- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Earlier today, I wrote a story about the construction craze gripping college sports, including the Big Ten.
Even in a long story, I didn't have room for all the good notes and quotes from the reporting process. Luckily, that's why we have this blog.
Iowa is an interesting case study. The Hawkeyes, one could easily argue, have been doing just fine in the Big Ten under Kirk Ferentz. Yet outside of their recent improvements to Kirk Ferentz, their football facilities were lacking. Now the school is completing a $56 million upgrade that includes a new practice facility to replace the old bubble and eventually new offices. Will that make a difference competitively for Iowa, which has been cranking out NFL players under Ferentz?
Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta said the practice bubble was built in the early 1980s and had a life expectancy of 10-to-15 years.
"Was it a disadvantage for us?" Barta told ESPN.com "I don't know. I do know that the facility had outlived its lifespan, and it was time for a new one.
"My goal, first and foremost, is to hire and retain the best people. Then you have to make sure to give those people the tools to be successful."
Several athletic directors who were interviewed said having new and state-of-the-art facilities are critical in recruiting.
"When you have 17-to-18 year-olds who are being toured around the country to decide where they want to take their talents and perform, they are looking with a critical eye at facilities," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "They know these are the places where they're going to spend a disproportionate amount of their time. And it's the right thing to do; if you're going to ask world-class athletes to come to your institution, you want to provide them with the very best you can in terms of the facilities they're going to be operating in."
"Kids are smart," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We can say all we want to about our commitment to the program, but [they're thinking], 'Let's see how that manifests itself.' The perception is so important. When kids come in, when fans come in, when parents come in, they can see there's an institutional commitment to the sport."
While Glass noted in the story that Big Ten television revenue has had a huge impact on his program, others said they still rely mostly on donations to fund major facility improvement projects. At Michigan, for example, Brandon said the TV money might help get a project finished sooner but doesn't pay for the whole thing.
"The extra TV revenue has been terrific," Barta said. "I don't want to oversell it or undersell it. But without the contributions of our donors, we wouldn't be able to do it either. So it's a combination of support and contributions."
Schools have to decide on their priorities when undertaking construction projects. Things like new or expanded stadiums can help increase revenue, while the recent big push for better training and operations centers enhance the quality of the athletes' experience but don't add any dollars to the bottom line.
"You have a student-athlete focus, and you have a fan focus, and you have to make decisions accordingly," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. "We’re trying to be extremely aggressive within the resources we have available at Michigan State to provide the best for both of those segments of our population. It becomes a challenge. You have to have a global perspective, and you have to have a long-range perspective and make sure that you can generate the funds necessary for the debt capacity that you’re building."
All of the ADs I interviewed for the story said they don't get caught up in the arms race, though each admitted they pay attention to what other schools are doing when it comes to facilities. The unanswered question is whether building craze will ever slow down.
"I'd like to say cooler heads will prevail and stop the escalation, but I'm not sure they will," Indiana's Glass said. "It's a marketplace, and at some level if athletic departments are generating the money, I'm not sure I see the downside of reinvesting it in their athletic programs. If it leads to the academic side subsidizing the athletic side, then think it's gone too far and hopefully the market will reorient itself."
2hBrian Bennett and Austin Ward