"Welcome to Seattle: Price No Object"
—suggested sign to be posted at Seattle city limits.
The Seattle Times and other local media have gone bananas over the groundbreaking Monday afternoon for a new Husky Stadium, which is scheduled to be ready for the beginning of the 2013 football season. "Fans will be closer to the action in cozier, upgraded setting," the Monday front-page headline trumpeted, over a story outlining the new amenities which the $250-million makeover will bring with it.
The capacity of the redone stadium will be 70,000, about 2,500 less than at present. Luxury boxes and seats will be added. More leg room, more bathrooms, and an advanced video display will be featured in the new place. The running track will be removed, the field itself lowered, and stands moved closer to the football playing field. So as to maximize future ticket revenues, low-revenue University of Washington student seating will be moved to the end zone. There will be marked upgrades, additionally, in training facilities and coach and support-staff offices, considered important in player-recruitment.
Former UW President Mark Emmert and the Board of Regents tried unsuccessfully over several years to get state funding for the makeover. It was a hard sell, however, in hard times — particularly to legislators in the process of cutting essential state services and trying to find money to sustain college classroom programs — and Emmert, the regents, and Emmert's chosen athletic director, Scott Woodward, finally opted to undertake the project with private contributions.
Taxpayers are not wholly off the hook, however. The UW athletics program is taking a $250 million loan from the school's internal-lending program, which will sell 30-year bonds to finance stadium construction. This new borrowing could limit future UW borrowing and even cause a bond-rating downgrade — especially if future attendance and revenues are less than projected. Right now, though, optimism reigns about the money to be raised from private contributors, naming rights for the field, and premium box and other seating.
A loyal UW alum and Husky sports junkie must admit to mixed feelings about the big stadium remake.
As a high-school senior, I was present in 1950 at the first game played after construction of the stadium's South upper-deck. As a UW freshman in 1951, I witnessed Hugh McElhenny's stunning 100-yard punt return against the Southern California Trojans. I saw every Husky home game in my four college years and then, as a Seattle Times sportswriter, spent a year in the press box and Husky dressing room covering the games. I've continued attending Husky games in recent years and still can sing both" Bow Down to Washington" and the Alma Mater without missing a word. Go Huskies!
But, being from an earlier, more frugal generation, I have questioned the cost and scope of the stadium renovation. The redo first was advocated on the basis that the aging stadium was becoming dangerous and required structural repair. Then the talking line quickly shifted to the more-comfort, more-modern, better-viewing-experience argument. I was suspicious about this tack because it was taken by Emmert and Woodward, who had been Emmert's public-relations aide at Lousiana State University's Baton Rouge campus. LSU, for those unfamiliar with it, operates as a subsidiary of the Tiger football program.
I don't believe for a split second that the removal of the historic running track, and the lowering of the actual football playing field, will attract one additional fan or dollar to the stadium. Nor do I believe that fans will come or stay away because the stands are a few feet closer to the field. My call: Some Husky fans will attend games, win or lose, out of loyalty to their alma mater. Others will come if the team is competitive, stay away if it is not. Now, the luxury boxes and seats are another matter. If corporations and individuals want to pay for those, more power to them.
If there was structural weakness requiring repair, then by all means it should have been repaired. Replacement of aging seats, sure. More bathrooms, sure. But I have not found the now-expired stadium to be the dangerous cement pile it recently has been characterized as being.
All of this, I suspect, flows from the natural ambitions of university athletic departments, wherever they are. Some 30 years ago I had two sons who were undergraduates at Duke; one competed in a non-revenue sport. The Duke basketball team, then coached by a young Mike Kryczewski, had its offices in historic Cameron Indoor Stadium and practiced in a gym next door. Kryczewski, after many winning seasons, declared that the team facilities were inadequate — whereupon a hugely expensive new several-story basketball annex was built next to Cameron, mainly housing Coach K, his assistants, and administrative staff. Cameron sold out before the annex was built and sells out now. But Coach K has his grand castle. There are still 12 players on the team and they still require only one practice gym.
The new stadium, it seems to me, illustrates anew the penchant we have hereabouts for spending on grand projects, whatever their cost and however lower-cost their alternatives might have been. Sound Transit light rail, a proposed new streetcar system, the Mercer Mess redo, the South Lake Union streetcar, and other big capital ventures appear to get launched without any serious attempt at cost-benefit analyses. Could the money have been more efficiently invested in transportation alternatives? Or in non-transportation public needs?
So we shall have our new $250 million Husky Stadium, with seats closer to a lowered playing field and with accessories attractive to high spenders. Attendance, game by game, will be about the same. And the students? No more seats between the 30-yard lines. They no longer will matter in the grand scheme of things. To the end zone for them. "Progress" marches on.