Commentary

Economy not deterring some schools

Originally Published: July 16, 2009
By Graham Watson | ESPN.com

In an economy that is forcing collegiate athletic departments to cut sports, personnel and projects just to stay afloat, several schools are investing money in their athletics in hopes of a greater return.

It's a risk that may or may not pay off for schools such as Minnesota, which is sinking $288.5 million into its first on-campus football stadium in more than 30 years, and Louisiana Tech, which shelled out $1.6 million to boast the biggest scoreboard in the Western Athletic Conference. But it's a risk that schools are finding necessary to stay afloat.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota Stadium
AP Photo/Jim MoneMinnesota will play football on campus for the first time in 30 years when the Gophers take residence in a new 50,000-seat stadium.

"You look at the companies that came out of the Great Depression, and it's the ones that invested in their marketing and advertising that were able to get stronger," Louisiana Tech athletic director and football coach Derek Dooley said. "You can look at it one way and say, 'Well, we don't have money to invest in these things.' Or you can look at it how I look at it, and that's when you make small investments, you get big returns. And certainly it's a risk. But if you're going to survive, you're willing to take a little risk."

That's what Minnesota did when it opted to build a stadium on campus without the help of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

In 2002, the city of Minneapolis asked the Vikings and Gophers to build a joint stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. But the two parties were so far apart in their vision of the stadium that the Vikings opted to walk away, leaving the university with the choice of either scrapping the project or trying to raise what would end up being almost $300 million.

While about 75 percent of the money for the Gophers' new 50,000-seat stadium was raised before the economy started to turn in 2007, the university did decide to expand its original budget by about $40 million around the time of the economic decline.

"We know that facilities that are built on college campuses, particularly football stadiums, are buildings that have been there for almost 100 years," Minnesota associate athletic director Phil Esten said. "And so we did not want to build something that would be antiquated or something that would be out of touch or whatever 20 or 30 or 40 years down the road. We're building a 100-year facility and we knew we had to do it right on the front end because we're not going to go back and rebuild it, we're not going to widen concourses, we're not going to make the footprint of the facility bigger at any time. We're doing it on the front end so this can truly be a 100-year or more facility."

The new football stadium was an investment in the future of Minnesota athletics. Already, the university is reporting between $2.5 million and $3.5 million in net revenue for the upcoming year.

Esten said having a stadium on campus -- the Gophers have played off campus for 30 years -- would also pay dividends in community support and recruiting.

[+] EnlargeLouisiana Tech Scoreboard
John Sella/Louisiana Tech Media RelationsLouisiana Tech hasn't let a poor economy get in the way of its ambitious renovation plans for its athletics facilities, including a state-of-the-art scoreboard for its football stadium.

Although Minnesota's project is by far the biggest on-campus undertaking in the Big Ten -- and, it appears, nationally -- other conference schools have projects under way to update facilities and generate revenue. For example, the University of Michigan, which resides in one of the states hit hardest by the economy, just finished its new baseball and softball complex and is in the midst of a football stadium renovation.

Similarly, the SEC, one of the more economically healthy conferences, has facility renovations going on at nearly all of its member schools.

But it's not just the major conferences that are investing money in hopes of a big return. Louisiana Tech has been spending more money in the past couple of years than it has in the past couple of decades despite the fact that the Western Athletic Conference is cutting everything from championship participation to summer internships.

Since 2007, Louisiana Tech has added eight new tennis courts, a new bowling alley in the intramural center, and new scoreboards at both the football and baseball fields. Plus, the school has resurfaced its track, installed new FieldTurf in the football stadium, improved tailgating areas, built a new press box for baseball, and renovated the locker rooms for football, men's basketball and baseball.

Dooley admits that it's easy to spend money at a school that hasn't spent a lot of money since Karl Malone was a student, but he's hoping that profiting on the economic downturn will allow his school to take a competitive advantage over many of the other schools in the non-BCS conferences and gain a small advantage over some of the larger schools in and around the state of Louisiana.

"When you're talking about the economy, there's areas where you can cut and trim and get lean, but I think there's also areas that you need to invest in," Dooley said. "Certainly your revenue streams and your marketing and your advertising are areas where you don't want to cut because it's hard to come out of things when you cut something that critical.

"We can sit here and say that it's doom and gloom, or we can sit here and say that this is the reality, and what do we have to do to come out of it and get stronger and use it as an opportunity. And that's what we're trying to do. While all these other schools are cutting, we're growing. Hopefully, we can close the gap a little bit."

Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at gwatson.espn@gmail.com.

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College Football
Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.