GVN EXCLUSIVE: IDAHO AD Rob Spear

FOR MANY IDAHO FANS, it's a discussion we've been having for almost 10 years. For others, it's something Idaho has talked about doing for over 40 years. The need for a dedicated home for Vandal basketball, and a true Events Center on the University of Idaho campus, continues to grow. Inside we talk with Idaho Director of Athletics ROB SPEAR to get an update on the current development process.

How have the first few months been with Dr. Staben as the President of the University of Idaho, and is he doing anything different from past presidents that you've worked with over the years?

"It's tough for me to evaluate that right now. I've had very limited interaction with him because he's been focused getting around the state and meeting with the board members. As you know recently the board approved a tuition and fee increase, and I know he was very involved with that process, so I haven't had a lot of time to really interact with him. I will say that it appears he will make a decision when presented with the correct data."

What was your impression of that first email Dr. Staben sent to UI Alumni, particularly his heavy emphasis on athletics in that message?

"Well, I was certainly pleased to see that he understands the importance of athletics, so it was a great first step."

Has Dr. Staben given you a clear role for athletics, and defined his expectations for your department to meet his vision for the university?

"We haven't had those discussions yet, other than he expects the program to operate with the utmost integrity and make sure that our kids are doing well academically, and obviously compete at the highest level. So I think he's pleased with the progress, we currently lead the WAC's Commissioners Cup as the top athletic program in the WAC. I think we've done a great job with all of our programs, but football as everyone knows needs to come along, and I think they're coming along."

As we have discussed in the past, you and Dr. Staben have been discussing this Events Center since before he took office. How is the development process going, and are you and he on the same page regarding what that facility should be for your program, and what the campus needs as it continues to grow [previously Idaho announced goals to get to an enrollment of 16,000 students in the years ahead]?

"We've talked a little bit about it. Again, I haven't had a lot of time with him one-on-one. The committee that was formulated under Dr. Nellis is now putting together another package for his review. I don't want to get out in front of our committee Chair, Rich Allen, on that, but Dr. Staben was interested in seeing a facility that was more basketball focused rather than performing arts focused. I think with this new plan we're delivering that."


Can you describe where you are currently in the planning process of the facility?

"I can't go into detail at this time, but we have two additional options that are going to be reviewed by the committee, and ultimately by the University. In the first option, the seating is fixed in the lower bowl with about 2,550 seats, while the upper level has about 2,150 seats. In the second option the seating in the lower bowl is retractable and includes seating for about 1,800 fans in the lower bowl and 2,800 seats in the upper levels [both options provide 4600-4700 seats]."


[EDITOR'S NOTE: The retractable seating puts fewer fans around the floor in the lower bowl, but would make room for an additional practice court if needed. Also, although the second option has a smaller overall footprint, retractable seating has cost adders that makes it the more expensive option].


Both facility options have a conference center [about 4000-5000 square feet for the two options] which would provide a new space for football and basketball pre-game events. Both options also include new offices and team locker rooms, plus construction of a dedicated practice facility on the east end of the events center."


Rather than discussing pure facility size with respect to how many seats or square footage, let's talk about the financial impact – short and long term – of this facility. First, how many seats in this new structure do you expect to be reserved for students?

"There would be about 1000 seats reserved for students."


With roughly 20% of the facility reserved for students, that leaves about 3,700 seats for outside sales. Clearly that is enough seats for the program today. But what about 5- or 10- or 20-years down the road? Are those enough seats to generate enough revenue to pay our coaches more, or help with general athletic department operational costs, or to cover scholarship costs for basketball if seat-backs are sold? Can you walk us through how you see this facility being a foundation for generating real revenue for the program?

"Look at the Gonzaga model. They have 6,000 seats and what they continue to do is increase ticket prices because they have demand, and they also raise the price of seat-backs. So you're going to be able to increase your revenues if you increase demand. That's what I see happening with this facility. It's the right size, and we can increase demand.

"The future is about creating exclusivity. There are too many competing demands for the fan's time. We want to make attending a basketball event exclusive."


Is there a formula you have in mind for this facility in which the number of seats sold at a certain price brings specific revenues to the basketball program? Is such a formula even possible?

"Revenue success is all based on selling a large number of season tickets. There is no formula, but I will tell you that starting your season in Memorial Gym is not part of the formula and impacts your ability to sell season tickets."


Can you talk a little bit about why 4,700 seats fits for the University of Idaho, especially with respect to planned future growth at Idaho, and compared to other campuses that are about the same size, and may be similarly remote as the UI, but are building larger venues (USD is building a 6000 seat facility for $46 MILLION total cost, NDSU's $41 MILLION renovation includes 5700 seats in their arena, and others)?

"It's all about costs, and finding the right way to manage costs. It's all about trying to find the right number of seats at the right price range. We could go out with a 6,000 seat plan, and it will NEVER get done. We have to control costs. The more capacity, the more expensive the facility. I have already been down the road of a 6,000 seat facility [that was entirely privately funded]. We need something we can get done."


And the reason it would never get done is…

"Because it would be cost prohibitive."


The total cost that you are aiming for with this project is $30 MILLION, is that correct? So the biggest challenge facing you right now is that currently – based on the directive of past-president Dr. Nellis – the ENTIRE cost of this facility must be privately funded, is that correct too? Is that the reason a facility with a bigger footprint is cost prohibitive?

"Right now we need to proceed with the understanding it will all be privately funded. Keeping the cost as low as possible will allow us to develop a fundraising plan. $30 million is on the high end. Yes, a bigger footprint makes it cost prohibitive. Again, we have already been down that road."


Last time we talked, you were developing a model for how it would be financed [the "Three Legs" of the fund-raising stool, which includes private/corporate donors, student participation, and University investment]. Can you talk about where you are with that?

"That's still a work in progress, including the scope of the project and getting more solid cost estimates. One of the things we have done since we last talked is we've had another donor who owns a geotechnical engineering company has done the soils testing on the north side to determine the soil structure and how it impacts the overall foundation structure. That is going to be good information because it goes into the cost estimate for a more accurate estimate."


In the wake of the student seating collapse in the Dome last year, have the students come forward with interest in participating financially in this process, or have you gone to them to seek financial assistance with funding for this facility?

"Those discussions will happen once this becomes a priority."


The University recently committed bonds to renovate the Education Building. Is that something you can seek as well for this project?

"I think it is a must. At least for 10-15% of the project to give it some legs."


Clearly, private donations and corporate partnerships are going to be a major part of the funding plan for this facility – the biggest leg of the funding stool. You raised about $7 MILLION for the Litehouse Center in a relatively short period of time a few years ago. About what percentage of total costs do you believe would have to be privately raised (i.e. on $30 MILLION total costs, what percentage would have to be privately funded)?

"Right now the entire amount. I would hope this would change once we get momemtum for the project. I really think it is time to do a separate campaign just for athletic facilities. With the completion of the UI campaign the time seems right."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Inspiring Futures capital campaign ends later this year]


We're reading a lot about new community leaders in Moscow that are showing more interest in partnering with the UI for economic development. Do you see this facility being something that could have a major impact on the local economy, and is there shared interest at this time in helping to build it?

"No question that this could help promote economic development. I represent the UI on the Latah Economic Development Council and there is interest because of the other events that you could hold. Events bring people to the community, and we need people to come to Moscow."


If students pitched in, and the local community pitched in, and if the University committed bonds to the project, could a slightly larger facility become a possibility, or are there any other modifications to the current options you're considering that you would pursue (i.e. luxury seating, hall of fame, or any other enhancements)?

"That is always a possibility. Right now my focus is getting a project that the University will support and to move forward. This project is critical to our future success and helps every program in our department get better."




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