Is it time to expand Rice-Eccles Stadium?
With yesterday's news that Michigan and Utah are close to a series deal that will bring the Wolverines to Salt Lake City for the start of the 2015 season, I've come to the conclusion, to maximize the potential of not just this game, but other games, it's time the program expand Rice-Eccles Stadium.
I know, we've batted around this idea for years and every time there is positive moment for the program, whether it was the 2004 Fiesta Bowl season, 2008 Sugar Bowl season or joining the Pac-12, the topic comes up, but it seems it rarely moves beyond the preliminary discussion phase.
Outside minor hints from the program and Coach Whittingham, nothing definitive has ever been released on the topic of expansion and we're left speculating when it will actually happen. There has been some indication expansion could be tied to Salt Lake City's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics and it's definitely in the plans. Beyond that, though? No one knows if expansion will happen after this season, next season or five seasons. There has never been an official date set in stone and certainly nothing of much substance released from the athletic department.
That has to change. It's time Rice-Eccles Stadium is expanded to keep up with the growing Utah football program.
I know, I know, it's a big step and we're still the program known for having a fairly fickle fan base. I get it. I agree. For a long time, we struggled filling a 30,000 seat stadium - let alone one that could push capacity to 55,000. It's definitely a risk and I'm sure that worry, and the fact other Utah programs are in need of facility upgrading as well, has kept the University from announcing definitive plans.
It does make sense. Expansion is a commitment and are we at the point where the program can commit to 11,000 or so more fans? If you think we are, you're probably already in support of expansion. If you're skeptical, you might find yourself thinking along the same lines as University officials.
As a fan, who's seen first hand how difficult it is to actually get season tickets, and even single-game tickets, I come at this from the point of view that we're a program bursting at the seams in our current stadium and expansion really is the only answer to grow our fan base and truly build a program in Salt Lake City that is available to the entire community.
The facts seem to support the need for expansion and while I get we're a bit gun-shy in many ways, it's time this program think boldly. We're not in the Mountain West Conference anymore. Our rivals and opponents, generally, aren't playing in stadiums that seat 30,000 and are a shade better than a typical high school football stadium.
There is a huge difference between War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyoming, and what they're planning on building in Tempe for Arizona State.
This is an arms race between Superpowers and not one between the United States and Guam - as it often felt like in the Mountain West.
If we're going to keep up with the Big Boys, we've got to start acting like the Big Boys. Now I'm not proposing that tomorrow Chris Hill announce an expansion project that will boost capacity to 70,000, but when you realize where we're at and where we could be going, 45,000, even in as nice of a stadium as we have, just ain't going to cut it.
We are turning hundreds, if not thousands, of potential fans away from the gates every single season because demand is just ridiculously high at the moment. All you have to do to get a sense of that demand is check the prices for Utah football tickets at StubHub and you'll see how insanely priced some of these tickets are. If you want to attend the USC game, you better have some serious rock because, at the least, it's going to cost you $156 a ticket. That's for a ticket in Row 55 in the Redzone. You'll also notice how quickly the prices spike - from $156.00 to $172.00 to $181.00 and who knows how high they'll go the closer we get to the season.
In comparison, at Stanford, a team that just went to the Orange Bowl, ticket prices for their home game against the Trojans start at $89.00.
Utah this season will have some of the highest priced single-game tickets of any Pac-12 team on StubHub and other online ticket marketplaces.
That is telling because StubHub's prices are a direct result of demand. Just look at BYU tickets to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Their home game against Washington State has a starting price of just $22.95. Utah's game against Wazzu in Salt Lake City? The cheapest is $39.00.
Really, that tells you everything you need to know. Utah is the hotter ticket and with a smaller stadium, it makes getting that hotter ticket more costly and difficult for potential fans who are wanting a chance to see the Utes live.
In 2015, especially if Utah lives up to even the most passive of expectations, what will the demand look like then? What's it going to look like in 2014 when the Utes host not just Oregon and Stanford, but USC?
When the topic of expansion came up in years past, there were obvious reasons for skepticism. In 2004, the Utes hadn't sustained winning at a high enough level to prove they could support a 55,000 stadium. It was absolutely a valid argument because two years prior, there were embarrassingly sparse crowds - specifically the '02 UNLV game that was so desolate by the end, you could have landed a jumbo jet somewhere in the stands and not hit one person.
But that was 2002. A lot has changed in the past ten years and sure, there is always the concern we'll revert back to our old ways and therefore, when we become the inevitable average team that we were prior to '03, a great deal of games will be played in front of a lousy 30,000 fans. You don't have to do the math to figure out 30,000 fans in a stadium that seats 55,000 is going to leave a lot of empty seats.
Get over it.
It's time we stop being the downers we can be at times. I know a great deal of us, and I'll definitely include myself in this, constantly walk around waiting for that other shoe to drop. We still haven't gotten over this idea that everything good that has happened to this program can be gone in an instant. That one day, maybe this season, we'll be right back to where we were in the Ron McBride days and worse, we'll be doing it in a much more difficult conference.
Get over it.
It's time the program show some confidence in this coaching staff and commit to the idea of prolonged winning.
When BYU expanded Cougar Stadium from the 45,000 temporary capacity to its current state in 1982, the program was just on the cusp of its great run. They had yet to win a national championship or produce a Heisman trophy winner and while there was evidence the program was about to do something big, they still weren't really nationally renown.
It was a gamble for the University to expand from 45,000 to 65,000 only a few years into LaVell's magical run there. And you've got to remember that '82 was the first season in the newly expanded stadium, so, this was an endeavor that began even before '82. I'm sure they had plans to expand that stadium the second Edwards and the Cougars produced their first 10-win season in 1979.
But even at the end of '81, when the stadium began its expansion, the Cougars still were only a few years removed from seasons that were far from what they would eventually see throughout most of the 1980s.
That didn't stop the program from moving ahead, though, because they had a forward vision of where they wanted to take the football program. It worked. It paid off. In the 1980s and most of the 90s, BYU was able to grow its fan base from one that was at the level of Utah and turn it into a solid, regionally significant and nationally respected group of fans.
Utah can do that. We are in a better position today than BYU. We are in a state where the demographics are changing, where there are more non-Mormons living here than at any point in the state's history and a great deal of Mormons who are growing up, or just grew up, have witnessed the Utes overtake the Cougars locally and nationally.
If you were born in 1992, you will have already turned 20, or will be turning 20 this year. You will have seen Utah win 12 of the last 20 (we're pretending that you watched as an infant) Holy Wars, finish in the top-ten three times, finish undefeated two times, a Fiesta Bowl win and a Sugar Bowl win.
In the past 20 years, whatever BYU has done, and certainly they have had some good, and even one great season, can't compare to the Utes' run. 1996 stands out, but even then, the Cotton Bowl or the Sugar Bowl? Your pick.
Sure, they won WAC & Mountain West championships and had a string of ten-win seasons, but in the end, what has been memorable to the kid who was born in '92? It's the success Utah has seen the last twenty years and continues to see this day.
It all culminated, of course, with the program accepting an invitation to the Pac-12, while BYU decided to chart its own course, which, let's be honest, has had mixed results so far.
That's our future right there. For the generation who grew up in the 70s and 80s, they witnessed great BYU teams and I'm sure many of them climbed aboard the Cougar Bandwagon and have remained there through thick and thin. Good for them. But likewise, now we've got a whole new group of potential fans just waiting to experience Utah and we're turning them away because our stadium is the 2nd smallest in the conference.
We need to be bold. I know it's cliched and sappy, but this is our moment and we need to seize it. We can't risk going conservative here. We can't risk holding back out of a fear that tomorrow will somehow look like yesterday. That gets us nowhere. Let's step up and do what is needed, even if it's risky, so that we don't hold back the growth of this program.
Let us be bold and forward thinking.
We are Utah. We are the team that busted the BCS first. We are the first team that did it twice. We are the team that went from a little known football program in a state dominated by the BYU Cougars, to one that is now seriously discussed as a threat to the USC Trojans and their goal of winning a Pac-12 championship.
We are Utah and we break barriers here. Now it's time we break this one.