November 23, 2012
Summary: Commentary article from the Montgomery Advertiser on the long-term prospects for ASU football now that they have a new on-campus stadium.
Way back in 2001, I wrote a column in which I encouraged Alabama State to build an on-campus stadium.
At the time, a powerful board of trustees member had come up with a plan for the stadium, along with a move up to the NCAA’s top football level.
It was a bold move that was supported by a majority of people on the ASU campus. But it was getting resistance from a couple of board members — one in particular — and eventually that plan fell through.
I assumed it was a dead idea. With the renovations of Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl and the steady deterioration of the SWAC — the conference in which ASU competes — I figured the idea of an on-campus stadium had been pushed to the back burner, maybe even completely off the stove.
I figured wrong.
ASU officially opened the doors to its shiny, new stadium, as it welcomed a packed house to an on-campus Turkey Day Classic against Tuskegee, which the Hornets lost 27-25.
At the stadium, fans found 20 suites, four locker rooms, an impressive lounge for recruits and a state-of-the-art stadium that would make any small college proud. It is much nicer and much more expensive than the one proposed back in 2001.
But it’s still just as good of an idea.
There is one simple fact when it comes to southern college economics: Football drives everything.
Just this past Sunday, on the news show “60 Minutes,” a report on the importance of the sport on universities’ bottom lines highlighted just how much of an impact football can have on the university as a whole. Not only does football revenue fund upwards of 75 percent of most athletic budgets, it also is a major factor in marketing the school and ultimately attracting students.
And not just in the upper levels, where the coaches haul in millions and 100,000-seat stadiums are packed on fall Saturdays. It works the same on the small college level as well.
A winning football program draws local athletes to your school. Local athletes draw local fans. Local fans produce local, potential students.
The first step to selling anything — well, almost anything — is getting the customer in the door. And there’s no better sales ploy for a university, especially in this part of the country, than football.
But to compete on any level, you need the players. Which means you need all the shiny toys — like new stadiums, top notch weight rooms and training facilities and nice amenities throughout the campus — that attract those players.
Now, with all of that said, simply establishing a football program and building nice facilities doesn’t guarantee athletic success, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee financial success. Not when you’re on the hook for the sort of dough ASU has dropped recently.
The 26,500-seat stadium alone cost the school $62 million — that was $12 million over the original projected cost — and is part of a master plan that will eventually see the university spend $600 million by the year 2035 to modernize its campus. More than $200 million has been spent in just the past six years to renovate buildings and put up new ones.
And ASU has already raised tuition more than 40 percent since 2008 and jacked up student fees.
That has left the school not in bad financial shape, but certainly in a bit of a precarious position. Raising tuition and fees again, by any significant amount, isn’t a viable option.
And that means there’s one choice here: Good business.
Going forward, in order to generate the money necessary to pay for the construction already completed and to raise the funds necessary for additional construction and the day-to-day operations, ASU officials are going to have to make sound business decisions. They’re going to have to be bold and flexible. They’re going to have to get creative. And they’re going to have to be relentless.
Talking with ASU chief operating officer John Knight earlier in the week, it’s obvious ASU officials have spent a good deal of time planning for the future and how they’ll use this stadium — not just for ASU football games, but also for other events, such as soccer tournaments.
“We plan to work with the City of Montgomery’s sports commission so we can be on the list of venues when the city attracts events,” Knight said. “We’ve hired a marketing firm to look into several options for us. We feel very comfortable with where we are and our possibilities going forward."
I’ll say that I have much more faith in ASU today than I did a few years ago, when cronyism and backward thinking routinely led to poor, often confounding decisions.
Those odd decisions have mostly stopped, and the school is in much better financial shape today than at any point in the past 10 years.
But there are still enough oddities, especially where this stadium is concerned, to worry.
Prime example: Where is athletic director Stacy Danley?
For a good chunk of the last year, Danley has been absent from the ASU campus. He’s still getting paid, and he’s still technically the AD, but he hasn’t been involved in a major decision there in months.
You can’t have that. Not now.
The new place won’t fill itself. It won’t attract other sporting events. It won’t turn a profit and pay for itself.
Finding big money games and exploring the option of finding another conference — an option Knight said was on the table — are tasks for an AD. You need one that people can actually see and put their trust in.
Because in addition to all of that hard work, it’s also going to take smart businessmen trusting ASU to handle their important events or to provide them with the proper advertising for their sponsorship dollars.
The money is out there. This place can be a success.
It can be something that helps transform ASU into a completely different place.
But whether it’s ultimately a success or failure is up to ASU.