More College and University Retrofits Happen in Real Time

When faced with a choice between building new or updating the old, most schools choose to renovate

College athletics have long held a place at the center of campus life, but sports venues haven’t always shared that location. Once a glorious architectural centerpiece on campus, football arenas and stadiums went through a phase of concrete blandness that saw them relegated to less hallowed ground, on the outer edges or even beyond the perimeter. But now, in the new age of fan engagement, these venues are once again moving back to the center of campus life.

For schools looking to participate in the college-athletics renaissance, additional factors affect the decision whether to retrofit an existing venue or build a new one. Budget and facility deterioration continue to be key, but, as conference realignment puts pressure on teams and divisions to launch their own broadcast networks, adding content production to daily operations for athletic directors, renovation schedules that once spanned decades are now scheduled on an ongoing basis.

This perpetual improvement cycle is playing out across newer venues and more-traditional facilities, some of which are so steeped in tradition that a new facility is out of the question.

“[For] a lot of the old schools, those with Big Ten teams and others with stadiums that might have been built in the 1920s or ’30s, the stadium has already been situated on campus,” observes Mark Graham, associate principal, Wrightson Johnson Haddon and Williams (WJHW). “They’re not going to build a whole new stadium and then move; they just continue to update.”

More new builds today are often instigated to rectify the situation of the venue, he notes, citing Colorado State Stadium, currently under construction in Fort Collins, as an example. The new venue will replace Hughes Stadium, which opened 3 miles off campus in 1968; before that, CSU’s home games were played at Colorado Field, which boasted all the most modern amenities when it opened in 1912. Now the return of on-campus football, Graham says, “is going to make the whole game experience at the university more engaging.”

The vibrancy of these new campus centers, evinced in a particularly bold way by the Campus Crossroads project to connect new academic facilities with Notre Dame Stadium, is a reflection of the connected era, when Wi-Fi is as important, if not more so, as a giant videoboard. Once a school has physically brought people together, the challenge is to keep up with the multitude of technological ways to perpetuate the engagement. This ongoing challenge may very well make obsolete the past notion of retrofits, which corrected for lag time in updates and made a big leap forward in one big project. Now it’s all about updates, all the time.

“For major work, we’re still seeing seven- to 10-year turns, but we’re also seeing incremental additional enhancements every other year,” says Keith Hanak, EVP, live events, Panasonic. “A school might expand its Wi-Fi coverage, then take a year off, then the next year create a new engagement area or renovate certain sections of facilities or add digital signage. The construction is almost constant. It may not be an entire facility, but they’re certainly cycling through pieces of it.”

Those pieces include new display technology, which provides additional inventory for sponsors eager to engage with fans in new and dynamic ways. This is particularly key for boom years in football programs: when the team is doing well, advertising picks up.

But, for the fans in any season, win or lose, Wi-Fi is key. “Keeping up with the Wi-Fi piece is one of the biggest challenges,” Hanak says. “Even most well-equipped facilities are hitting their capacity every couple of years.”

Keeping everyone happy across a multitude of interested parties continues to be the far-reaching job of athletic directors, and, for their part, they’re seeing technology upgrades as a part of daily life on campus. At Texas Christian University (TCU), there’s already near-term talk of swapping out the videoboards and sound systems in the renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium, which reopened in 2012. That’s not to say that the school wants to put in bigger displays just for the sake of being bigger. Demand for more screen real estate is increasing because videoboards are about more than just replays now. In recent years, social-media engagement was added to video highlights on the big boards, but now even more space is needed to replicate the multiscreen experience that fans have at home. Real-time stats and highlights from other division teams are expected by an audience hungry for information and visual content.

TCU Senior Associate Athletics Director T. Ross Bailey, a nearly 40-year veteran of the industry, now very much operates on the principle of perpetual technology management: “You obviously can’t do every facility every year, but, if you’re not looking at a five- or six-year replacement cycle at least for planning, you’re probably not staying up with technology today. On a college campus, we try to build venues that have a longer lifespan than maybe a pro venue might, just because we’re not as revenue-driven as the pro market. But, at the same time, we’ve got to try to build in the ability to upgrade and adapt. We’re always trying to move the needle when it comes to fan engagement.”

As the school heads into the 2016-17 season, Bailey is overseeing system tune-ups and setting up a content strategy with TCU’s expanding in-house video-production team. The school now produces its own extra highlights, specials on players, and weekly previews, and they’re using that content over a variety of platforms, he says. “It used to be enough that you’d throw the ball out and you’d go play. Then it came that you had to provide a little more entertainment, and now we have to provide the experience.”

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