Luxury Suites in Stadium Expansion Plan
By Bethany Bradsher
acked by Pirate Club fundraising, East Carolina plans to add 4,500 seats to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium by building bleachers topped by luxury suites in what is now the open east end zone with the Jumbotron TV screen. The Student Pirate Club section probably would move to the new horseshoe to make that end zone hostile space for visitors or welcoming arms for the home team. To manage the $24 million project, East Carolina has retained the same Chapel Hill architectural firm that oversaw the latest stadium expansions at N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill.
Just 10 years after the last Dowdy-Ficklen expansion, the project planning already is under way, at least underground where a sewer pipe needs to be upgraded. That $800,000 improvement began earlier this year. The hope is that the expansion, which will raise the stadium’s seating capacity to 48,000, will be completed by the start of the 2010 season.
While the details of the new horseshoe section remain in flux, Jimmy Bass, senior associate director of athletics for external operations, said that Pirate Club demand and the visions of Terry Holland and Skip Holtz have shown that East Carolina must have better football facilities. “We’re trying to create for all of our sports world-class facilities so that they’ll have a chance to recruit, and for those student-athletes to compete on the very best surfaces available,” Bass said.
Long term, officials are mulling a phase two expansion of Dowdy-Ficklen. Some existing spaces in the stadium will be freshened up. The press box and other spaces on the south side will be refurbished. Those renovations will be done with the future in mind. The work will prepare the top portion of the south side with footings for another upper deck years down the road.
The football stadium expansion is the centerpiece of a broader sports facilities upgrade plan that will impact virtually every sport. The university has committed to a range of projects, including a new women’s softball stadium, a new track and field facility and a new auxiliary gym at Minges Coliseum that will house practice courts for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the volleyball team. Now, the basketball and volleyball teams all must share one gym for practice and games.
Also on the list are 12 new tennis courts, a women’s soccer field and practice facility, a women’s sports field house and a sports medicine facility. The university is financing that part of the facilities plan from indebtedness to be repaid from a $70 annual student debt service fee and gifts.
“ECU may be the only Division IA institution in the country with only one gym for three sports,” Holland said. “Health and Human Performance also uses the one gym until after lunch each class day. Many schools now have separate practice facilities for all three sports that are available to those student-athletes 24-7.”
Funding for all of these new digs will come from a variety of sources, but current plans don’t call for a capital campaign. The first phase of the Dowdy-Ficklen expansion—the east end zone seating and luxury suites—won’t rely on the sale of seat licenses or similar investments as once contemplated. The Board of Governors has approved the use of self-liquidating bonds for the funding. Much of the money will come from the sale of season tickets in the space vacated by the students when they move to the new end zone seats and from the revenue generated by the luxury boxes.
The relocation of the Student Pirate Club (SPC) to the new end zone section makes sense from both atmospheric and financial angles, Bass said. The largest student organization on campus, SPC members received 4,200 tickets last season, so they will fill that section easily. Students will have the horseshoe to themselves where can create a “Pirate Pound” pandemonium that could make a difference in a close game.
“Most importantly,” Bass added, “[the expansion] would open about 3,000 seats for us on the north side that we could sell to Pirate Club donors and open up new revenue streams.” A scheduled reseating of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium planned for 2009 likely will be postponed until 2010 to allow for the adjustments that the new end zone will necessitate. Prime seats in other parts of the stadium could also be vacated when boosters move in to one of the planned luxury boxes.
There have been questions about how good the view will be from luxury suites situated high over the end zone instead of midfield. However, a recent survey of Pirate Club donors indicates the club will have few problems selling as many as 28 boxes, each containing 16 seats. The survey asked respondents to rate their interest in a luxury box. Twenty-two percent of the 2,529 respondents indicated some level of interest in leasing a luxury box.
Bass said that end zone luxury boxes at other schools have been well received. “The suites create a premier seating option for those who can contribute the larger gifts we need to be competitive in today’s world of big time intercollegiate athletics,” Holland said.
Carolina is adding 20 luxury boxes in the west end zone of its stadium; similar layouts house fans at West Virginia and Virginia Tech. When a Pirate contingency toured Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, an administrator there said that only one of their 30 end zone boxes had turned over in 10 years.
Pirate Club director Mark Wharton said he is trying to educate the Pirate Nation on the uniqueness of the end zone project. “I think there’s still a lot of cloudiness on whether we’re going to put boxes on the press box side, Wharton said. “The answer to that right now is no, these are the only boxes we’re going to have.”