Copyright 2017 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY - When it comes to expanding Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah athletics director Chris Hill acknowledged there's a popular number being thrown around for the 45,807-seat venue.
"I think everybody wants a five in front of it," he said. "But that's why we need to be disciplined."
University of Utah officials announced Monday that a feasibility study will be conducted in regard to expanding the south end zone at the stadium. The announcement included plans for a market analysis, cost estimates and funding models.
"The study is a critical first step in determining a business plan that supports potential changes to the stadium's south side," it read.
Hill emphasized that a measured approach is being taken for a variety of reasons.
"We don't want to jump right away to a number of seats or whatever because the cost and the way to pay for it and the demand - they're all variables that need to be flushed out," he said.
University officials noted that the feasibility study will provide valuable data in evaluating things such as demand and potential revenue sources, including donations and increased ticket numbers.
"Understanding the market, costs and feasibility will help us better prepare for the future of the stadium," university President David W. Pershing said in the news release. "There's still much work to be done before taking steps toward renovation. We have to know if the market will support this kind of expansion."
The project involves more than the likelihood of additional seats. New locker rooms, equipment storage, hospitality and media rooms, as well as medical service space, could be part of an expansion. Additional considerations include fan interaction and concession space, loges and suites. Connecting the east and west concourses will also be studied.
"The infrastructure is one that has to happen for the football operations," Hill said. "So we know that is on a short timeline."
The reason for a thorough feasibility study with outside consultants and such, Hill explained, is to ensure it doesn't become a project based solely on somebody's opinion. Rather, a possible expansion must match different variables, such as demand and price points for the demand.
Utah football tickets have been a hot commodity in recent years. The average attendance last season was 46,506 - nearly exceeding the official capacity (thanks to standing-room tickets) by just under 800 per game.
Even so, the Utes were ninth in the Pac-12 in attendance - well behind front-runners USC (68,459), UCLA (67,458), Washington (64,589) and Oregon (54,677), but relatively close to Arizona (48,288), Arizona State (47,736), California (46,628) and Colorado (46,609). Stanford (44,142), Oregon State (37,622) and Washington State (31,675) brought up the rear.
According to a CBSsports.com report, Football Bowl Subdivision attendance fell for the sixth consecutive season. The average per game was 43,106 in 2016.
The Utes, thus, are bucking the trend. Hill noted that Utah's attendance and interest have accompanied the success that head coach Kyle Whittingham and the players have experienced.
"There's a lot of variables," said Hill, who added the great atmosphere at Rice-Eccles provides quite a home-field advantage.
"We just don't want to lose that," he said in terms of potential stadium expansion.
Hill said that anyone who sees the stadium knows what needs to be done to the facility. It's just the magnitude of it that needs to be decided.
"We want to make sure we have a financial plan that doesn't bankrupt the department as what's happened with other stadiums because people kind of get starry- eyed maybe and go from there," he continued. "This is a major project and we want to make sure we do it the right way and have data to back up what we're doing, not just opinions."
Utah has sold out every game at Rice-Eccles Stadium since the season-opener in 2010, a run of 38 consecutive contests. Season-ticket renewals are at 98 percent.
"It's great to hear that the process has begun for an expansion to Rice-Eccles Stadium. The expansion study, which will take into account new locker rooms, medical support areas, additional seating and other amenities to enhance the student-athlete and fan experience in Rice-Eccles Stadium, is a big step in the right direction," Whittingham said in an issued statement.
"Facility improvements are critical for our recruiting, and this will add to our ongoing efforts to have national- caliber facilities across the board, and we are grateful to the administration for exploring the options."
Hill is also excited about the announcement. He already received a telephone call from a fan wishing to buy eight more season tickets on the 50-yard line, a request he found a bit humorous considering expansion is set for the south end zone.
Such seats, Hill noted, are different than they were five years ago with the rise of luxury areas and other improvements. He expressed excitement that end-zone seating is more popular and fan-friendly.
That said, Hill doesn't have a number of new seats in mind.
"I think that's the exact problem that's in people's minds. Let's jump right to the size of a stadium and then they're really just guessing," Hill said. "And with the trend nationally, I think people want us to be different - which we just might be."
The Utes, he continued, have had a big jump in the number of Power-5 teams coming to Salt Lake City. Interest has risen and therefore the feasibility study is warranted.
"Long-term is a key. Because this is a very long-term project," Hill said. "We want to zero in on what the right number is. I don't have any conceived notion of that."
The approach is something Hill appreciates. Although funding will come from revenue generation by athletics, it's a university effort. Hill said everyone is making sure to "lock arms and do the right thing."
Robin Burr, who was named the university's chief design and construction officer in January, is heading the effort.
No timetable has been set for the project, pending results of the feasibility study. Hill said the committee hasn't really gotten started yet.
"Athletics will obviously be very involved, but we want to make sure as a university - getting all the input from constituent groups - that we make a very informed decision," Hill said. "All decisions are not 100 percent sure, but this is one where we can get closer. Every decision is a risk, but we want to limit this one because it's such a long-term deal and such an expensive proposition."
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