What if you build it and they won’t come?

This (h/t) is a pretty sobering assessment of bond-financed stadium expansions.

Attendance is declining across the board (“Even the University of Alabama, a perennial powerhouse playing in Monday’s national championship game, is reducing capacity in 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, White said.”), but spending on facilities continues at almost the same rate as ever.

About $3 billion of bond-financed college football stadium projects are underway or completed over the past five years, according to a Bond Buyer review. That’s down about $300 million from the height of the “stadium arms race” in 2013.

A report from Moody’s Investors Service five years ago found that on average, the athletic operating expenses of Division I universities had nearly doubled since 2004 compared to growth of 58% for total expenses. In that report, Moody’s itemized risk factors for college football, including the threats of lawsuits over head injuries, rising coaching salaries, the threat of disciplinary measures over recruiting and demands for player pay, among others.

What’s an athletic department to do?  Why, that’s easy.  Go upscale with the fan base and whore yourself out to Mickey.

Five years later, report author Dennis Gephardt, a Moody’s analyst, says that major colleges and universities have managed to maintain athletic revenues through sales of luxury boxes and premium seating along with lucrative television contracts, factors that make empty student seats a less urgent concern. Even the so-called Power Five Conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference — have seen attendance fall in recent years.

How troubling are things getting?  Take “even Tennessee” as your canary in the coal mine.

The University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees approved a two-phase, $340 million renovation in November 2017. The work was to be completed by the start of the 2021 season, when Neyland celebrates its 100th year.

The $180 million first phase of the project was to be funded with bonds, fundraising, athletic department revenues and partnerships. Construction was to start this year, but Tennessee’s new director of athletics hit pause on the project.

On Nov.1, Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer, who’s been on the job less than a year, announced that his department is continuing to review the Neyland Stadium Master Plan Renovations.

“To be very clear, I am super excited about the Neyland Stadium project going forward in the near future,” Fulmer said at the time.

Construction on the first phase of the renovation project has been delayed to provide more time for two classes meeting in the south stadium hall to move out, Fulmer said, adding that renovation plans were also under review.

“We simply need time to study all ideas of scope and design as we seek to maximize the fan experience and our return on investment for the next 100 years of Neyland Stadium,” he said.

Attendance at games wasn’t mentioned as a factor that caused the project to be delayed.

Of course not.

Anyway, just think about the likely ramifications of game attendance becoming less financially significant.  And despair.


Filed under College Football, It's Just Bidness

27 responses to “What if you build it and they won’t come?

  1. ASEF

    It’s an even larger problem at schools that don’t have a SEC-type following. Watching ACC schools throw money at their stadiums, which are mostly empty by the end each season, is head-shaking.

    I’ve attended multiple games in Athens, Knoxville, Clemson, Tuscaloosa, and Chapel Hill, plus one offs elsewhere. Traffic has to be the number one deterrent. Getting in and out on game day can mean getting out the door at 7 am and getting back home at 2 am if you don’t live in that community.

    Finding somewhere to stay has gotten insane as well. Hotel rooms on game weekends have gone sky high. Like, $800 a night high. As a result, more rural game sites have cheap apartments on the outskirts of town that double as tailgating centers. Season ticket holders are signing 12 month rental contracts to stay there on game weekends and run their tailgates in the common areas. But what do people who want to attend a game or two do?

    So, what is each program’s optimum capacity – the one that maximizes the amount of money the program can make, constrained in part by what it’s surrounding community and infrastructure can handle?


  2. Athens Dog

    That upper deck in Sanford will have a tarp over it in the not too distant future…………………

    Liked by 1 person

    • Russ

      You’re probably right, and it will be sad.

      I went to a game at Rice a few years back. Nice size stadium (original capacity 70k) that hosted a Super Bowl and Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon, but now averages well under 20k. Giant tarps cover the entire seating in both end zones. Not saying we’ll be there, but I’m sure the reduction in attendance is coming. Mickey don’t care, just throw up a green screen.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mick Jagger

      That upper deck is the ugliest addition onto our beautiful stadium. Asymmetrical and looks like crap.


    • Anonymous

      Nope. They will tear it down. The support structures for it occupy the space they need to build out more restrooms, concessions, bars, etc. they will need to serve higher paying customers. I also expect them to tear out the middle sections of the 2nd decks to create loge boxes, suites, and club seats.


    • The Dawg abides

      Nah, that’s where the peons will sit after the lower bowl gets chair back seating and the south 200 section is turned into a luxury pavilion, pushing capacity down to around 80k.


  3. Otto

    Is Bama reducing capacity because the seats are not selling or they can make more money with luxury seating?


    • Bryant Denny

      See my reply below. It has been my understanding there is a waiting list for Tide Pride seats, but I could be wrong. There are certainly always tickets available for the Citadel-type games, etc.


  4. Butler Reynolds

    If you pine for the good old days, to come even close you might just need to attend games at a small college that doesn’t appear on TV or just mosey over to a high school game. Maybe.


    • TN Dawg

      One of my nephews played ball at University of the South at Sewanee.

      Truly a pleasurable experience to watch games there. Parking was an optional $3 donation to the local Boy Scout troop.

      Attendance was free or whatever you wanted to donate. Festival seating. Cookouts going in the field next to the stadium.

      Attendees were 90% students and family.

      I’ll take that over the clusterf*ck at Neyland Stadium and dealing with all the drunk Vawl fans 100 times out of 100.

      I will say I saw the Dawgs in Kentucky this year and it was a pretty good experience save for traffic in and out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • FlyingPeakDawg

        We’re going to adopt the Air Force Falcons (during reasonable weather) for home games and maybe catch a game or two of the fightin’ Bobo’s just to get a sense of what once was.


        • TN Dawg

          I bet the Air Force games will be great.

          My other nephew played ball at Yale and we made the trip up to catch the Harvard games during his time there. Also an excellent time, especially at the Yale Bowl. The halftime shows where the bands put on little shows to razz the opposing schools are an absolute hoot.

          The ironically named Yale Precision Marching Band is a real treat as well.


  5. Bryant Denny

    My wife’s family has been buying the same season tickets at Bryant-Denny since the 1950s. We took over the tickets some time ago and the typical Tide Pride donation is about $3,000 per year for four tickets. The seats are right beside the public address announcer.

    The donation for those seats is going up to $16,000 annually beginning next year. Tide Pride gave us several options that ranged from “paying the man” to paying the same current donation and being moved to wherever in the stadium that got us.

    We typically give the tickets away and haven’t gone to a game in a couple of years. Needless to say, we won’t be “paying the man.”

    My feeling is that UA knows they have tapped out individuals and are now moving to tap corporate money (in terms of buying seats, suites, etc.). That’s one reason why they are comfortable reducing the number of seats in the stadium.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dawgfan

      Damn. $3k to $16k? I’d tell them what they could do with their tickets too. I hope they at least offered you a cigarette.


    • Macallanlover

      Yes, and a “corporate crowd” isn’t the hook that got most of us interested in CFB or placed it at such a high level on our fall social calendars. It hasn’t been the same for many years, and it looks like it will move further away from the foundation CFB in the South was built on. Won’t get to be a Super Bowl type level of corporate, but enough that the fabric will be unwoven. The Grove might be the last to hang on, but traditions will begin to erode there as well. Was great while it lasted, but this century hasn’t been kind to traditions.


      • Tony Barnfart

        The Grove has gotten to be a cluster****. Sure, it has great ummm scenery and it’s a spectacle, but it’s wall-to-wall cookie cutter real estate leasing. I don’t think individual fan groups can even go there and set up a tent anymore–you sign up with a university approved vendor and it’s largely for season long contracts. Wall to wall rented real estate. For a while, I thought we should model everything we did (or didn’t do) on North Campus after the grove. With the state of things they are now, the north campus restrictions may serve as a last effort to preserve the laissez faire atmosphere of a yesteryear tailgate.


        • Macallanlover

          Probably so, haven’t been for a while. Should just live with the memory when it was true fans using their own creativity at their “tailgates”. Scenery always nice, but our girls dress just as nicely and match them for beauty. Same for Bama, it is TN, Florida, and LSU that have no game in that department. Sloppy attire and less sophisticated, imo.


    • Russ

      Damn, that’s cold blooded. Had the same seats since the 50’s and now they’re booting you. Unfortunately, I suspect the story is the same at other schools.


    • That sucks, B-D. I would be pi$$ed.


  6. DawgPhan

    The experience is pretty terrible at most SEC stadiums. They need to do something about improving it and reducing capacity and putting in seats, would be great. The Kentucky stadium wasnt that bad in concession areas, which was a nice change of pace from places like Sanford and Neyland where the concession/bathroom areas are super tight and packed with people.


  7. James Payne

    The real problem is that schools have priced themselves out of the market of fans who would come to the games, but can no longer justify paying the increased prices of tickets, parking, and concessions when they can stay at home in the comfort of their own living rooms and watch the games for nothing. The revenues from TV coverage are not independent of their effect upon the revenues from fan attendance and participation. If it is possible to provide the fan attendance experience at a price that is reasonable to the fans, they will come, and they will fill the stadiums.


  8. Mick Jagger

    What James said. ^


  9. Mick Jagger

    As a Mercer grad, I have to say the smaller college/university experience on game day is great!


  10. steve

    UT had to postpone the Neyland renovation to pay Chaney