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This is the third of five stories looking at the status of University at Buffalo athletics and their long-term potential.
University at Buffalo athletics released a long-range master facilities plan earlier this year that may appear stunningly ambitious until weighed against what fellow Mid-American Conference schools already possess.
The lowering of the field at UB Stadium to enhance the fan experience? Ohio executed such an overhaul at Peden Stadium in 2001.
The addition of climate-controlled club seating for football games? Akron's InfoCision Stadium, completed in 2009 at a cost of $61.6 million, features 17 suites, 522 club seats and 152 covered loge seats.
A field house to accommodate an array of activities and, most notably, allow for indoor football practices? Ohio University just completed construction. Miami has broken ground and is aiming at a December finish. That will leave UB and Ball State as the lone MAC schools still out in the cold.
UB's master facilities plan calls for additions and improvements totaling more than $40 million, and that's before projecting costs for the lowering of the stadium field, the retooling of Kunz Field for track and other sports and the construction of a new student recreation center to meet demand and free up Alumni Arena for athletics.
All told, at today's dollars, the overall price tag probably exceeds $60 million. And typically the longer projects remain on the shelf the pricier they become.
No doubt UB required a master plan/wish list so it's not building facilities willy-nilly and later regretting their placement. And artist renderings of the completed projects enable the development arm of athletics to present potential donors with a vision of substance instead of pitching abstract concepts.
"You can't raise money if you don't tell people what you want and where you want to go and how it impacts what they're passionate about," said UB athletic director Danny White, who's in his 26th month on the job. "That's the first thing we really focused on when I first got in town two years ago. We have to present a vision of where we're taking it, and it's not our vision, it's the vision that matches, I think, the potential of this university."
Given the high costs involved and UB's relatively modest successes in athletic fund-raising, the master plan might never be realized in its entirety. For instance, the need for a field house/practice facility was identified a decade ago but has advanced no further than the drawing board.
"It's an ongoing conversation," White said. "Everybody on campus knows how much we need it. We're having a lot of conversations with key donors and what levels of gifts allow us to make it happen. To get to $20 million you got to have some fives and hopefully a 10 involved in that."
"It's hard to say," White said. "We can't pressure philanthropy. There are people that know what we're trying to do and are engaged in this conversation."
UB isn't the only mid-major school to find that wooing donors can be a tedious experience wed to circumstance. Peers have found the time between identifying a major need and completing the project often can approach or exceed a decade.
Ohio U. began pursuit of an indoor practice facility in 2007. Two donations provided the initial momentum before a declining economy applied the brakes.
"Unfortunately, in the fall or 2008 and the year 2009 it became The Great Recession and really put us in a mode where we were basically focusing in on cultivating donors for that project instead of soliciting, so we delayed our project a couple of years," said Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus. "But it was still a high priority and once the economy started to slide its way back we were back in business and having some success in getting people involved in the project."
For Miami, the pursuit of a field house dragged on for more than 10 years and long predated the arrival of current AD David Sayler.
"I have found files in my office dating back to 1998 talking about an indoor facility, so it's long overdue," Sayler said. "We had a lot of different facility projects in some form of funding or interest and I just decided we needed to consolidate down to five or six and have the athletic department decide on what projects were really important and then go after them. We made the indoor a priority and we found the right people that agreed with that and were willing to give us some money, and once we hit a large gift it was off to the races and getting it approved."
The 'appeal' process
The desire for new facilities and eye-popping amenities is rooted in recruiting wars. High school athletes tend take stock of the bells and whistles particular to their sport. A state-of-the-art locker room trumps an outdated one. An indoor practice facility is more appealing than the thought of November practices in the elements. Facilities and amenities can be the difference between landing or losing a prized recruit and realizing the on-field successes that spur overall departmental growth.
"It shows a commitment to your program," Sayler said. "It shows a recruit that Miami is taking this seriously and we want to get better. We want to continue to improve our facilities. I think when recruits see that and sense that and actually see the dirt moving, that really starts to make an impact on the positive side."
"Our coaches have told me that the last two classes that we've signed have been affected by the indoor practice facility," said Schaus, the Ohio AD.
That could be foreboding news for the rest of the conference considering the Bobcats have been bowl-eligible in seven of nine seasons under former Nebraska coach Frank Solich.
"The coaches feel like our best two recruiting classes in Frank's 10 years have been the last two years and we think the indoor has had a very positive impact on that," Sayler said.
UB's field house remains on the wish list but improvements have been made in a variety of other areas.
The Morris Sports Performance Center adjacent to UB Stadium was built in 2006 for just more than $800,000. The Ed Wright Practice Facility within Alumni Arena was constructed in 2009 for about $625,000. In 2010, a football meeting room within UB Stadium and a wrestling room within Alumni were built for a combined $665,000.
The costliest projects produced the video scoreboard, lighting and sound equipment within Alumni Arena for about $2.5 million in 2011 and, just this summer, a state-of-the-art training room within UB Stadium for about $1.5 million.
"We're not building anything that we don't need," White said. "I think college athletic facilities at the Division I level, the biggest area where it impacts is recruiting. If they're good enough to where we're recruiting them, chances are their sport is pretty important to them, and they spend a lot of time on it. So the facilities that they'll be training in and competing in matter a whole lot.
"Some sports we're pretty well-positioned. Our aquatic center is awesome and our basketball's really improved with some of the things that have happened at Alumni Arena. Our outdoor sports are where we have to improve the most."
A question of priorities
Ideally, improved facilities would create a domino effect that would yield greater recruiting successes and improved team performance. But would it be worth the financial and time commitments needed to bring the vision to fruition if UB remains a lifelong member of the MAC, and/or outside the bounds of the major conferences? Opinions vary.
"My answer on that is no, and I think it may even be a resounding no, quite frankly," said Dr. Kyle V. Sweitzer, a data research analyst at Michigan State who wrote the chapter "Institutional Ambitions and Athletic Conference Affiliation" for the journal New Direction for Higher Education.
"A push back against that from the athletic side of the house is, well, our money is all from athletics, we don't use any institutional money. Well, that's usually not true. Very few schools actually make money, make a profit off athletics, support themselves. So in reality, yeah, a lot of schools are subsidizing their athletic programs with general funds money from tuition and fees and so forth that could be used for other purposes."
"That gets into the discussion, 'What's your mission? What are your values here?' "
A counterpoint touches on how athletic programs serve as the front porch of a university and beckon prospective students to the entrance through the recognition schools derive .
"For a non-urban city with cold and dreary winters, a powerful football or basketball team is a very useful marketing tool to induce high school seniors to chose to attend that university," said Marc Edelman, an associate law professor at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business and a sports business scholar. "Successful college football has been shown over time to increase application rates to universities and to allow the universities based on higher application rates to be more successful, to be more selective."
The facilities arms race, as it's often called, continues, not only for the betterment of the individual schools but also their conferences.
"If you look at those types of investments, little by little over time the league improves," Schaus said. "We're all better off. The tide raises all the ships when it comes to that. I don't think we specifically think, 'Oh, my gosh, this one school just did this,' but we're aware of the schools in the league that have indoor facilities and the ones that don't. That was a factor for us, but we were in it because we needed to do it."
"I think if you fund-raise saying, 'Everyone else has got one, we need one too,' that's not a positive message to give to a donor," said Miami's Sayler. "I think it has to be 'Look, this has been part of our vision for a long time. This is where we need to be as an institution, and it's important to benefit multiple student-athletes.' Let's sell that part of it, not get caught up in the arms race as to who does and doesn't have one."
The process, particularly for mid-major schools, requires patience and dedication.
"We're approaching it in different ways," White said, "looking at different funding models with long-term debt and creating revenue streams, club seating, the East Club project, that in addition to traditional philanthropy I think is how we're going to get it done. If we try to sit back and wait for one or two or three people to write huge checks to get that done, I just think we're going to be wait for another couple decades. "