Utah is pitching high-end seats in the south end zone as the prime feature of the stadium expansion plan

Wednesday’s news conference produced a new seating capacity figure: 51,444.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham talks about the new stadium expansion during a news conference at Rice -Eccles stadium, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

The end zone is not historically known as the prime vantage point for football fans, yet that location is the centerpiece of the current trend in stadium remodeling. Premium seating in the south end zone will drive the University of Utah’s funding of the Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion project.

Wednesday's news conference celebrated the university Board of Trustees' approval of an $80 million bonding plan for the project as an initial move toward construction, scheduled to start in December 2020 and be completed in August 2021.

The stadium’s redesign will increase capacity to slightly more than the 51,000 figure cited Tuesday when Utah athletic director Mark Harlan made his presentation to the trustees. The unveiling of drawings included a new number of seats: 51,444.

“That's the number that we have, knowing that as you get into heavy design, that number could fluctuate,” Harlan said Wednesday.

The current capacity is listed at 45,800, although the Utes have announced several higher attendance figures in recent years, due to standing room. Utah has drawn sellout crowds for 56 consecutive football games.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah president, Ruth Watkins, jokes with head coach Kyle Whittingham, after a news conference about the new stadium expansion, at Rice-Eccles stadium, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

The increase will come partly from 1,000 bleacher seats in the corners and the rest will feature premium seating as a major component of the design by the Kansas City-based Populous architecture firm. The marketing feasibility study conducted by the Texas-based CSL reported “very high demand” for terraced seating on each side of the goalposts, plus loges, suites, club seats and rooftop seating, Harlan said.

Harlan hopes to develop “the best home-field advantage in college football” and believes the fan base's commitment of support creates “a very conservative path” of financing the project.

The enhanced fan experience is the selling point for higher-priced seats and amenities that Utah’s athletic department projects will enable to school to repay the bond after 14 years, Harlan said. And that requires marketing the view from the end zone — as opposed to the 50-yard line, traditionally considered the prime location.

End zones in collegiate stadiums largely were an undeveloped market until the 1990s, when schools including South Carolina and Texas A&M made major upgrades. Populous has designed the recent or ongoing projects at the likes of Arkansas, Missouri and Texas.

“Until you sit there, you're not really sure,” Harlan said, “but as I've studied all our peers that have added the end zones, the one thing you constantly hear is how people enjoy it.”

At Oklahoma, Harlan said, some fans have moved from midfield suites to the end zone for a close-up look at the team entering the field and watching plays develop — especially in that end of the field. “We’ll just show people that view … and I think a lot of people will actually really enjoy it,” Harlan said.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Rendering of what Rice-Eccles Stadium's south end zone will look like when the University of Utah's $89 million expansion project is finished in 2021.

CSL provides marketing and financial advice to the sports industry. The company studied the completed surveys of about 4,500 current and prospective fans and determined “a strong foundation and a lot of confidence” in the demand for premium seating and for 51,444 as reasonable capacity, CSL's Jay Lenhardt said.

Jeremy Krug of Populous endorsed “getting closer to the action” as an attraction of his firm's other projects. Having attended several Utah games, Krug said, “If you have the chance to be in the end zone with a closer vantage point, I think it's going to be exciting.”

Krug pointed the enclosed, south concourse design of the stadium as a key element, along with integrating the current scoreboard and featuring a recruiting lounge for prospective players and their families. The current south end zone facility will be demolished to make way for new home and visiting locker rooms on game days.

Ute football coach Kyle Whittingham said the stadium's expansion would boost recruiting and is “going to help us on a lot of different levels.”

Harlan intends to move the Ute band from the end zone to the east stands, blending with students in the MUSS.

University president Ruth V. Watkins labeled the stadium “a spectacular, iconic symbol for our community” and mentioned a waiting list of 3,000 for Ute season tickets.

Subsequent approval of the expansion plan is required by the Utah State Board of Regents, the State Building Board and and the State Legislature.