She resided on Union Bay looking out at Mount Rainier. She was aged, sagging and arthritic. Needing more than a facelift, she underwent a 20-month surgery that cost $261 million.
Husky Stadium is the face of University of Washington football and, in late 2008, it was scarred badly. Having just endured a no win-twelve loss season under recently-fired head coach Tyrone Willingham, the football program was losing on the field, was missing out on most highly-prized recruits.
The renovation — of the Stadium and the football program — was a complex algorithm of smart personnel changes, political resistance, a paradoxical economy, fiercely loyal Husky fans and planned facilities with bling. The UW's athletic department solved the equation by building an almost completely new stadium, the public reveal of which, on August 31, will feature the Huskies and the 19th-ranked Boise State Broncos.
The helicopter view of the new Husky Stadium. Photo: Husky Stadium/ Facebook.
It's all about the recruits
My son and I went on a recent tour of the nearly-completed stadium, which included a glimpse of Head Coach Steve Sarkisian's gorgeous office — almost a small apartment — overlooking the new field and Lake Washington. We spotted the coach at a University-area restaurant after the tour. My son: “Hey Coach, we were just in your office.” Sarkisian was ultra-friendly, but clearly uncomfortable with the attention given to his new quarters and the public perception of its expense. “It's all about the recruiting,” he said. “It really is.”
The impetus for the new stadium requires some history. Husky football tradition was to perform usually at high levels (two national championships and seven Rose Bowl wins). But not quite seven years from a Rose Bowl win, the Huskies began the disastrous 2008 season under fourth-year head coach Tyrone Willingham. His three previous years resulted in a record of 11-25 and Pacific-10 Conference finishes of last, ninth and last.
Washington was the only winless major college football team in the country that year, and many of the games were not competitive. So Athletic Director Scott Woodward made the first of several personnel decisions that proved essential to the program: He fired Willingham and hired Steve Sarkisian, a University of Southern California assistant coach who was young, energetic and a talented recruiter. Over the next several seasons, Sarkisian brought in both recruits and additional, proven recruiters as assistant coaches. But the aging stadium and related facilities were not a selling point.
He takes orders from Woodward, but Sarkisian's football program powers the entire athletic program — financially and spiritually. Save the two basketball teams, every UW team depends on football revenue for its existence. If the football team fails — as it did miserably under Willingham — everyone is sick.
Sarkisian knows well that recruiting new talent is essential. He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in capable assistants, whose forte is recruiting. And what appeals to recruits are eye-popping facilities. Yes, they all like to win, and they all claim that academics are important, but it all starts with great facilities. Oregon and Oklahoma State are examples of schools that attract great recruits with middling academics because they have the glitz to move recruits.
The University's Athletic Department swears (officially) that the stadium was not the product of an arms race with other schools. (Notably Oregon, California-Berkeley, Arizona and Stanford have all undergone significant football facility improvements.) The perception and evidence, though, suggests otherwise:
- This month Sports Illustrated profiled Oregon's new football training facility, replete with Brazilian wood and marble. “[T]he. . .facility represents the most lavish maneuver yet in the competition to recruit and develop talent.”
- When asked about the Oregon facilities after a recent tour, Bishard “Budda” Baker, a Bellevue High School safety and probably the top recruit on the Husky wish-list, said that Oregon's facilities are “a huge plus to me” in his recruitment. A similar comment came from John Plattenburg, a Houston, Texas cornerback, who is also a top Washington recruit: “Oregon, that's a good program with great facilities.”
- An August 2, 2013 edition of the Tucson Citizen detailed the amenities of the University of Arizona's new $72.3 million remodel, with this conclusion: “But this is really about one thing: Recruiting.” In the month following completion of the remodel, the Wildcats secured 13 new recruits.
Recruiting 18 year-old athletes that can have their pick of colleges is a tough sell. Eye-catching facilities not only matter, they are critical. The UW's football facilities literally were crumbling, out of date and out of touch with what the buyers—the recruits—were hoping to buy.
The Legislature's emphatic “no.”
Building a renovation of the stadium structure and other facilities was going to be expensive and, at the start of the Great Recession, few revenue sources were available. A request for state funding was rejected decisively. One Seattle legislator told me that he opposed entreaties from his own father to provide state funding. The political will was absent, particularly when some public funds were spent recently on CenturyLink Field, home to the NFL Seahawks. The issue to legislators was not whether Husky Stadium was in disrepair, it was whether Seattle needed another stadium built with public money.
Woodward marshaled a plan that called for $50 million in private contributions and the remaining $200 million to be borrowed and repaid from a variety of stadium revenues: advertising, sponsorships, and an array of luxury seating options. Added to that cost was an $11 million sports medicine facility, located underneath the south stands, to assist the athletic department in its medical responsibilities to athletes.
An artist's rendering of a new Husky Stadium Patio Suite. Photo: Husky Stadium.
The financing of the improvement is a testament to two things. First, that Husky football backers are loyal, rich and generous. Not only was the $50 million “seed' money essential for the commitment to go forward, those backers purchased in droves the luxury seats, boxes and other accoutrements that will fund the repayment of the $200 million in University-issued bonds. The second factor in the financing was the recession and the low construction prices that resulted from a construction industry in need of work.
An artist's rendering of a new Husky Stadium Luxury Suite. Photo: Husky Stadium.
This is far more than a facelift.
The renovation is really a new stadium. The upper north-side stands are the only part of the stadium that remains largely unchanged. Every other aspect of the stadium has been upgraded: The running track has been removed, the lower-bowl seating close to the playing field reconfigured. A football operations building now stands above the west end-zone, with lockers and training facilities below it. The south, east and west sides of the stadium are entirely new.
A view of the new stadium across Montlake Avenue. Photo: Jack Hunter.
The football operations building is the gateway to recruiting. An expansive reception area facing the field and Lake Washington is the first stop. A two-way fireplace (shared with Coach Sarkisian's office) flanks one side; a long outdoor patio (for recruits, their parents or special guests to watch games) flanks another.
The locker room is directly below the administration rooms, underneath the west end-zone. It has lockers with security and electronics and ample opportunities to watch film or play video games. That area has three rehabilitation pools, a barber shop (the players like to cut each other's hair) and a massive weight room.
To placate the students' loss of midfield seating, the stadium has a separate entrance for students, a relocated Husky statue there and concessions designed and priced for students. The band will also have special seating and aisles to facilitate entry and exit from the field during games.
Husky fans have long complained about the colors used in uniforms, stadium signage and even souvenirs. The purple is always too lavender or lilac — never the true purple; the gold is always too tan. The new stadium signage is borrowed from the colors of the actual game helmets and “true” purple jerseys.
The main entrance of the new stadium, complete with true-to-color signage. Photo: Jack Hunter.
The stadium has over 700 television monitors that will entertain fans with the game when they purchase concessions or access areas of premium seating that do not face the field. To increase the visibility of sponsor names that grace some stadium entries, some trees that decorated the plazas outside the stadium have been thinned or moved. “Ribbon boards” front the facades of the stands on both sides, beaming advertisements or sponsors throughout the game. One graphic showed “Coke Zero” on every display, 270 degrees around the stadium. That pays the rent.
Perhaps the most visible upgrades are the video boards. Above the east end, and carefully fitted to allow a lake view, an ultra-high definition board stands 31 feet high and 108 feet wide — about 20 percent wider than a similar screen at CenturyLink field. Its manufacturer boasts 281 trillion colors (one of which is the real purple) and the screen is shaped to minimize any blockage of lake views. Eight other video boards are located around the stadium.
The stadium's new HD jumbotrons. Photo: Husky Stadium.
One major point of emphasis in the construction was the facilitation of access by and amenities for television. Camera wells are situated carefully to enhance views of the stadium and surroundings. The press boxes are plush.
If you build it they will come.
The debt service on the $200 million in bonds could not have been repaid without imagination and aggressive pricing. Carter Henderson, Assistant Athletic Director at the UW, and other university records detailed the results:
- Season ticket sales for 2013 exceed 53,400 (student and non-student) and more student sales are expected. By moving the students to the end-zone, more than five thousand seats were freed up for premium pricing.
- A “handful” of the 25 luxury suites are available, according to Henderson. The standard suite has 18 seats and costs $60,000 per year, with annual escalators depending on whether the contract is for three or five years. An additional $499 per seat is added.
- “Naming Opportunities” for the football field ($50 million) and the football operations building ($10 million) are still unsold, as are some tunnel seat entrances ($100,000 each), but a considerable number have been sold.
- The Jim Houston Board Room (listed at $500,000) is available for rental to generate additional income. More than half of the coaches offices and meeting rooms have already been reserved for naming rights.
The luxury suites are flanked on each end by a suite with two walls of windows and an outdoor patio. Then-President Mark Emmert chose the east-end suite, facing Lake Washington, with a panorama that encompasses the Drumheller Fountain on campus, the football field itself, Laurelhurst, Lake Washington and (from the patio) Mount Rainier.
Michael Young had a different idea, eschewing the Emmert end-zone suite and seeking one on the 50-yard-line. It had already been sold. After pondering his options, Young elected for the Lake Washington suite, but by then it also was sold. The contractors added a patio to the west-end suite (overlooking parking and the University Hospital), and Young got that and two other suites as a consolation prize.
You get the idea: If you've got something good, make sure that it's noticed. The UW hopes the performance on the field is as impressive as the stadium.
Photo above: An artist's rendering of Club Husky, courtesy of Husky Stadium.