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FAU stadium: If they will build it, who will come?

By Charles Elmore

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

At Florida Atlantic University, this season's home football games didn't come until October in a stadium a county away from the school's Boca Raton campus.

FAU has a band, cheerleaders and a 6-year-old program that has beaten the likes of Hawaii, but would like a few more fans like Dennis Mensch.

Empty seats have outnumbered spectators at every home game this season at 20,000-seat Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Mensch, a season-ticket holder from Tamarac whose daughter graduated from FAU, has tolerated raindrops and weeknight kickoffs to see the Owls - something most of the school's students have not managed to do.

Mensch said he is fascinated to watch coach Howard Schnellenberger, stalking the sideline in a jacket, tie and Bear Bryant-like scowl, try to build from scratch a program to compete at the highest level of college football.

"I've been a season-ticket holder since the first game," Mensch said before FAU's Oct. 12 home opener against Southern Utah. "I get great seats, right on the 40-yard-line, but I can't stand this stadium. I think if they build a stadium on campus, a lot of the kids will come."

But should FAU build it if they haven't come?

One national critic of athletic spending calls FAU's proposed 40,000-seat stadium a looming "train wreck." The school's president and athletic leaders say an on-campus dome would mesh perfectly with plans to enhance the school's image, academics and atmosphere.

FAU trustees are scheduled to meet today to discuss stadium options, including a plan to pay for a $146.9 million dome partly with revenue from new student housing and retail shops in an "Innovation Village." An outside developer would build it and keep a guaranteed share of the profits.

The total price tag for the stadium would be $181.6 million including "soft costs" for items such as design, permits and insurance.

The question is whether FAU can justify a 40,000-seat stadium when it cannot fill half of Lockhart. FAU's football attendance this season is 8,129, a decline of 29 percent from last year, when the Owls ranked 113th out of 119 NCAA Division I-A schools.

"I don't think when you build a stadium, you should say, 'Can I fill it up now or next year?''" FAU Athletic Director Craig Angelos said. "I think you want to build for success."

Success has been elusive on the field after a murderer's row of four away games to start the season.

FAU (3-6) was outscored 193-20 in losses at Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina, but took home $1.8 million in guaranteed money to help balance the athletic budget.

Dramatic increase in ticket sales needed

Developers are counting on dramatically greater success at the turnstiles for the stadium plan to make financial sense.

To pay for stadium debt - forecast at $11 million annually when the hard costs of the stadium were estimated at $124 million - FAU would draw on a projected 800 percent increase in ticket revenues, premium seating and corporate sponsorships to reach an average annual level of $9.8 million.

The figures come from a June presentation by the company that would oversee the project, KUD International, a subsidiary of Japanese-based Kajima Corp. In addition, FAU would pay $1.5 million per year directly toward stadium debt.

The $9.8 million projection is nine times greater than the $1.06 million FAU's athletic department took in from ticket sales, corporate sales, and corporate partners for the year that ended June 30.

FAU students already pay the highest athletic fees in the state to help cover the costs of the school's move to the NCAA's highest level, Division I-A.

Margarat Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University and vocal critic of the money poured into athletic programs at U.S. universities, believes FAU is making a mistake.

"If a commuter school wants to establish an identity and a sense of tradition, there are less expensive, academic ways to do it," Soltan said.

Given what she calls "the rah-rah cluelessness of FAU's administration," she said, "there's probably no way to avoid the train wreck. The students will suffer the most."

FAU faces competition for fans and corporate sponsors from the University of Miami, Florida International University and four professional franchises - most of whom suffer chronic attendance problems of their own.

"It's a risk because you hope people will respond and turn out and support the program, but there's no guarantee that's going to happen," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's so much to overcome with regard to other teams in Florida."

Will stadium unite students or drain resources?

Another kind of competition helps make the case for a stadium, FAU President Frank Brogan believes: the competition for students.

Brogan pictures a more vibrant campus life and additional reasons for prospective students to attend. Enrollment at FAU campuses unexpectedly declined by 345 students this year to 25,759.

"We want to become more by way of a traditional and first-choice university," Brogan said. "Academics will always come first, but we want to provide those amenities that students are looking for - not looking for, they demand."

For FAU political science major Stephen Skeels, the football team is worth the investment.

"You know, it's great seeing my school on SportsCenter, even if the FAU player is the one chasing the other guy running for a touchdown," said Skeels, a junior. "FAU is spread over seven campuses and we need a place to rally school spirit."

FAU music major Zachary Brown disagrees. He objects to student fees of $13.75 per credit hour, or $330 a year for a full-time student, tops among the state's 11 public universities.

"I think it's unfair," said Brown, a junior. "A lot of clubs on campus had their budgets cut this year. I think it would be better to have a championship I-AA team than a bad I-A team."

Student-government leaders have come under criticism of their own for the way they approve and manage fees. But the bottom line remains: Student fees account for 69 percent of the school's $11.4 million athletic budget, or 16 times the revenue that ticket sales produced last year.

To coach Schnellenberger, lagging attendance at Lockhart is all the more reason FAU should build a dome on campus. That's where the students are. In the home opener, for example, rainy weather helped limit the crowd to 6,431.

"I had hoped we would have a lot more," Schnellenberger said. "Maybe having a smaller crowd in inclement weather is worthwhile to think about when they decide whether to build an open-air stadium or a dome."

Stadium backers say sports help academics

If you're going to focus on the costs of a big-time football program, look at the benefits, too, FAU officials say.

One is TV exposure. Each appearance on ESPN2, such as FAU's second home game this season, "is like a three-hour infomercial for Florida Atlantic University broadcast to 88 million homes," Angelos said.

Certainly, winning can help attendance, even at commuter schools where fan support typically lags in the nation's bottom 10. California's San Jose State, for example, started 3-1 this season and averaged 19,000 fans, a boost of about 50 percent, according to school officials.

Florida Atlantic has won before. The 2003 team finished with an 11-3 record and a No. 4 national ranking in Division I-AA.

"I hope you all can see the potential of what we've got going here," Schnellenberger said.

But will all this effort for athletics help academics? Brogan thinks so.

"I can tell you the University of Florida probably upgraded its applicant pool because they were national champions in Division I basketball," Brogan said. "It is common knowledge that when a school wins a national championship, not only the quantity of the applications goes up but so does quality of the applications."

It is too soon to know the effect of UF's basketball title because most applications for this fall were submitted before basketball season ended. After Florida's 1996 national football title, SAT scores from applicants dropped slightly from 1,243 to 1,241, before climbing to 1,268 in 1998. The number of applications rose to 31,089 in 1997, up from 30,492 the previous year.

A 2003 report commissioned by the NCAA concluded "neither changes in football spending nor changes in football success have a significant impact on average incoming SAT scores." The report by researcher Robert Litan and two colleagues studied 17 Division I-A schools from 1993 to 2001.

A final decision on a stadium is not necessarily expected at today's FAU trustees meeting. When trustees are ready, Brogan seeks "conceptual approval." In one option, a separate open-air football stadium and basketball arena would cost about $125 million, Angelos estimated.

The option athletic officials prefer calls for an outside developer to build a 40,000-seat dome for football, basketball, entertainment and other campus functions. The "Innovation Village" would include a dome, student housing, parking and retail shops. The developer would keep a guaranteed portion of the revenues from the housing and retail, and another portion would help pay for the stadium.

Administrators, trustees weigh options

For the plan to work as advertised, though, FAU's football box office would have to become considerably busier.

In June, KUD International representative Dennis Biggs forecast "event revenues" including ticket sales of $5.7 million per year, plus "contractual revenues" (suites, club seats, sponsorships) of $4.1 million.

Biggs did not return phone calls for this story to say how many people he assumed would go to the games. FAU's Angelos said he did not know, but cautioned that the forecast numbers are continually being refined.

At a June meeting, trustee Norman Tripp called for FAU to slow down.

"I want to back off a minute and decide what we, as the board of trustees, wants to do, not what administration wants to do, not what athletics wants to do," Tripp said. "I'm frustrated that this has been presented as a fait accompli."

Some trustees also objected to a proposal to include condos for retirees and faculty housing in the project, saying that was outside its proper scope.

By telephone this month, Tripp said he wanted to let trustee chairwoman Sherry Plymale speak for the board.

"Concern is way too strong a word," Plymale said of trustees' questions. "The thing people want is the information they'll need to make decisions."

For her part, Plymale said she believes the project can help attract more students to live on campus and "make a significant change in the atmosphere."

Players just want a place to call home

One spur for a stadium project is news that Lockhart could be closed for renovation as early as 2008 under a plan by baseball's Baltimore Orioles to upgrade its spring training facilities. Under one proposal, it could reopen as a multiuse facility to accommodate football as well, but it remains unclear how long it might push FAU off the field. In the past, using Dolphin Stadium as FAU's regular home proved costly at $100,000 per game.

Whatever it takes to build an on-campus stadium, FAU's players say they just want what most of their competitors already have.

"Every major university and team, they all have a stadium to call home themselves," running back Charles Pierre said. "I think it would bring a lot of pride and tradition to the campus."

Those traditions have developed over a century or more at schools like the University of Florida.

FAU, whose campus was built on the site of an airfield, wants to shorten the takeoff.

"There's a lot of obstacles to making that leap," said Northeastern's Roby. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are focused on the upside in terms of prestige and notoriety and they don't always see the costs."

For loyal fan Mensch, the Owls already have proved they are worth his time and money.

"We've already done better than we did last year," Mensch said. "I enjoy watching the team get better and better and the excitement of the players. I like being part of this from the beginning. I think a stadium will not only help the team, but FAU as a whole."
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Post stadium article from today

No one will ever know who well we can draw until a stadium is built on campus in boca. When the team is playing 15 and sometime 35 miles away from it's fanbase, it will be hard to draw fans to the game, let alone the student body.

As for the comment from the student about staying in I-AA, that argument is ridiculous. It is extremely hard for a I-AA program to make money….especially down in this area where there are 6 other college football options. If FAU stayed I-AA, the program could never have survived financially.

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Post stadium article from today

How many students live in the FAU dorms? I'd be willing to bet we could count on 90% of them to come if there was a stadium on campus. That would be a good start.
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Post stadium article from today

ctaf said

How many students live in the FAU dorms?

It will be about 2500 once the new dorms are constructed.
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Post stadium article from today

I was a little worried when I frist saw the article, I figured it would be another negative take on the Dome project.

But it really was pretty fair. Both sides were represented and I think the pro-Dome quotes were strong. Even the BOT quotes didn't seem as negative as before.

It was just nice to see a big splash on FAU on the front page and a whole page inside devoted to the story.

President of the No Homers Club. Keepin' it real since 2001.
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Post stadium article from today

It's going to be the outdoor stadium that can be expanded into a dome.
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Post stadium article from today

I wish they would just start building something already so we can all start breathing again.
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Post stadium article from today

LM77, is that your opinion or have you gotten word from the BOT meeting today???
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Post stadium article from today

Post stadium article from today

TeamBeer said

LM77, is that your opinion or have you gotten word from the BOT meeting today???

It's based on what was said at the meeting today:

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Post stadium article from today

LM77 I'm with you they need to start turning dirt and if it is going to be the phase in which really IMO is a sensible way of getting what you want over a period of time but waiting till 2025 to get it. Hey Mr. Trump I know a great place to fly your 40 foot flag over the stadium you build on the FAU Campus you know Trump Stadium. I damn sure know it wouldn't take that guy 4 years to build an open air stadium.
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