University of Utah trustees approve $80M bonding plan for Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion to 51,000 seats

| Courtesy Mark Sargent A rendering of a fan-led project to get "UTAH" spelled out on the roof of the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, so that it will be visible for spectators at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

When the University of Utah athletic department received initial approval Tuesday to expand and remodel Rice-Eccles Stadium, one number created the biggest news: 51,000.

Beyond the $80 million cost, approved by the university’s board of trustees with athletic revenue covering the bond debt apart from any state funding, the stadium capacity has been the subject of considerable fan interest for several years. That number was a critical component of Utah’s yearlong study, initiated by former athletic director Chris Hill and completed by his successor, Mark Harlan.

The athletic department’s timetable calls for construction to begin after the 2020 football season and be completed in August 2021. Weber State is scheduled to be the first visiting opponent.

In his presentation to the trustees, Harlan said his department’s arrival at 51,000 seats was “all data-driven” and added, “We have to continue our sellout streak.”

The Utes have sold out 56 consecutive football games with a capacity of about 46,000 — although, with standing room, the school announced 47,825 for Michigan’s visit in 2015. The project will feature premium seating in the south end zone, with terraces, loges and suites.

“We spent a great, great deal of time with consultants on this matter,” Harlan said after the meeting. “Data really suggested our sweet spot was just over 50,000 along with a great need for a premium product. … Many stadiums are downsizing, so we needed to make sure we landed in an appropriately aggressive place.”

Harlan has made clear since he started his job this past summer that the school’s survey of the demand for expansion and the potential support of it would dictate the scope and size of any project. He expects to raise $35 million in donations to support the project, with some signed commitments already received.

Utah launched its survey last November, analyzing market demand among more than 100,000 potential customers. “I give my predecessor a lot of credit,” Harlan said, citing Hill’s approach of studying both the market’s appetite for the project and what it would look like.

Hill, who retired in May, said last season that the stadium expansion would be “the biggest project we’ll take on in the next 20 years, easy.”

Projections say the athletic department would be able to repay the bond in 14 years, Harlan told the trustees. Subsequent approval of the plan is required by the state Board of Regents, the state Building Board and the Utah Legislature. U. President Ruth V. Watkins, football coach Kyle Whittingham and Harlan will provide more details at a news conference Wednesday.

A video rendering presented to the trustees showed that construction will close the bowl on the south end and create new locker rooms. In an era of excess in college athletics, Harlan promised the athletic facilities would be “tastefully done, not over the top.” He also said upgrades are necessary in the end zone building, saying it is “quite candidly, failing,” with broken pipes this year.

After the trustees’ approval of the plan, vice chairman Phillip Clinger labeled it “an exciting project,” one that “has been talked about for a long time.”