One Man's (Skewed) Vision of Stadium Expansion
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #21

Last issue, while preparing some articles on stadium expansion, I revisited an article I wrote in the summer of 1998 about Lane Stadium expansion. It was good for a few laughs, and I thought I would share the laughs with you.

The article was called Stadium Expansion: Hot Ticket for the New Millenium, and it presented a plan for expanding Lane Stadium. I wrote the article in late July of 1998, which was back before VT had rolled out any ideas for expanding Lane. The Hokie brain trust was working on it, and Tech AD Jim Weaver had publicly spoken about the need to expand the stadium, but no details or plans had been released yet.

What had been released were UVa's stadium expansion plans. One year prior, in a Thursday night game against Auburn on ESPN early in the 1997 season, Virginia alumnus Carl Smith had publicly pledged $25 million for the expansion of Scott Stadium into a 60,000-seat horseshoe. Virginia showed drawings to the public of a gorgeous expansion plan that would make Scott Stadium larger than Lane Stadium and would launch the Hoo football program into the 21st century with a state of the art facility.

At the time, that was a little scary for Hokie fans. Later in that 1997 season, Virginia throttled Tech 34-20 in Charlottesville and appeared to be the state program with all of the momentum. The Hokies had experienced some success in 1995 and 1996 with Jim Druckenmiller at QB and Cornell Brown at defensive end, but 1997 was a rough season, and no one was convinced that the Hokies were going to rise to the level of a BCS team again.

And now UVa was getting ready to build themselves a real stadium, instead of that quaint little 42,000-seat excuse they had been playing in for so many years. I still recall "khhokie," one of HokieCentral.com's (as TSL was called back then) earliest and most controversial posters, coming on the message board one day and posting, "Fear this!" with a link to a picture of the artist's conception for the new Scott Stadium.

The message board lit up like a Christmas tree, as half of the Hokie fans there went into denial ("They still need to fill it with fans that won't leave at half time!") and the other half admitted that UVa's new stadium, if nothing else, was a formidable recruiting tool.

And heading into the summer of 1998, VT had no formal answer. They were talking about it, but no plans had been announced yet.

It was in this environment that I wrote the "hot ticket" article. I talked about multi-million dollar expansion efforts that were underway at Penn State, Virginia, Alabama, and even East Carolina, Houston, and Louisville. It seemed like the Hokies were falling behind (they were), and I advanced a plan for Tech to catch up with what everyone else was doing.

Looking back, I get a kick out of my little article. The goals were spot-on, but the execution was poorly envisioned. Let's review.

The Basics

Back in the summer of 1998, I said that Tech needed to do the following to Lane Stadium:

  • Improve the visitor's locker rooms
  • Improve the press/media facilities
  • Add a video scoreboard/Jumbotron
  • Add luxury boxes
  • Add more seats

Those were all improvements that had been publicly talked about as being needed for Lane Stadium. The press box is small and antiquated, the visitor's locker room (with its six showers -- six!) is a well-known joke around the Big East, and everybody else, at the time, was adding more seats, a video scoreboard system, and luxury boxes. Those items were no-brainers.

So at this point, I was a visionary and a smart cookie with the proper goals in line.

I then put forth my plan for adding all those improvements to Lane Stadium, and I proceeded to get waaaaay off track on the proper way to do things.

"The Order in Which Things Should be Done"

The problem was, the items as they are listed above are the exact order in which I said they should be built or added. I proposed the following:

1.) Build a facility housing visitor's locker rooms and media rooms in the South end of the stadium.

2.) Build a video scoreboard/closed circuit replay system.

3.) Build luxury boxes on the top of the West side stands.

4.) Add more seats (in the South end zone, by building them on top of the facility built in step 1).

As those of you who follow the Lane Stadium expansion plans know, instead of implementing those things 1-2-3-4, Jim Weaver decided to implement them in the order 4-2-4-1-3-4:

1.) Add more seats: North end zone bleachers built, 1999.

2 and 4.) Add a video scoreboard and more seats: Video scoreboard installed and North end zone bleachers expanded, 2000.

1, 3, and 4.) Build a South end zone facility housing visitors locker rooms, media rooms, luxury suites, and more seats, 2002.

3 and 4.) Build more seats and luxury boxes on the West side (and expand the press box), 2005 (? The completion date is actually TBD at this point).

Good thing Jim Weaver is in charge and not me. The fundamental difference in my approach and Jim Weaver's approach is that my approach didnít generate any new revenue until step 3; Weaver's approach started generating additional revenue right off the bat, with new seats in the North end zone.

There's no question that my first two steps, a new building in the end zone and a Jumbotron scoreboard, were needed, but neither one of them was a revenue generator, just a money sink.

So, what was I thinking? Well, one thing you need to remember about VT football, circa summer 1998, was that the explosion in ticket sales and attendance hadn't happened yet. The Hokies had fielded very good 10-win teams in 1995 and 1996, and attendance had not increased. In fact, from 1994-1997, the Hokies averaged the following in per-game attendance:

1994: 46,383
1995: 44,777
1996: 45,717
1997: 45,577

There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that the Hokies were going to need a significant number of new seats any time soon. They were coming off two of their best seasons ever in 1995 and 1996, and from an attendance standpoint, there was a collective shrug. Lane had about 52,000 seats at the time, and it seemed like plenty. I wrote:

"By the time the other improvements are added that have already been discussed here [locker rooms, media rooms, video board, and luxury boxes], there will hopefully be a need for more seating in Lane Stadium."

We all know what happened after that. The Hokies averaged 49,045 in 1998, and the post-Music City Bowl excitement, followed by the 1999 national championship run under Michael Vick, shot Hokie football into the stratosphere, attendance-wise. Suddenly, more seats became a much higher priority than improved media rooms and a video scoreboard.

But more importantly, Jim Weaver realized that if you're going to spend money, it's got to be on things that make more money, like more seats and luxury boxes, not on end zone buildings.

I did get this right, though; I wrote:

"I think that when the new seats are added, there will be between 12,000 and 15,000 of them. At a minimum, there must be at least 12,000, so the newly expanded Lane Stadium will be as large, or larger, than state rival UVa's stadium will be after expansion."

The Overall Time Frame

The other thing that is humorous about my original article is this statement:

"The way I see it, if Virginia Tech wants to fund this sort of stadium expansion project, and they want it done strictly through donations and normal revenue streams, then it will have to be a long-term project. Ten years minimum, probably 15 years total."

Wrong again. It appears that the total expansion project will be complete by 2005 (seven years after my article), instead of the 2008-2013 time frame I envisioned. And I certainly didn't anticipate the addition of 11,000 seats by 2002.

Why the difference? Simple ignorance on my part. I was thinking about the Merryman Center, which was just being completed at the time at a cost of $10.6 million dollars, completely funded through donations to the Hokie Club (to my knowledge -- VT Athletic Department officials stated that publicly many times).

I failed to realize that if you build revenue-generating portions of the stadium expansion first, then those parts of the expansion can then service debt required for their construction. In other words, I thought that if it was going to cost $37 million for a South end zone expansion (which is the cost of VT's current SEZ project), that VT would have to raise the entire $37 million through donations.

Instead, VT is only raising $15 million through donations, and the rest of the expansion will be paid for by taking on debt than can be serviced from the additional ticket sales and luxury box revenue. So the SEZ pays for itself, at least in part.

Things get a little trickier with the West side expansion. The last thing I read said that VT was going to have to find a heavy-duty private or corporate donor, to the run of $15-$25 million, to help fund the expensive West side expansion. That is all still up in the air, though, and it all depends on the details of the final design, which hasnít been produced yet.

My Cost Geusstimate

I was also off in my guess as to how much the expansion would cost. I pegged it at $57 million when done. The current expansion plans that VT is working under will cost about $86.3 million - $37 million for the South end zone, $45.8 million for the West side, and another $3.5 million or so for the already-completed North end zone bleachers and video scoreboard.

I underestimated, but I also did not foresee the huge press box expansion that VT is adding. I knew they would add luxury boxes to the West side, but Tech is also greatly expanding the press box, and some of the $30 million difference is coming from there.

Note that VT's current cost figure of $86.3 million is for a West side with an expanded press box and luxury boxes added, plus about 1,000 "club" seats. Jim Weaver is expected to present a plan to Virginia Tech in August that will increase West side seating by about 5,000 seats by adding another 18 rows on top of the current West side, before adding the luxury boxes and expanding the press box.

It is estimated that such a proposal will increase the $45.8 million dollar cost estimate for the West side expansion by a few million dollars.

The Future is Now

Back in 1998, I thought it would be a long time before we would see an expanded Lane Stadium. I certainly didn't think that a massive structure, including 11,000 new seats, would be present in the South end zone a mere four years later, in time for the 2002 season.

The stadium expansion as a "regular fan" perceives it is mostly done. The addition of 5,500 seats in the North end zone and 11,000 more in the South end zone has created the bulk of the impression of the expansion by closing in both ends of the stadium. That adds most of the fans and most of the noise that are planned, and "expanding" the West side by adding luxury boxes and revamping the press box isn't going to make much difference in Joe Hokie's game day experience from his seats halfway up the East side stands, at the ten yard line.

If Jim Weaver unveils plans for a 5,000-seat addition to the West side, that will increase the average fan's perception of the size of the stadium yet again, but I think you'll agree that the big impact has already been made with the North and South end zone expansions.

And that's just four short years after we first really started talking about it on HokieCentral.com.

I wonder what Lane Stadium's going to be like in the year 2025 Ö ?

 

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