Big Red Business: Should Memorial Stadium’s capacity be reduced?
USC did it, and so did Missouri. Penn State’s master plan calls for doing so, and Tennessee and Alabama might make the same decision.
All have either reduced seating capacity at their football stadiums or are reviewing plans to do so. It’s all in the name of generating more revenue by offering high dollar premium seating and other special fan amenities.
As Nebraska reviews options for revamping the long-neglected south end zone of Memorial Stadium, might shrinking capacity be on the table?
Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos didn’t directly address that question, but he did say this in a statement:
“We are committed to providing the best possible fan experience in all of our athletic venues at Nebraska, and in particular Memorial Stadium. With that in mind, we look at trends in stadium improvements and amenities at both the college and professional levels across the country.”
“We have had a number of discussions regarding future upgrades of Memorial Stadium and recognize that South Stadium is a top priority in the future.”
Sources in the architect and design business say the athletic department has been working hard on making the football stadium more comfortable for fans, especially in the south end zone noted for its narrow stairs and steep joint-grinding pitch to the top. In order to do this, sources said, part of that reconfiguration could involve reducing the seating capacity.
While renovating the south side has been a hot topic for some time, sources said the planning has taken on renewed emphasis since Nebraska last fall announced plans for a $155 million athletics training facility that will tie into the north side of Memorial Stadium and open in time for the 2022 season.
Memorial Stadium, which will celebrate its centennial in 2023, has an official seating capacity of 85,458 and is riding an NCAA record 375 game sellout streak. It is among college football’s 20 largest stadiums.
While the east, west and north parts of the seating bowl have undergone extensive renovations that have also boosted capacity over the last 20 years, the south side has remained relatively unchanged since 1972.
Any redesign plan that includes downsizing capacity must pass muster on a host of challenges. Could a reconfiguration that involves downsizing address the need for more space and legroom between seats? Is chairback seating a possibility in some sections,along with widening the narrow aisles to help fans get in and out of the south endzone? Would suites be built closer to the field for better views?
If seating capacity is reduced, how do you fairly treat fans who have been displaced. That’s a sticky issue for Nebraska given that games have been sold out since 1962 and there’s a waiting list of fans seeking season tickets.
Perhaps the biggest question of all: Would suites and other luxury seating make up for any lost season ticket revenue if overall capacity drops?
Here’s an example of how the financials could play out:
There are 101 suites at Memorial Stadium, including 13 in the north section. Those north suites lease for $40,000 to $90,000 annually, with donations. That means that at a minimum, those units generate $520,000 in revenue annually. On the top end at $90,000 apiece, those suites would generate nearly $1.2 million annually.
Across the field in the south end zone, a large number of seats are for visiting team fans and for students.
For season ticket holders, there are multiple donation levels.
For example, a seven-game season ticket package for one seat in one section runs $420, or $60 per game, plus a $150 donation, for a total of $570 per seat.
If Nebraska were to eliminate 1,000 seats in the south end zone at $570 per seat, that would result in about $570,000 in lost revenue.
But assuming 13 suites were added in the south stands at the same price points as the north, Nebraska would most likely be coming out way ahead since it is unlikely that all the suites would be leased at the low end.
More athletic departments around the country in recent years have been doing the same math. As a result, some Power Five conference schools have opted to place a greater emphasis on offering fans an array of seating options and increased comfort as opposed to playing the numbers game by adding more capacity.
Shrinking stadium capacity also reflects the hard reality that attendance at college football games has been declining, forcing schools to come up with other strategies to attract fans and their dollars.
Even Nebraska has issues. True, season ticket renewals are high and there are waiting lists for tickets and suites. But the actual number of ticket holders who show up for the game is less than overall capacity, sometimes far less.
For many schools, the end zone sections represent prime, and in many cases, untapped real estate that could be transformed into a more productive revenue stream.
The south end zone of Memorial Stadium is the only part of the bowl without luxury suites and club sections.
While the athletic department has taken some steps to upgrade the south side by adding more restrooms and installing some wider bench seating, officials have acknowledged numerous times publicly that a bigger solution may be necessary.
When? A project might be the next in line after the 350,000-square-foot athletic training facility and football locker room opens.
The athletic department’s review of Memorial Stadium extends beyond seating. As HuskerOnline has previously reported, officials are also looking at a host of issues to improve the game-day experience inside and outside the stadium, including more food options at the concession stands, juiced up music, pre-game entertainment, and moving fans in and out of the stadium with greater ease.
Many schools in the Power Five conferences, have expanded capacity time and again over the years as part of the football arms race. Count Clemson, Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma in that list.
But those days may be over for a while.
Nowadays, reconfiguring more often than not means reducing seating capacity but providing more premium fan experiences.
Here are some examples:
*The historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home to the USC Trojans and the NFL Rams, underwent a nearly two-year renovation that reduced capacity by 16,000 seats. The Coliseum, owned by a government consortium and independently operated and managed by USC, held 93,000 in 2017; now it is about 77,500.
According to Football Stadium Digest, the $300 million facelift allowed for a “wider array of seating options.”
The highlight of the makeover is the Scholarship Club in the stadium’s south end. It consists of multiple levels, including premium seating and a press box. The renovated also added standing decks and prime concession areas.
*Missouri completed its nearly $100 million renovation of the south end zone of Faurot
Field. The project included 16 new suites, a 750-person field-level club similar to the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, a 1,254-seat indoor club area and 1,324 general admission seats plus some standing-room-only sections to replace 10,800 general-admission seats.
Despite an 8 percent reduction in the stadium’s capacity, from 71,004 to roughly 65,000, school officials projected a net revenue increase of approximately $4.5 million from the new premium options for attendance. The now displaced general-admission seats generated $1.5 million, but the athletic department projected the new seating options would create “in excess of $6 million” in revenue.
“We can turn some of the cheaper seats into higher-demand seats, and we have high demand in the premium seating area,” athletic director Jim Sterk said when the project was announced in late 2017.
The reduced stadium capacity was in line with attendance trends and future projections. It should be noted that Missouri rarely sells out home games.
*Penn State is reviewing a master plan that includes lowering capacity at Beaver Stadium from 106,572 to about 103,000.
Suites would be relocated lower in the stadium and closer to field level, and the scoreboard on the stadium’s north end would be relocated, according to Football Stadium Digest.
Premium seats will be a “commodity” of the renovation, the digest reported. According to the master plan, Beaver Stadium will have 84 suites, 12 “BBQ suites,” 127 loge boxes and 3,800 club suites.
The renovation would take three to four years, but there is no firm timetable for launching the project, according to Football Stadium Digest.
*Tennessee last fall released an update of its master plan to renovate parts of Neyland Stadium. The revised plan is aimed at “improved fan experience,” and will cost about $180 million, according to news reports.
The new plan began last year with the addition of LED ribbon boards and includes phases of improvements each year through 2023.
Tennessee has not revealed what Neyland Stadium’s new capacity will be or if the current number of 102,455 will change. But some top administrators have vowed to keep the capacity over 100,000, the news reports said.
*Kansas State unveiled plans last fall for a Bill Snyder Family Stadium south end zone project, which would result in new premium seating and other amenities. The end zone project will include new club-suite-loge premium seating options, along with special event space and upgraded concessions and restrooms.
A Kansas State spokesman said stadium capacity will remain unchanged.
*Alabama has started work on a $92.5 million first phase renovation of Bryant-Denny Stadium though it is unclear at this time how the changes will impact capacity.
The plan calls for high-end club seats and suites to replace seats on the west end, student social spaces will be added on the south end while four larger video boards will replace the existing ones in each of the corners, according to news reports. A new tunnel will also bore through the north end zone steps leading directly into the Alabama locker room as part of a new Walk of Champions experience.
Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.