SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Facilities

Rare I-A stadium project draws interest

The stadium, which still has funding hurdles, would return the Gophers to campus.

Sports architects don’t get many opportunities to design new NCAA Division I-A football stadiums, and that’s why the University of Minnesota’s plan to build an on-campus home in Minneapolis is high on their list of projects to pursue.

Only five I-A football venues have been built in the last 18 years, according to SportsBusiness Journal research. The majority of the 117 Division I-A schools renovate their existing stadiums because they don’t have the available space for new construction or the money to pay for it, designers and builders say.

Minnesota is different: The Golden Gophers have played football at the publicly owned Metrodome in Minneapolis since 1982. The team hasn’t drawn capacity crowds at the downtown facility except when Iowa and Wisconsin, two schools within a five-hour drive, come to town and help fill the venue’s 63,699 seats, said Joel Maturi, the school’s athletic director.

School officials have said they want to recapture the true flavor and spirit of the college game by having the football team return to campus.

Crawford Architects completed a preliminary design for the university that proposes a 50,000-seat stadium with 39 suites and 1,500 club seats. The project cost would be $235 million, with the stadium itself priced at $180 million, Maturi said.

The Minnesota project provides designers the chance to set the bar in terms of planning a modern collegiate facility that goes beyond the game-day football experience, a building that could accommodate classrooms, said Crawford’s Tom Proebstle.

“The way we’ve argued it is if there’s an opportunity to find a way to integrate the stadium into the campus, they should do it,” Proebstle said. “Previously, they’ve been nothing more than an engineering project and not fully ingrained into the master plan of the campus.”

Creating a stadium that generates revenue beyond ticket sales and concessions is imperative in this era of big-time college athletics, and few football facilities have been built with premium seating and sponsorship zones to collect additional income, he said.

“Division I schools are struggling with the concept of competing with the NFL for dollars,” Proebstle said. “Their coaches are getting plucked by the NFL with multimillion-dollar contracts. Colleges are forced to pay them [more money] and are trying to figure out a way to pay for it.”

At the same time, however, universities are having to “walk a fine line between their athletes and other students … if they should build a shrine to those athletes and the [negative] image it portrays,” he said.

“There’s always tension in maintaining the proper balance between academics and athletics,” said John Poston, director of collegiate sports for Ellerbe Becket, designer of the two latest I-A stadiums, UConn’s Rentschler Field and SMU’s Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

Minnesota plans to raise about $140 million in private financing and is asking the state Legislature to approve the rest in bond money, Maturi said.

“We believe it will be passed this session, in May or June,” he said.

The Gophers were once planning with the NFL Vikings to build a shared facility. Both teams, along with the MLB Twins, have fought unsuccessfully in the Legislature to get public funding for new stadiums. Maturi’s keeping his fingers crossed that the state will finally OK the project.

“We believe our plan is solvent on its own and we’re going to be here for a long time,” he said. “We’re not going to be the L.A. Gophers.”

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Colleges, Football, Minnesota Twins, NCAA, NFL

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