Duke football facility upgrades: Does it make sense to spend that money?

duke footballDuke drew 28,131 fans to Wallace Wade Stadium for its Homecoming win over UVA on Saturday. Not a lot of people, but a lot of very smart people, in a manner of speaking, though you have to question how wise some of the smart people on campus are considering what they’re thinking about doing with untold tens of millions of dollars.

As in, committing a chunk of the $250 million that the university wants to spend on athletics facilities upgrades, operations and endowment (see update below) on making Wallace Wade a “boutique” football stadium.

No doubt that Duke at least seems to need to do something to bring its football facilities up to par with the product on the field. Coach David Cutcliffe has built a legitimate ACC contender in Durham, and for some reason, he wants to stay there, as opposed to, say, going pretty much anywhere else he could go to build a winner with more resources.

Saturday was my first visit to Wallace Wade, and quaint as it is, and I’m saying this as politely as I can, the place is a dump, a slightly overgrown D3 stadium with a sports medicine center dressed up as a press box on game days, a shantytown of tents along the concourse made up to be concession stands and those scads of empty seats on all corners.

(Editor’s Note: The press box does happen to offer some of the best Carolina barbecue I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume in large quantities. I will have dreams about that ambrosia tonight.)

The barbecue aside, the football complex, if you can even call what they have on site a complex, was clearly built up without any rhyme or reason. Hey, we need a practice field. Um, what about an indoor facility? We’ve got some space over here!

The problem for me is figuring out who pays the bills. Augusta Free Press associate sportswriter Jerry Carter reminds me that the money is coming from a private capital campaign, which means that it would be insulated from the day-to-day pressures of the market, because Duke.

The where there’s a will, there’s a way approach is itself quaint, probably uniquely Duke, and also hubris. Will or not, those dollars are precious resources to somebody, and I’m sure the smart folks at Duke who would be giving up those resources would like to see some return on their investment for the benefit of Duke University.

This is where things get interesting. The upgrades only add around 2,000 seats to the stadium, which, sure, makes sense, when you consider that Duke football, even in these, the salad days, are still averaging less than 30,000 fans a game this year, after bringing in just over 30,000 fans a game in 2013, when Duke won 10 games and the ACC Coastal Division title. But if you’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to upgrade facilities, and you’re not planning to add much more in the way of seats, and you’re not really expecting to boost attendance as a result of any of it, what might be the point of the whole operation?

If it’s to bring the quality of the facilities up to speed with the quality of the product on the field, that’s nice, but let’s look at this from up above. David Cutcliffe, in my view, is the best coach in America, but he’s also 60 years old. He may very well have 7-10 good coaching years left in him, and he may spend all of them at Duke, and each year that passes makes that more likely, because as much as he is the best coach in America, not many programs are going to want to commit the resources to bring the best coach in America who also happens to be in his 60s to town to get their program moving in the right direction only to have to make a change in a few years when he retires.

News flash: that’s going to be happening at Duke, not soon, as in, in a year or two, but when you’re looking at tens of millions of dollars of upgrades to sports facilities, 7-10 years is soon in terms of return on investment.

Does Duke, which famously has its top-flight basketball program playing in the, ahem, quaint Cameron Indoor Stadium, really seem like the kind of place that wants to have a towering video scoreboard and luxury suites?

Not in my admittedly limited experience. I had the pleasure of being able to spend a furious 24 hours on campus this weekend with Carter, a lifelong Duke fan and observer, taking in a Duke-UVA women’s volleyball contest and then a Duke-Notre Dame men’s soccer match Friday night before the Duke-UVA football game on Saturday. Attendance at the volleyball and soccer matches would be outpaced at any such events held at your local high school, and while, sure, we’re talking about conference matches on Homecoming weekend, in advance of a Homecoming game that itself was played to an 80 percent capacity crowd.

The issue isn’t something lacking in the gameday experience, as Duke officials have suggested in their pitches for the millions in spending to improve the experience. It’s a small student body, a far-flung alumni base and lack of penetration in a local market that has competition from two large state ACC schools that are less than 15 miles away.

The smart folks at Duke can find 250 million other things to do with that money instead of wasting it on bright lights for football and other sports. The products on the field are already top-notch; spend that money on academics, research, really, anything else.

 

Update: The $250 million fund-raising goal for Duke Athletics is split into three parts: $100 million for facilities, $100 million for operations and $50 million for endowment.

 

 

– Column by Chris Graham



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