At what point does UF enter arms race?

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.

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.


  1. I don’t believe that an indoor facility is necessary. I also don’t believe facilities are a major factor in where someone chooses to go. UF will not lose recruits to FSU because of facilities. They could lose them due to being an inferior program, this year is critical in that regard since UF has the inside track on many of the state’s best players. If UF falters on the field again this year, it could have a crippling effect for years. IF you think I’m being an alarmist, I just will remind you of what has happened to Tennessee since they fired Fulmer. I just hate to see such a critical year depend on Jeff Driskel improving. But you play with the hand you’re dealt, so there’s no sense crying about it.

  2. Stay in the black and keep the course. With the potential of the NCAA’s regulation of football dissapearing in the near future, being financially stable and independent may come in handy. The arms races are fun while they last, but take a look at the economic stability of the recent housing crisis, same principle – overspending…

    Perhaps “keeping up with the Joneses” becomes a major issue, then Foley can look at changing his revenue development approach. He could always sell out to corporate america and put a nice company name and logo on the stadiums. I’m sure there are a few firms willing to pony up several million a year to change the name of Florida Field or the O’dome.

    I love the history of our facilities and do agree that we could make some improvements in a lot of areas (although space is limited). However, I think that fiscal responsibility, and his responsibility to the University is more important than having the best facilities. I’ve been to almost every football stadium in the SEC, Florida Field may not be the nicest, but the experience is unique and one of the best in the leagues…

    One last thought… What happens to these other schools that are in major debt and then the universities have to go towards a pay-the-players mentality. How are they going to afford to pay all of their scholarship athletes? Where is this money coming from if they are already riding in the red? How much more overspending can you do before the bottom drops out?

  3. The most glaring need is the Mac. It would not require additional space to add a roof to the stadium. It is impossible to enjoy an afternoon game at the stadium and that happens more and more with television dictating the start-time for games. The recent series with Vandy is a good example, on Friday night there was a great cowd when the game started at 7:00 PM, and then come Saturday the game was played at 1:00PM and the crowd was pathetic because it was so hot, Most people will not sit in that heat to watch baseball. All games with the exception of Sunday games should be played in the evening and the afternoon games would be more enjoyable with a roof covering the main seating area, leaving only the left-field bleachers uncovered.

  4. I disagree about the indoor practice facility. It is much needed for football during Fall practices. Not only is the temperature raging HOT in Gainesville in August, but I know we have had to cut practices short or miss them entirely due to the weather. Yes, these practices are almost always made up at some point in time, but we are lagging behind our competition. That is a fact!

  5. If we wait until we start losing recruits, we have waited too long. We are already lagging in the middle of the pack and that is not a position Florida needs to be in. We need to be in the top 3 in all facilities to maintain our pride in Florida. Seventh is not good enough for Florida. Foley and Machen made the mistake of all mistakes when they fooled around and let Steve Spurrier go to South Carolina. The old ball coach should have been brought back to Florida to finish his career. He would have wound up being the legend of SEC Football along with Bear Bryant. I have never believed Foley was a good AD and over the years he has made monumental mistakes that have hurt the Florida program. Donavan is without a doubt the best Basketball Coach in the country. He is still a winner despite the obstacle of the terrible arena he has to recruit and coach players to win championships.

  6. Being financially sound is as important or perhaps more important than “keeping up with the Jones”. Eventually the bill comes due. I’ve been to every football stadium in the SEC. All of the experiences were different……some great, some lukewarm. I love BHG and how the spectators are right on top of the action. I didn’t particularly care for my lower level sideline seat with a track plus the bench separating me from the action on the field at a couple of our conference ‘s stadiums. If the argument for an IDPF is the heat……guess you better add a domed stadium as well. It gets a bit warm during our games as well. I appreciate the diligence displayed by Jeremy Foley being a great steward of our financial well being. I think everyone in the Gator Nation will agree being in the black is better than being in the red!(ha, ha……a reference to UGa)