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Big Red Business: LED lights top Memorial Stadium upgrades

If you’ve ever wondered if the end zones seemed just a little bit dark at Memorial Stadium, your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you. But, that issue will be resolved this fall with a brighter sheen of LED lighting covering the field.

Likewise, if you’ve missed part of a game because of long lines and congestion around the restrooms and concessions areas in the north stands of the stadium, that too is being addressed.

More toilets, more concessions stands, and improved field lighting to replace an obsolete system. Not exactly sexy stuff, but those are among the top-line bricks and mortar projects that Nebraska’s athletic department has targeted for upgrades in coming months.

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Nebraska will add new LED lighting to Memorial Stadium this summer, replacing the original lights put in back in 1999.

Altogether, the department this year has four major improvement projects totaling about $18.1 million. Most of that money -- $14 million -- is earmarked for the new gymnastics complex for the men’s and women’s teams, which was green-lighted by the Board of Regents last year.

The three other projects involve upgrades in and around Memorial Stadium: State-of-the-art LED lighting; new restroom and concessions additions on level three of the North Stadium; and new Field Turf on a practice field to replace the existing artificial turf at the Gass Football Practice Field facility.

All four projects are aimed at keeping Nebraska athletics “on the cutting edge” of collegiate sports, said John Ingram, associate athletic director for capital planning and construction, and the man overseeing these upgrades.

The high-tech lighting and North Stadium improvements are also more “fan-friendly” and are meant to make the game-day experience the best it can possibly be, Ingram said in an interview.

Fans attending the football spring game on April 21 will see some of the work already underway in the North Stadium, and it won’t be long before cranes hover over Memorial Stadium for the lighting installation.

Before the Sept. 1 football home opener against Akron, Ingram’s crew will also complete an annual review of the underpinnings, supports and everything else associated with maintaining the entire physical plant at Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1923 with just east and west stands.

Also slated for replacement are upper roof panels in the West Stadium and the Osborne Athletic Complex roof, which were damaged by storms, Ingram said.

While Nebraska fans may have a more glamorous wish list of additional improvements in athletics facilities, Ingram declined to comment on upgrades on the priority list for the next few years. Information about next year’s projects may become known after the athletic department completes its budget requests for fiscal 2018-2019. Budgeting season is still in the early stages.

Meanwhile, here’s a closer look at this year’s four top-priority projects:

LED stadium lighting 

Football stadium lighting has come a long way since rented, temporary lights attached to cranes peeked over the top of Memorial Stadium more than 30 years ago.

Historical footnote: The first night game at Memorial Stadium was the 1986 opener against Florida State. Permanent lighting wasn’t until 1999, and the first game under those new lights was against Iowa State on Oct. 9, 1999. After all those years, the lighting system is changing this fall, and LED is the new standard. Nebraska will join a handful of schools relying on this technology to put a better, brighter shine on the football action on the field.

The Memorial Stadium work is expected to be completed by late July.

Iowa-based Musco Lighting, which is handling the project, is one of the leaders in sports stadium and arena lightings on both the professional and collegiate level. Its other collegiate football stadium installations include Michigan State, Notre Dame, USC, Mississippi, Colorado

State, and Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

The $1.75 million Memorial Stadium project will replace the existing field lights.

The upgrade can’t come soon enough, said Ingram. “We can’t get parts anymore” for the current system, he said. “Last year we got just enough replacement parts to get through the season.”

While LED technology has evolved in recent years, Ingram said his staff had held off on making the change until it was fully confident in the technology and its cost effectiveness given the high upfront investment.

Ingram said the new lighting, among other things, will offer enhanced visibility, consistency, and brightness. “Right now the end zones are a little dark,” he said.

LED should also provide some energy efficiency, long-term cost savings, and pinpoint precision. Musco also provides a 25-year guarantee that covers parts and labor.

Musco said LED stadium lights, in general, should reduce energy consumption by as much as 70 percent. Ingram didn’t hazard an estimate on energy savings for Memorial Stadium over time because the stadium “is used so infrequently, with full lights maybe 10 times of the year.”

A news release from Musco on the Michigan State project estimated a $110,000 energy savings over the next decade.

The Memorial Stadium system will feature 22 new LED light fixtures on each of the eight poles around the stadium, plus a few additional lights to support the system.

The system will be integrated with the big-screen Husker Vision boards, Ingram said, and the new lights “will be capable of instant on, instant off, and will be programmable so we can create (special) effects.” By contrast, the old lighting system takes about 15 minutes to come on to full brightness, he said.

What about those pesky heat-seeking bugs that would make their presence known swirling around the lights in the upper reaches of the East Stadium when weather conditions were just right? (Think the Miami game from several years ago, where I personally experienced the dive bombing.)

That problem is being addressed by reconfiguring the light system away from the east side “a little bit more,” Ingram said.

Musco has been designing sports lighting systems that rely on LED for more than a decade, but “up until the past few years the premium was too high and in most situations it wasn’t a cost effective solution,” said Jeff Rogers, vice president of sales.

Now, given advances in technology and the cost-effectiveness, he said, “you’re going to continue to seeing colleges and universities convert to LED.”

While each stadium project is unique and has different requirements, Rogers said the light quality and uniformity across the field with its system will greatly improve visibility for players and let fans follow the action better.

”We think the experience for Cornhuskers’ players and fans at Memorial Stadium is going to be taken to a new level,” he said.

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North Stadium will go through $1.8 million in upgrades this off-season.

North Stadium upgrades

Work is well underway on this $1.8 million project, which will increase the number of toilet fixtures in the North Stadium by 33 percent -- with a 3 to 1 ratio of women’s fixtures to men’s -- and add eight new concession windows.

Now, fans must go to the main concourse or second level of North Stadium. Ingram said the goal is “to get the facilities closer to the seats,” and to alleviate congestion on the second and main concourses.

The project, which is near the halfway point, is scheduled to be completed by August. -- in time for fall practice and fan events at the stadium.

“We’re working hard to get all the heavy erection work done and cement poured before the spring game,” Ingram said.

Practice field turf 

Just outside Memorial Stadium is the Gass practice facility, which includes one natural grass field and one artificial turf field.

The artificial turf, which is almost 10 years old, will be replaced with new Field Turf at a cost of $500,000. The work is scheduled to begin after the spring game, and should be completed by June 1.

The football team also practices on two indoor artificial turf fields.

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Nebraska will begin building a new $14 million gymnastics facility this upcoming year.
Huskers.com

Gymnastics facility 

Since last August’s approval by the Board of Regents, plans for the new gymnastics training facility have moved into what Ingram called the “intermediate design stage.” Sports architectural giant HNTB is working with Clark Enersen Partners on the design.

The plan calls for construction of the facility that will be used by Nebraska’s men’s and women’s programs as an addition to the northwest side of the Bob Devaney Sports Center.

The facility will include dedicated gyms for both teams, along with training stations, coaches’ offices and locker rooms for both teams.

Ingram said bids on the construction phase are expected in July, with groundbreaking possibly by the end of this year. The approximately 35,400-square-foot facility is scheduled to open around January 2020.

The men’s team currently practices in the Devaney Center, while the women are in Mabel Lee Hall.

The project will be paid by athletic department funds and private fundraising. “Like most of our facilities, there are naming opportunities associated with the new gymnastics facility,” said Keith Mann, an athletic department spokesman.

Mann said the athletic department has not set a target on the amount it seeks to raise. But, he added, university officials are seeking support from gymnastics team alumni, past donors and other prospects on philanthropic gifts for various naming opportunities throughout the facility.

Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline.com. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at sbrosen1030@gmail.com.