Missouri; (11) Kentucky; (12) Ole Miss; (13) Mississippi State and (14) Vanderbilt.
All the construction, renovation and upgrading going on around the SEC raises the following questions about the future of Florida athletics – Are the Gators about to be left behind in the arms race? Or is Foley the only athletic director maintaining a level of good common sense by taking such a conservative stance when it comes to spending the money on UF facilities?
Florida’s facilities aren’t bad nor are they great.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is an icon but it lags far behind Auburn as the best place to watch a football game in the league.
The O-Dome is a dump but to its credit, it is a serious home court advantage for Billy Donovan. The new gymnastics training facility added to the O-Dome is outstanding but the swimming facilities lag far behind the rest of the league.
McKethan Stadium offers no covered seating and is no better than the seventh or eighth best ball yard in the SEC. It can’t come close to comparing to Alex Box Stadium (LSU), Carolina Stadium (South Carolina), Baum Stadium (Arkansas) or Blue Bell Park (Texas A&M).
The track, soccer, tennis, golf and softball facilities are above average but none would rank among the best in the SEC. The only UF athletic facilities which rank #1 in the SEC are lacrosse and the fact that UF is one of only two SEC women’s lacrosse programs (Vanderbilt is the other) might have something to do with that.
Currently, Florida’s facilities are adequate. They could be better but other than the O-Dome, none of them really hinder recruiting. While improving the fan experience is always one of the catch phrases we hear when talking about upgrading the athletic facilities, reality is that facilities improvement will be driven by two things: (1) money and (2) recruiting.
Money. Florida’s athletic budget is $110 million with revenues in the $120 million range. The SEC Network is expected to increase the current league per school payout from $21.5 million per year to something like $35 million. With an additional $13.5 per year in revenue Foley will have the option of expanding or improving facilities without significant increase in the debt service.
Recruiting. Foley does indeed understand that recruiting is the lifeblood of the athletic program. If he perceives that recruiting is hindered by the facilities, he will insist on upgrades, renovation and/or expansion. The moment he perceives that Florida is losing recruits to another SEC school or to FSU, he will make a move but even then, anything he does will have to make fiscal sense.
A hot topic among fans and boosters is Florida’s lack of an indoor practice facility, particularly now that FSU has one. If Jeremy Foley perceives that FSU’s indoor facility is giving the Seminoles a distinct recruiting advantage, then and only then will he consider adding one in Gainesville. Until then, he will answer questions about an indoor facility with questions: (1) is this a wise use of money; (2) how many practice days are actually lost due to the weather and (3) where would you build it since there are limited options on campus?
As long as the Gators aren’t losing recruits to FSU, it’s highly doubtful Florida will get an indoor practice facility and as long as the overall facilities don’t hinder recruiting, he will maintain the same conservative approach that he has for 23 years, which means (1) money will be spent wisely for renovations, upgrades and expansion of facilities without excess extravagance and (2) there will be adequate income to cover the debt services years into the future. There will be no sweating out payments years from now because it was important to keep up with the Joneses. Foley would rather the Joneses have to sweat out how they’re going to pay for things while the Gators keep the athletic department fully funded and in the black.
So while there is indeed an arms race going on with college athletics, ask yourself which approach you would rather take: (1) Plunge the University of Florida athletic department deep into debt and hope there are no changes in the revenue patterns that provide payments; or (2) continue a pay as you go approach that keeps the debt manageable and allows the athletic department to remain in the black?
The in the black approach seems to be working quite well and has for some time now.