- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cincinnati unveiled long-anticipated plans to update and expand Nippert Stadium during a news conference Tuesday, a move athletic director Whit Babcock says will give his department a more financially sustainable model moving into the future.
Though Babcock was asked several times how this renovation may be viewed through the prism of conference realignment, he steered clear of a larger discussion about the Big East. But there is no question Cincinnati is serious about upgrading its image, particularly when it comes to football, as realignment continues to be a hot topic of conversation.
Once again, Babcock showed why he is the right man to lead Cincinnati moving forward with another terrific news conference. He presented the facts and reasons behind the renovation with great detail, and impressed me once again with his vision moving forward. Though there is no timetable set for the start of construction, Babcock estimates the renovation will cost $60-70 million with the main focus on adding premium seating -- suites, club level and loge.
He wouldn't detail how much bigger Nippert would get. Right now, the stadium seats about 35,000 people. The hope is for a capacity of at least 40,000, and to raise the necessary money through fundraising, donations, sponsorships and naming-rights opportunities. (Not to worry: the Nippert Stadium name is not for sale.)
Cincinnati will not use student fees or general operating dollars to fund the expansion.
"We're doing this to change our current financial model," Babcock said. "We want to compete at the highest level, but if we want to change where we are or improve, we can't do what we've always done."
Babcock pointed out Cincinnati has one of the lowest athletic budgets among all automatic qualifying conferences for a number of reasons: a below-market television contract; debt service on the Varsity Village, and not enough revenue from the football stadium. Toward that end, Babcock essentially ruled out playing many more games at Paul Brown Stadium in the future. He noted that the West Virginia and Louisville games played there last year lost six figures compared to a sold out Nippert Stadium.
While these renovation plans are long overdue, Cincinnati still has not proven it can sell out its 35,000-seat stadium on a consistent basis. Babcock said they were at about 83 percent full on their bleacher seating this year. Cincinnati did have two FCS home games because of Big East realignment ramifications, but didn't sell out one game.
"We don't have to have them all sold out just yet but my vision is for every one of them to be sold out," Babcock said. "I'm convinced we can get there."