Sun Devil Stadium project presents unique opportunity to reinvent area, enhance community

Arizona State is not only reinventing Sun Devil Stadium with its $256 million project, but helping to transform and update the university and surrounding community.

Arizona State fans have nothing to worry about when it comes to whether or not Sun Devil Stadium will be ready to host the team's season opener this year. 

"We're on track to finish well before our Sept. 3 game (against Northern Arizona)," ASU Senior Associate Athletic Director Rocky Harris said last week. "Rest assured fans, that is going to happen...we're about a handful of days over [the August 15 scheduled completion date]. 

"It will get done, it will get done on time, because that's what we're being told by the people who are actually doing it...every single meeting I'm in it's asked and we're reassured in every meeting that it's going to be done long before our first game."

The second phase of the program's $256 million three-year project is its most ambitious because of the land development challenges that have now largely concluded. It will transform the west side of the venue with new seating, restrooms, concessions and suite level amenities, and overhaul the north end zone student seating. 

Phase 3 is scheduled to complete the project in August of 2017 with the east side transformation and finishing of the 85,000 square foot Student Athlete Facility building that will house the football program. Currently the steel shell of the huge three-story building is already in place. It will also include the placement of a giant video board, one of the largest in the country, above the north end zone. 

The stadium reinvention is being funded entirely by ASU athletics' efforts. No money will come form taxes or a subsidy from the university. It's in stark contrast to what often happens with professional teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, which received more than $300 million from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority and City of Glendale. 

That's something ASU officials are proud of, and the scale of the project led to a revisiting of the athletic department's approach to fundraising in a way that should pay dividends well into the future. 

"The (fundraising) target continues to move and in a good way," Harris said. "That's the hardest part. We originally started with a $30 million fundraising goal and raised it to $50 million and now we're at $85 million. We will get to our fundraising goal in the next 18 months. We're very close to it. We have one major gift coming in here soon. The neatest thing is the number of people who are donating and being a part of it. We have some significant donors with some record breaking donations. But what's been neat is Joe Fan on the street giving us $100 or a $50 donation. That's where we've seen a lot of growth. Our membership has gone from 8,000 to (a Pac-12 record of) almost 17,000 individuals who have donated. To us, we're more proud of that than any individual donation.

"If we only count on a handful of big donors, that's not really matching up with our University's mission of making an impact and providing access. We're trying to do a better job of treating all levels of donors better, stewarding them more and brining them into the Sun Devil family. I think Ray (Anderson) does a great job of sharing his vision...We've never really had a visionary leader, like Dr. Crow is for University, in Athletics, and what people are doing, we're seeing them rally around Ray the way they did around Dr. Crow 13 or 14 years ago. That's really exciting for me to see as an alum, our AD has a vision that people are following and it makes all of our jobs easier."

What Harris called arguably the "most complicated stadium project in the country" is also an opportunity, as ASU looks to transform the area adjacent to downtown Tempe via its Athletic Facilities District. The next several decades will see dramatic change to the landscape around the north end of ASU's campus, with significant commercial, retail and residential components added over time. 

"If you think about stadiums going back to the days of ancient Greece to now, the facility has always been the same," said Mark Johnson, ASU Senior Director for Media Relations and Strategic Communications. "It's an enclosed area with tiered seating to watch a competition. There's been, in more recent years, an adjustment to that. In our case we only use it seven days a year. So folks would say, 'let's put concerts there.' That's not changing what's going on there, just changing the programming. It's still the same kind of place. What we're talking about doing is changing the type of place that it is.

"What if local restaurants ran the concessions and those were open for lunch during the day? One of the key points was being able to be [at the stadium], go through there at all times. So you're tied to the campus on the south, the commercial district and Tempe on the west, to Tempe Town Lake on the north and to the athletics facilities district, which will be coming to the east and have retail and residential." 

ASU wants to redefine how a stadium is perceived, even going as far as to let fans vote on its university Facebook page whether it should be called a stadium at all, or something different. Some of the options were Pavilion, Omniplex, Complex, Epicenter, and even Odeum. 

"We see it as a new space that we can program differently than we have in the past," Harris said. "People who run stadiums, I've built a lot of them, we put constraints around ourselves. What Dr. Crow and (ASU Vice President for Athletics) Ray (Anderson) and others have said is release the constraints. Let's open this thing up, treat it like we would a park, treat it like other facilities on campus that are open year-round...It's not a vision driving by the department, athletically, it's a vision driven by the community and what they need, so that kind of difference in how we look at is is because we see value in what it can bring to the community.

"Yeah, it will bring direct value to the football program building the stadium, it will bring direct value to the athletics department, our students and faculty and staff, but more so just think about the city of Tempe and all that Sun Devil football and Sun Devil Stadium has meant to it historically. Well now this totally changes the paradigm. It's a paradigm shift, it changes the conversation around this great community asset."

The huge rooftop area will not only be used on game days but is programmable for other events. It will enhance ASU's annual Movie Night for students and present other opportunities, perhaps including eGaming. ASU recently won the Heroes of the Dorm national championship, broadcast on ESPN. The group that won ASU's Design School competition for how Sun Devil Stadium could be used called their proposal "Sun Devil Central" and included the idea of using the playing surface much like a park during the off-season.

All of these considerations are about forging a strong bond between the campus and athletics and tying that into the surrounding community more broadly. 

"If you look at what ASU did in downtown Phoenix with with the campus there, that's a good example," Johnson said. "Here was a downtown that needed some strength and rebuilding and the University's role there was really critical to that resuscitation. It's a thoughtful peace by peace commitment to community." 

In order to make this transition as smooth as possible considering the enormous challenges associated with re-seating 20,000 fans, Harris said ASU offered its season ticket holders the ability in 2016 to do this in person for the first time ever. They also changed their season ticket pricing in an effort to keep fans happy through the project's completion. 

"We consciously did not raise prices this year at the level that was in our pro forma," Harris said. "We did that for a reason. We didn't want during this transitional period for us to raise prices as a significant level. We want to use the stadium to build affinity for the University overall. Raising prices and really what we had programmed in for years in our business model, we decided to wipe that away. Let's not do that, it's not even necessary. Let's make sure that we don't cause any fan any reason to not come back. We had 15 to 25 percent increases and now we're wiping away the model, it's about a five and a half percent increase overall. Really a modest increase and the national average is three to five percent anyways. When people build new stadiums it's 30 to 40 percent increases on those seats, especially when you're giving new seats, leg room, amenities that you didn't have before. We're going to take a revenue hit but we're okay with that because it's a better experience for our fans." 

Now that plans are much more concrete, ASU will step up its communication about the stadium in a way it hopes will resonate with fans. It elected to be more reserved earlier in the process due to some missteps and how that was perceived by supporters. 

"What our fans said was enough with the information," Harris said. "When you come out with something it better be we're real confident about what the stadium will be so you're going to have a lot more information rolling out to the fans. Really it was a conscious effort by us to make sure the only information getting out there was accurate."

ASU officials are hoping that the community will share in the excitement of what's to come via the stadium reinvention and district development in years to come. 

"That's really the whole vision of the district, to make it an exciting, urban, walkable environment," Harris said." You can live work and play and do everything you want, and guess what, we'll also have some great sporting events as you live, work and place there. We're really reinventing this part of the city." 

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