>The Arms Race Goes Public
>Over the Memorial Day weekend many of us fell “behind” on the news. LTP was no exception and in my usual sweep of all things Northwestern, I realized this Teddy Greenstein piece had slipped past me. In the article, Greenstein actually was able to get quotes from AD Jim Phillips, Bill Carmody and even Fitz. Carmody was the most outspoken about the need to “update the whole place” meaning Welsh-Ryan Arena. As you read, his top priorities are a new scoreboard and creating purple-back seats at least in the lower arena. More on this in a minute.
The note that really caught my eye was Phillips’ acknowledgement of being in the middle of a master plan for facilities that would address most athletes’ needs. That is the plan I want to get my hands on. Most of you at some point have speculated on upgrades to Ryan Field and Teddy writes that Fitz and the football program have indeed made inquiries for a new weight room, offices and then TG put his own personal hot-button topic of LTP – knocking out some stands to reduce capacity. While I’m with Teddy in spirit on ensuring there are no eyesores on TV, I’m not about long-term reduction of capacity. As recently as 12 years ago we were averaging in the 40,000+ per game. While I’m certain that renovations to the stadium won’t hurt, I’m not sure that is the solution to boosting attendance and in Teddy’s defense he didn’t make that claim.
The bigger picture dialogue here is the arms race in college athletics. You’d be surprised how many times recruits will pick one seemingly obscure nuance at a place that makes the difference. “They have a fruit smoothie bar in their weight room!”. “They have Wiis at every locker!” Don’t think NU recruit are immune to being swayed by seemingly minor details. I believe it was Hudaifa Ismaeli, arguably the ‘Cats most athletic DB ever, who chose NU in part because he liked the black uniforms.
Michigan’s ill-timed renovation (plans were started well in advance of the economic collapse of 2008) is near completion. The Big House just got bigger – and much more plush – with the installation of luxury boxes around the entire stadium. To see this in person is absolutely mind-boggling as it relates to the size of the renovation. The cost? Oh, just a quarter of a BILLION dollars. That’s right, the addition of luxury boxes cost almost as much as Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium ($288 million), but nonetheless, the Gophers have brand-spanking new digs. What is the part of the stadium that gets the most pub? You got it, the nation’s largest locker rooms. Even the proletariat programs like Indiana have got in to the act. Many of you have expressed a desire to see NU borrow design improvements from the Hoosiers, who last year completed a north end zone enclosure that has an enormous weight room facility, classrooms and looks pretty darn slick as part of a $55 million athletics renovation. The Illini also recently completed a $100 million renovation which added 14,000 seats, enclosed the horseshoe, added a new scoreboard and added luxury boxes. Come to think of it, name a school that hasn’t had a major renovation or upgrade in recent years?
Northwestern’s $4.5 million Welsh-Ryan lockerroom renovation barely qualifies as it was 15-years overdue and that money spent barely gets us in the 11th spot as far as hoops facilities go. The “major” renovation of Dyche Stadium to Ryan Field was 15 years ago (“opened” in 1997)which in the athletics facilities arms race is considered a generation. The total cost for the largest football renovation in our lifetime? $30 million. Granted, I haven’t adjusted the dollar amount for inflation, but that doesn’t even hit the radar screen in Big Ten renovation parlance.
Heck, and I’d settle for a P.A. system that worked. Seriously though, there is a part of me that likes the charm of doing so much with so little. I have a hard time in these economic times to justify a 9-figure athletic facilities upgrade, but considering NU is the lone wolf in the Big Ten that wouldn’t be siphoning tax dollars from unwanting folks (see TCF Bank Stadium) it is hard for me to say “don’t do it.” I’d love to tap in to Darren Rovell to see what studies exist that equate collegiate national championships – in ANY sport – to increased value of the organization. What’s the value of five lacrosse national championships (which by the way, Northwestern is the home to what many believe is the best women’s lacrosse facility in the nation) to a school? What’s the value of a national champion softball team? We can actually calculate the value of a national championship using other school’s data.
I always feel as though facilities are the chicken-egg debate of collegiate athletics. You want the best facilities to ensure you compete on an even playing field recruiting-wise. If you get the best talent, you’ll win and “the fans will come (or keep coming if you’re established).” The flip side is show me you can draw fan interest presumably by winning and we’ll upgrade your facilities. Let’s face it. When it comes to revenue sports, NU is not on an even playing field. You can eliminate more than half of the potential recruits by simply getting their report cards emailed to you. The question is are the kids we’re recruiting – and as WildcatReport.com noted this week they are indeed of higher athletic caliber (4 recruiting targets we’re in the mix for are among the top 100 in the country) – going to nix NU because of facilities? To a point I would argue “no” – at least in football. We’ve got a dynamic coaching staff and a proven track record. We’ve got character kids who make recruits feel at home. A new scoreboard? Absolutely. Better game day experience? No question. However, I’d rather – in football – we add a “zero” to the marketing budget and spend considerably to raise the purple factor on the conscience of Chicagoland. I’m all for master planning and ensuring facilities make progress, but I think our sequencing is off. Perhaps this all being parallel pathed, but I know the University has not supported a realistic marketing budget for NU Athletics to make any kind of marketplace spend.
Hoops is a slightly different story. When you’re fighting history, everything needs to reek of progress. I absolutely love the “charm” of Welsh-Ryan, but it needs a massive overhaul. The scoreboard is indeed a joke. It reminds me of a dot matrix printer, you know the kind you could hear scanning each line from a different area code. I love the acoustics in that gym as it is a very tough place to play when the students actually decide to show up. If you’ve ever been to Cameron Indoor Stadium then you know that winning tradition trumps everything, because aside from some mahogany wood around the interior, the gyms really aren’t that much different. Duke has prestige from being the best program in America over the past 25 years, Northwestern’s facility is considered rinky-dink because of lack of success. No, it isn’t fair, but neither is life, right?
Let the favorite off-season topic get really started…have fun.