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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
Now that it's getting a facelift, Mark Spencer and Manolo Concepcion are brutally honest about the space the University of Evansville volleyball team has called home.
"An almost middle school gym," said Concepcion, the team's head coach.
"A big, empty cement box ... and it's not pretty," said Spencer, the Aces' athletic director.
With $725,000 and a creative solution for issues facing the volleyball and women's basketball programs, that cement box inside the on-campus Carson Center will be soon transformed.
Renovations will begin at the start of the new fiscal year June 1 and be complete by the time volleyball practice starts Aug. 9. New seating, flooring, lighting, video boards, basketball hoops and graphics will be installed, along with a new sound system.
"What we're going to do is going to bring it into the 21st century and it will be state of the art," Spencer said.
Meeks Family Court will be rebranded Meeks Family Fieldhouse, which leaves open the possibility of naming rights for the new court, Spencer said.
The project will be paid for with money saved on rent given to the Ford Center to host women's basketball games. By moving women's games to the Meeks Family Fieldhouse, Spencer said, the school will be able to save $115,000 per year that it can reinvest on campus.
The first eight years, almost $100,000 annually will go toward paying off the Carson Center project and its interest. The other $15,000 will plug an annual operational deficit the women's basketball program has had since moving to the Ford Center for the 2011-12 academic year.
"When women's basketball moved from Roberts Stadium into the new stadium, budgets weren't really adjusted for the change in rent and how much was spent, so women's basketball had been running an operational deficit that they didn't have any control over and it was all because of rent factors," Spencer said. "They didn't have enough money to pay officials outside of paying rent, so this allows for the normal operations of paying officials and having normal game expenses that normally they've been over budget on as a sport every year."
Spencer said the Ford Center was receptive to the idea of losing UE women's basketball as a tenant and that "it was kind of a money-losing situation for both the Ford Center and for us." He said the Ford Center can make as much money by booking a weekend full of concerts as it can guarantee by hosting 15 women's games. Scott Schoenike, executive director of the Ford Center, didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
In addition to the financial benefit to UE, Spencer believes moving women's hoops on campus will provide a better home court advantage. Anyone who has attended a game at the 10,000-seat Ford Center can attest that it's a dead environment when only a few hundred people show up for a game.
The Aces' average official attendance this season was 815, but that figure is far higher than the number of actual fans in the seats.
The renovated facility will have a capacity near 1,100, creating a more intimate setting. It's also an easy walk across the street for most students, who typically number in the single digits for games at the Ford Center.
"The biggest thing is you've got to get them there," UE women's basketball coach Matt Ruffing said. "Once they kind of experience it and see what it's about, it's a lot easier for others to come with them. It may start with 20 of them but those 20 will make a big difference."
Spencer said moving the program to Meeks Family Fieldhouse is in compliance with Title IX, which regulates equal treatment of male and female student-athletes. Title IX demands that men's and women's sports receive the same level of facility but not the exact same facility. One of Evansville's Missouri Valley Conference rivals, Bradley, hosts its men's and women's basketball games at different venues.
"I've had some pushback from fans who don't believe it and I encourage them to come out in August when volleyball starts or when we open at home in basketball to come see the facility and see that this is not going to disadvantage our recruiting or our program or de-emphasize it," Spencer said. "This is focusing a program in a facility that they can be successful and recruit to. I think seeing would be believing."
There are a few downsides to the move. Basketball players will need to vacate their locker rooms when visiting volleyball teams arrive, and vice versa.
Also, the men's and women's basketball teams will no longer be able to host games on the same day because the ESPN3 production team can't move its equipment fast enough. That could make the scheduling process more complex for both the Aces and the MVC office.
While there are skeptics about how much this move will benefit the women's basketball program, there is no denying the renovations are a welcome boost to Concepcion and his volleyball team.
He has been lobbying for a volleyball-specific court for the past three years and the eventual upgrades exceed what he was proposing. Removable Teraflex flooring will be placed on top of the new basketball court for volleyball practices and games, creating a cleaner look and a safer playing surface.
"People associate that type of flooring with Olympic flooring because that's the flooring that people see on TV only in either the Olympics or the Final Four," Concepcion said. "You don't see the floor like that every single day unless you are in a Power 5 conference, where you will see it in some home courts. To see it in a small, private school in the Missouri Valley, I think that's going to start a trend for other people in the conference."
Concepcion believes the Teraflex flooring will give him an edge in recruiting while improving the level of training the coaching staff can provide.
"Because of the cushion of the flooring and the ability for players to dive with no risk whatsoever ... it will allow us to do things that we would not normally do on a wood type of surface," he said. "It's almost like tearing down the gym and completely renovating it. We went from an almost middle school gym to having probably one of the best gyms in the conference, if not the best."
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