Here is an excellent and very well researched article from our friend Tex…
Well it’s the dog days of summer and its time for the obligatory University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) sports fans discussion of an On-Campus Stadium (OCS) or my preferred concept – a Multi-Purpose Center (MPC).
My journey to discovery began back in 2012 when John Mack, aka “Comp Lit”, posted his thoughts about an OCS on Chas Rich’s Pitt Blather blog. His ideas intrigued me so much that I reached out to him to learn more and to discuss things in greater detail.
At first I was skeptical since I figured there was no place to put this national brand identifier for Pitt athletics. But John had a location in mind behind Frick Fine Arts museum in Panther Hollow area by the train track that would supply a spectacular end zone view of the Cathedral of Learning (which today’s students call her Cathy). I was sold.
John created a website, made a non-profit called Panther Hollow Partnership, and I contributed research and commentary while helping spread the word. We made enough noise that we received the attention of the Pitt News and other media outlets and articles were published on our OCS concept.
The central concept was to build a connection through a tangible object that could link past and future generations, and help bring alumni and fans back to the Pitt campus in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Our goal then, as is the goal now, is to have Pitt conduct a feasibility study that could objectively identify the costs and benefits. That’s the first step in a long process but an essential beginning.
Several other schools have performed feasibility studies for proposed on campus stadiums. The most notable and recent being the University of South Florida (USF). This school is similar to Pitt and plays in a pro stadium several miles away off campus. Here is a link to USF’s study:
Correctly done, Feasibility Studies seek to answer these following questions:
- Is there a need?
- What are the viable site locations?
- What is the cost to build?
- How would the project be financed and monies found?
- What are the appropriate design and architectural aspects?
I’ll attempt to answer these questions in relation to a proposed Pitt MPC. But I’ll keep things at a high level to avoid getting bogged down into the details at this early stage. A professional written study typically takes at least twelve months to perform with several parties providing input, research, analysis and spreadsheets (dreaded numbers). The cost for a Pitt study is likely to be two to three million dollars.
I’ll keep my article conceptual in nature but if you’d like to discuss greater detail behind any topic or solution (example – parking, financials, design), please feel free to email Reed at the email address on the blog’s front page and he’ll forward your emails to me.
A few others have written well informed articles and created websites advocating construction of an on campus football stadium. I’d like to recognize their research, passion and for being champions of this endeavor. The concept proposed in this article is the first to mention creating a multi-purpose center, a venue that many sports programs can use and call home. In addition, this article addresses the impending lease expiration for Heinz Field as the primary impetus for a feasibility study.
First let me start by saying that building a MPC will NOT directly lead to the following:
- Increased attendance
- Better recruiting
- More wins
These are some of the justifications that Pitt (AD Steve Pederson) used in tearing down historic Pitt Stadium and moving off campus to play in a Ketchup bottle (Heinz Field).
And here is a link to the Pitt sports blog Cardiac Hill’s analysis (calling out the inaccuracies) of Pitt’s reasons for the move.
For 74 years Pitt had a football stadium on campus – from 1925 until 1999. Pitt mainly neglected the stadium throughout the decades except for the occasional upgrades to the video scoreboard and turf. It is true the stadium lacked amenities of more modern stadiums such as chair back seating, corporate suites, luxury boxes, multiple concession stands and had these things –
In addition, the stadium had a track surrounding the field preventing any Pitt player from leaping into the stands. The site lines were exceptional with this coliseum like design but intimacy was lacking. Pitt Stadium eventually became too costly to maintain and opportunity knocked when the Steelers built their new stadium. The Peterson Events Center (The Pete) was eventually built on the stadium site after demolition.
Now one could make a persuasive argument that at least in the first few years, a new MPC will be a highly sought after destination for fans. It will be a novelty and quite the attraction. People will want to get first-hand experience of a venue like no other. A ticket to most events will be in high demand. So attendance for football games in particular could improve.
With higher attendance, the atmosphere improves and provides a better game day experience for everyone including prospective recruits. Recruits will probably like what they see and this positive experience could lead to more elite talent signing with Pitt. And elite talent wins games. So this new facility could just provide Pitt with a true home field and recruiting advantage leading to greater on the field success.
Why a Study?
The Heinz lease expires in 2031. But years before then, the Steeler ownership group will be making plans. They have several options at this point while Pitt has zero. Let me reiterate. The university is totally unprepared for this event. Now the Steelers could renew the lease and continue playing at Heinz. However, the stadium will be over 30 years old by then and it would require significant remodeling and upgrades.
These modern stadiums are only designed to last 25 years. That’s not to say these stadiums will rapidly deteriorate and fall apart, but technology and consumer behavior and fan needs change significantly over two to three decades. These advances in technology and changes in customer preferences impact the design and functionality of venues and are often very difficult and very costly to retrofit in older stadiums.
By waiting on events to unfold, Pitt could become hostage to the City and the Steelers, who could then force Pitt into contributing significant monetary sums for upgrades in order to receive a lease extension. So Pitt’s initial savings by playing off campus at Heinz could quickly evaporate.
A second option would be to build a completely new stadium either on the existing Heinz site or a location in the suburbs. Any new construction would take two full years to complete. If the Steelers chose to rebuild in the footprint of Heinz, the Steelers would need to play games at either WVU or Penn State until the new stadium is ready. I can’t see Pitt ever playing at those two schools for home games nor do I think those schools would be receptive to Pitt playing on their field.
The Steelers could also choose to continue playing at Heinz until their retractable roof stadium in Cranberry is built. And then Pitt will be forced to bus students over 20 miles for a game.
Some might ask, why couldn’t Pitt just remain at Heinz as the primary tenant? Well, the land is far too valuable to be only used only six times a year. And Heinz will be an old stadium with high maintenance bills. Heinz will be imploded. Its simple economics.
I personally believe the Steelers would build a new retractable roof stadium on the existing location. The Rooney’s really want to host a Super Bowl and a roof makes it possible. In addition, there has already been millions of dollars spent on developing the area around Heinz with more future construction in the works. It’s a perfect place for the Steelers…not Pitt.
So you can clearly see that being a renter, Pitt has limited control and leverage in these decisions. That’s a scary position to be in. So what are Pitt’s options? Well, Pitt can either follow the Steelers and whatever decision they make or Pitt can take matters into its own hands. An option worth exploring would be building Pitt’s own venue.
Besides taking control over its destiny, why would Pitt want to build their own MPC facility? There are several tantalizing reasons:
- Revenue Engine
Pitt is one of the poorest Power Five (P-5) schools at generating revenues. A lack of a large and passionate fan base and paltry donations are primary contributors. But Pitt also does not receive 100 percent of the monies it generates from Heinz because it is only a lease holder. Pitt doesn’t receive a full cut for either parking or concessions which is several million dollars each year being left on the table.
A facility owned by Pitt could be used to host a multitude of events such as NCAA tournaments, international soccer friendlies, concerts, outdoor NHL hockey game, high school playoffs, etc. Pitt would become the one collecting the rent. Having multiple revenues streams is critical to providing positive cash flows and generating a positive return on investment.
- Home for other programs
By definition, a MPC provides functionality and can accommodate more than one program. A MPC could be used 365 days a year and 24/7. Given its design and compatibility, the facility could provide homes for basketball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics, lacrosse, tennis and ice hockey if the school ever wanted to start a program. More on the design aspects later.
- Super League consideration
TV contracts expire in 2026. This could force another round of conference realignment. College football could become a semi-pro league consisting of 30-40 schools and could operate outside the NCAA. The projections from TV revenues alone could provide schools with $100 million in revenues, over three times what Pitt receives from the ACC. Today, Pitt is on the outside looking in.
Pitt doesn’t have the national brand, the fan base, the recent history of winning. However, a state of the art facility could be Pitt’s ticket to admission. A right sized stadium that looks good on TV is all that matters. A stadium that provides a festive atmosphere. Pitt could make itself too irresistible to pass up.
- A bridge between the school and its fans, alumni and boosters
Making a connection is by far the most important reason. The need for Pitt to connect with fans and boosters. A connection is critical since it can help create a loyal base of supporters. Loyalty drives attendance, donations and increases brand equity. Loyal supporters are more likely to promote your brand, spend money on your brand and gift back.
The name of the game is image, branding and identity. Those things are enhanced when you establish a connection with your customers. You engage them. You excite them. You help them create positive experiences and memories. But don’t take my word for it. There are some others who share similar thoughts – I’ll add those links as a post-script to the article.
More after page break…