When the Utes play their next home football game against Stanford on Oct. 7, future renovations to Rice-Eccles Stadium figure to garner discussion among the homecoming crowd.
That topic came up when Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott met with Utah athletics director Chris Hill prior to the Utah-Arizona game in Tucson, Ariz.
“They obviously have great attendance,” Scott said. “There’s more demand, but I think they’re being very deliberate and cautious in the evaluation and in terms of what to do. We’ve got minimum standards, but our schools are well above the minimum standards. We don’t really weigh in. The schools really make a market decision about what they want to do.”
Last March, the university announced it would do a feasibility study on expanding the south end zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Hill said the committee of approximately 10 people overseeing the study currently meets at least once per month.
While the committee has some internal timelines, Hill said it likely wouldn’t share any timelines before the spring when it gets more information from consultants the university has hired.
The expansion committee will examine renovation options, market demand and costs as well as how those factors match the funding framework. That funding model will ultimately include donations, ticket sales, fees and luxury areas. State or university funds will not be an option.
“We don’t want to be a school that gets starry-eyed and thinks they can pay for something and the formula doesn’t work,” Hill said. “That’s not fair to anybody, and that could hurt other programs. That’s one thing we don’t want to do. We also don’t want to price our fans out of coming to the games.”
The Utes, who boast a 98-percent football season ticket renewals ratio, have sold out 46 consecutive home games. The stadium has a seating capacity of 45,807, but thanks to standing-room only tickets, the Utes’ average attendance since 2014 has exceeded the seating capacity. A school-record crowd of 47,825 attended a game against Michigan in 2015.
The university has hired the Texas-based firm CSL (Conventions, Sports & Leisure), a company that has analyzed markets and consulted on projects for soccer and football (NFL and college) stadiums as well as baseball parks and arenas. Pac-12 schools that have used CSL as part of their own football stadium projects include Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State.
“We want to do what’s right, that’s why we’re taking a group like that,” Hill said. “College football is changing rapidly in terms of attendance at different schools, how people can get the games in another way. So the future is a little bit unknown. We’re hoping to get the best information that we can do get going on the project.”
The lead architecture and design firm involved in the study, Populous, based out of Kansas City, Mo., has already raised the topic with the committee of possibly adding luxury loge seating to the south end zone. Part of the draw of additional luxury seating would be its ability to help pay off a bond incurred to pay for renovations. Local architecture firm VCBO Architecture, based in Salt Lake City, is also consulting on the study.
Decisions on what type of seating to add will be a big part of the committee’s task. Part of renovation plans will also be relocating some football support, medical support and media areas which currently reside in the south end zone.
Hill said in past years when the university looked into stadium expansion, it was largely an athletic department project. Now, several parts of the university are heavily involved including athletics, the president’s office, auxiliary services and the university budget office, as well as the facility and construction office.
“It’s not just throwing seats in an end zone,” Hill said. “We know that’s not the best step. This project is probably the biggest, the most important project and the most expensive project we’re going to do in the next 20 years.”
Utes football coach Kyle Whittingham said in July at Pac-12 Media Days that the concept of Rice-Eccles expansion is being “well-received” by donors and that “low 50s” is a likely capacity target. Hill said no decisions have been made on the target seating capacity, but everyone seems to want it to reach more than 50,000.
In the past, Hill has publicly downplayed the possibility of expansion and played down expectations. He said he now wants to play a different role, and he’s looking forward to the chance to get excited about the potential changes ahead.
“I’m done being the curmudgeon,” Hill said. “We need to be open-minded and do what we have to do. I just want to be the careful one that we are smart with our decisions, and don’t get too carried away. I think Louisville and Utah will be the only ones who will be taking a serious look at expansion in the country. Everyone else is looking at reducing. That gives you a little pause.”