Home Field Advantage

Shrinking athletic budgets, fierce recruitment battles, and increasingly demanding fans have universities scrambling to make the most of their football stadiums.
August 11, 2010

College athletics is big business, and football is the granddaddy of them all.

In 2004, the top 10 NCAA Division I-A football programs raked in a combined $417.87 million in total revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education. The University of Texas topped the list with $47.5 million, but even mid-tier Division 1-A schools like the University of Oregon, Boston College, and Stanford University generated well more than $10 million in revenue last year—enough to make any university president salivate.

But while college football programs are experiencing a financial windfall like never before, the stakes have also been raised. The cost of operating a football program has grown exponentially, with ever-increasing stadium expenditures, fierce recruitment battles, and coaches' salaries approaching—and in some cases surpassing—that of their counterparts in the National Football League.

Universities are also increasingly leaning on their football programs to support other athletic programs, most of which operate in the red. All the while, college athletic departments are getting less and less funding from state governments and the universities themselves.

"Athletic departments today have to be self-sufficient financially," says John Poston, managing director of Ellerbe Becket's Kansas City, Mo., sports practice. Thus, today's athletic departments must function more like corporations, with football as their blue-chip operation.

As a result, universities are turning to Building Teams to help revamp and remake their outdated stadiums in an effort to squeeze every dollar out of their existing fan base, while minimizing operations and maintenance costs and improving the total game day experience.

Hottest ticket in town

Nearly all renovation, expansion, and new construction projects include the addition of premium seating. Universities have seen the success professional sports teams have had in selling high-price skyboxes and special club seats, and are now looking to cash in themselves.

"Universities see the pro model as something that is valid, because you can only sell so many tickets," says Dan Meis, AIA, president of Nadel Architects, Los Angeles, whose collegiate and professional stadium projects include the renovation of Louisiana State University's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.

In most cases, universities are banking on the future revenue generated from premium seating sections to pay for the upgrades and amenities for the general fan base. That was the case at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where the revenue from three levels of new box suites and club seats helps offset the costs for widened concourses, additional restrooms, and expanded handicapped seating areas at Camp Randall Stadium. Designed by Berners-Schober Associates, Green Bay, Wis., with Madison-based Arnold and O'Sheridan Inc. as structural engineer, the $109 million project also added a five-story office structure for the athletic department, ticket offices, a retail store with views of the field, and two scoreboards fitted with video-quality screens.

"Box suites and club seats have become more vital as state and university funding for athletics shrinks," says Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor with the university's facilities planning and management department. In Wisconsin's case, the premium seats were "extremely vital" to the four-year renovation project because the athletic department received no state or university funding. "We needed a sound business plan," says Fish.

With an annual price tag of $49,000, Camp Randall's 72 private box suites will generate more than $3.5 million in yearly "dues" for the athletic department. The 927 club seats will pull in an additional $2.1 million a year in fees, not including the cost of the individual tickets. Fish says the university had no problem selling the box suites, which come complete with cushy seats for 20, catered meals, and retractable glass walls that allow Badger fans to feel closer to the action.

Selling high-price box suites is not always easy, says Ellerbe Becket's Poston. Suites located at or near midfield go quickly, but those near the goal lines can be a much tougher sell, sometimes forcing universities to reduce the fees for these units.

Rather than lower fees, Poston recommends spicing up these skyboxes with additional amenities like retractable glass walls, flat-screen TVs, and other bonus features. For instance, the goal-line box suites at the University of Oregon's Autzen Stadium were designed with outdoor terraces that allow patrons to get some fresh air while watching the action on the field. "These were the first box suites to sell," says Poston.

Several universities are experimenting with a hybrid premium-seating configuration, called loge box suites, that combines the service, amenities, and privacy found in box suites with the lower price tag and "in-the-crowd" experience of outdoor club seating. More common in professional basketball and hockey arenas, loge boxes typically include four to eight cushioned swivel chairs, multiple countertops, TV monitors, and a dedicated wait staff for food and beverages. Each box is sectioned off by railings and has direct access to semi-private restrooms and a club lounge with hotel-quality finishes, where patrons can socialize with other loge suite users without missing any action on the field.

"They're similar to the traditional box seating sections in the old baseball stadiums, but with all the amenities of a suite," says Randy Bredar, AIA, VP of HNTB Sports Architecture, Kansas City. HNTB served as design architect for the recently completed renovation of Oregon State University's Reser Stadium. The $80 million project added 50 loge box suites with a private club lounge, 22 luxury suites, 3,300 outdoor club seats, 15,000 chair-backed seats, and 3,000 bench seats. Tucked beneath a new upper-deck seating level, each 16×16-foot loge suite has four free-moving plush chairs, four countertops, a flat-panel TV, radio and press-box sound options, climate control, and a private entrance with elevator service.

Loge boxes are especially attractive for universities that don't have a large pool of local corporate donors or private boosters that can afford to dish out $30,000–$50,000 a year for a luxury box suite, says Jay Lenhardt, sports venue consultant in the Plano, Texas, office of CSL International, Wayzata, Minn. He served as a consultant on the Oregon State renovation and is currently working with HOK Sport, Kansas City, on Washington State University's planned expansion and renovation, which will also include loge seating.

Major universities are buying into the loge box concept based on the potential for additional revenue, says Scott Radecic, senior principal with HOK Sport. "On a per-seat basis, loge boxes tend to be the highest revenue driver," says Radecic, a former All-American linebacker at Penn State and a 12-year NFL veteran with Kansas City, Buffalo, and Indianapolis. Like club seats, loge suites are "very space efficient," sharing common areas like restrooms and a lounge, says Radecic. But loge seats can generate as much as twice the revenue of club seats.

For example, Oregon State is charging $12,000 a year for each loge box, or $3,000 a seat, which is nearly double the revenue of the highest-premium club seats and 26% more per seat than the entry-level box suite.

Doing double-duty

A growing number of universities are looking to generate revenue year-round by renting out the high-end club lounges and box suites for private parties, banquets, and other social events.

A recent expansion and renovation of Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium added an upscale box suite for the university president with an attached 5,500-sf lounge that can accommodate 200 people. "The university uses the space for functions year-round because the campus had a need for spaces like that," says Radecic, whose firm designed the renovation. "It's the nicest lounge and event space on campus."

Nonetheless, Radecic advises clients to weigh the maintenance and operation expenses of year-round facilities against the potential revenue. "When you're bringing hundreds of people into club lounges and suites year-round, there's going to be much more wear and tear on the high-end finishes," says Radecic. Staffing is also an issue. "Most colleges don't have large enough staffs to clean, operate, and manage these facilities 365 days a year," he says.

Universities are also maximizing the functionality of stadium space by locating retail stores, athletic offices, workout facilities, student-athlete cafeterias, and ticket offices inside the stadiums.

Forming partnerships with other campus departments can reduce the financial burden on the athletic department and, in some cases, create unique learning opportunities for students. Officials heading Washington State University's stadium expansion and renovation, for instance, are in talks with the School of Hospitality Business Management about using the stadium's kitchens and service areas as classroom space.

Catering to tailgaters

Universities are asking Building Teams to help enhance the tailgating experience for fans. "A lot of schools recognize that tailgating is part of the game-day atmosphere," says Chris DeVolder, project architect with 360 Architecture, Kansas City, design architect for the University of Central Florida's planned stadium in Orlando. Set to open in the fall of 2007, the venue will have designated parking for tailgating and restrooms along the perimeter of the facility with exterior doors that will allow tailgaters to use the facilities before the games.

The University of Iowa's Kinnick Stadium will also offer tailgater-friendly restrooms as well as outdoor concessions before and after the game as part of the second phase of its renovation, to be completed next fall.

HNTB is even bringing a form of tailgating into the stadium. Large plazas at the four corners of the facility provide field-level views of the gridiron, so that fans can stand and watch the game while socializing with their friends. "The idea is that people can enjoy the game without having to sit in their seat all game," says Bredar.

The plazas, modeled after popular baseball stadiums like Camden Yards in Baltimore, can comfortably accommodate 500–800 people each. "It's about creating an environment that's more festive," says Bredar.

Keys to a football stadium makeover

Goal Solution
Increase revenue Premium seating at multiple price points
Host private social events at the stadium
Design for future expansion of premium seating
Enhance fan experience Gathering areas with views of the field
Efficient and convenient transportation
More restrooms and concessions
Wider circulation paths and concourses
Cater to tailgaters Access to stadium restrooms before/after the game
Designated parking
Increase functionality of stadium Box suites and club lounges that double as banquet halls
Create spaces within the stadium for vital campus functions (e.g., athletic offices, retail stores)
Pre-wire the stadium and press box for radio and broadcast TV


Turf war: Which field system is ideal for your next stadium project?


Native soil/natural grass field Amended native soil field Engineered topsoil field Reinforced natural grass field Knitted nylon (AstroTurf) Synthetic infill systems
*Cost depends on the local climate and ancillary systems, such as drainage and irrigation.
Source: Patrick Maguire, president of Geller Sport, a division of Geller DeVellis Inc., a Boston-based landscape architecture firm.


Description Native soil found in a given area topped with natural grass. Makes up the vast majority of athletic fields. A native soil/natural grass system, but with sand and/or compost added to the soil. System is composed of a blend of specialized sand and organic matter, such as compost or peat moss. System incorporates synthetic material to strengthen the field (e.g., polypropylene nets in the sand to strengthen the root zone or poly-propylene grass blades inserted into the grass surface). Introduced in 1960, AstroTurf is a knitted-nylon carpet originally placed directly over asphalt or concrete. Later generations incorporated subsurface padding for player protection and comfort. Composed of a carpet of tufted polyethylene fibers in-filled with a combination of sand and rubber.
Benefits Very inexpensive; durable; excellent playing surface when well cared for. Requires a lower crown (typically 1.25–2% slope); amended soil allows for more efficient internal drainage and improved grass-growing properties. Drains extremely well; resists compaction; field is playable almost immediately after a storm. Can handle more extensive use than a typical field; green polypropylene grass blades can mask wear areas. Can handle extensive use; requires little maintenance; can accommodate permanent field lines; low cost per use. Can handle extensive use; similar to playing on natural grass; uses recycled materials and requires little maintenance; can install permanent field lines; cost-effective; playable in virtually any weather; low cost per use.
Drawbacks May require excessive crowning (2–3% slope) for adequate drainage, which may not be conducive to sports like soccer; not always immediately playable after a storm; requires periodic maintenance, such as re-sodding and re-crowning, in addition to routine maintenance (i.e., watering, fertilizing, and aeration); prone to compaction. Requires imported materials, which increases cost; achieving a uniform mix throughout the field can be difficult. Requires imported materials, which increases costs; requires extensive maintenance (watering, fertilizing, over-seeding); coarse material used to improve drainage is abrasive and can wear down grass crowns more rapidly; often shows wear patterns more rapidly. Very expensive; typical cultural maintenance activities, such as aeration, are more difficult; not as ideal for cool-season fields (e.g., Kentucky bluegrass/ryegrass) as warm-season fields (e.g., Bermudagrass). Abrasive playing surface; fairly expensive; not ideal for most sports; preferred only by high-level competitive field hockey (FIH and NCAA Division 1). Field surface can get hot (may require watering system to keep the field surface cool in warmer climates); high initial capital cost.
Cost* $1–2.50/sf $2.50–4/sf $5–13/sf Add $5/sf to base cost of a natural grass field. $2.50–3/sf base cost; $9–12/sf surface cost, including padding $2.50–3/sf base cost; $4.50–6.50/sf surface cost
Typical application Suitable for community athletic fields used for all sports (may not be conducive to soccer if the field requires excessive crowning for adequate drainage). Suitable for community athletic fields used for all sports. Suitable for modestly used competition fields for all sports, except high-level field hockey. Suitable for high-use competition/stadium fields for all sports, except high-level field hockey. Ideal for high-level field hockey. Ideal for high-use fields for all sports, except high-level field hockey.