"There are some absolute strengths of our stadium and that's what we need to be focused on," Byrne told Dawgs' Bite. "At the same time, there are significant needs of what we do."
This does not overlook the significant items already achieved at the second-oldest campus football field in the country. Most obviously and recently, the super-plus-jumbo-sized replay board/message center that went on-line in November and was essentially completed over the spring. Just last month some decorative touches were finished, a ‘Mississippi State' logo easily read from most of a mile away. Only a few details remain, along with fixing-up the construction grounds by 2009 kickoff against Jackson State.
The ‘big dawg' board emphatically rounds-out that end of DWS, tying in nicely with the west upper deck added for 1985 and the east premium levels and upper deck completed in 2001. Certainly the Bulldogs' kennel has come a long, long way in recent decades. But new football Coach Dan Mullen has been around long enough now to have seen aspects of DWS that aren't in his eye up to SEC standard. Byrne agrees, listing specific areas of concern.
"The West side of the stadium and the north end zone, and our locker room, that probably needs some updating."
To which State fans seated on the western side will clang cowbells in accord. It isn't hard to spot signs the original core grandstand was a works project of the pre-WWII years, and built in a day when ladyfolk were a much smaller portion of the game crowd. Even the men's facilities are outdated by generations. Restrooms need addressing, Byrne says. So does relatively—by SEC standards—limited concessions space and offerings.
For that matter simple access to the seats is an increasing issue at DWS, considering how many activities occur pre-game outside the stadium and thus lead to later-arriving crowds. Byrne's concern is "Getting people up and down those ramps from multiple levels," he says. Not just in numbers but manner, since many seat-holders on the second and third levels are showing their MSU milage. Or as Byrne puts it, "some folk who aren't as mobile as others. And we have one elevator for the entire side of the stadium." Not just that, but the lone lift is subject to takeover for restricted use by coaches, staff, media, and officials. "That's not sufficient."
The home team's locker room is not so far behind the SEC curve fortunately, thanks to a series of upgrades and renovations in the last decade. Still any new coach worth his contract comes in with ideas of how to spiff the dressing room up for both varsity usage and recruiting impressions. For that matter previous Coach Sylvester Croom often talked of building a complete new home-team locker room under the north end zone grandstands, thus turning over the current one to visitors with parcels set aside for other uses. Such as game-day operations, security center, video board control, stadium ticket office, and more; areas of clear priority in their own right as over the decades State has cobbled-together things from limited spaces.
"All those need some place to work from," Byrne said. "We moved a few things around, we were able to improve the area our game-day security operates from." As for the locker room, "Coach Mullen is more interested in keeping it where it is and trying to improve the Leo Seal Jr. M-Club Building, what we do there and update that as well." Which would be the most convenient answer, allowing players to still enter the stadium on game-day with the now-traditional Dog Walk and keeping fans focused around the Junction area.
That does not mean the north end zone will remain as-is. This end of the stadium has been looked over and talked over by State staff for years and while Byrne has some ideas of his own he is not close to putting anything on drawing paper. Not yet. Just don't go looking for the whole end zone to be completely ‘bowled in' as fans annually posit.
"I think there have been a number of schools that have done some very good end zone projects," Byrne said. "I don't want to over-build the end zone, but I think there is an opportunity to do a project in that end zone to create some student seating and create a club level/skybox area and help pay for that. And, give it a more uniform look. Obviously we'll need the architects to help us with that."
Within that paragraph is the absolute key to any expansions—in the three revenue-sport venues--that happen at Mississippi State from now on. Bigger is not automatically better in Byrne's mind. "It's adding the seats that pay for the project," is how he explains it. "And those are high-end seats, those are your bread-and-butter." Or rather his dollars-and-sense. Thus instead of tossing up a ‘bowl' type end zone adding a lot of standard seats, it makes a much better bottom-line to put up a bank of elevated premium seating with matching skyboxes to complement those on the east side if not necessarily at the same altitude. Architectural input is required for making those choices.
"So that is part of our long-range planning when we do our master plan, what do we do with the stadium?" Byrne explained, adding "That's why we're looking at our feasibility study right now to see what our market can support." Unlike the campus master plan, the feasibility study is an athletic department matter. Byrne wants to be able to tell MSU's administration just how much actual and potential support is there to tap from Bulldog Country, and only then see what additions and changes to DWS—and for that matter the Hump and Polk-Dement—are doable.
"Because literally if you look at football stadiums and major renovations at our level, so many of them are $75 million and north to do something significant," Byrne said. "How do you pay for that? You pay for it with high-end seating."
Associate A.D. for external affairs Scott Stricklin affirms that State is starting the process of collecting such fan-market data. "What can you expect to produce," he says, "and over time can you take that money and invest it in actually building or renovating facilities. When that is done hopefully we can start looking at some feasibility projects on those venues and tying them into the campus master plan." If his boss's figure of $75 million is accurate, that is a whole lot of data and dollars to collect.
Yet, Stricklin pointed out, "Anything we do is going to have to be aggressive on the financial side. And I don't think we need new venues, there is no compelling reason to build a new arena or stadium; there are some very compelling reasons to renovate and enhance what we presently have."
With this process just getting going, Byrne and Stricklin agree with a best timeframe of two to three years after the master plan is done before any serious project is done at DWS. "But," Byrne adds, "it's something that needs to be done." One possibility that could expedite the process would be a major outside partnership as has been done with most professional venues, though this is somewhat more complicated involving a state-supported educational institution. Still, this might be a way and wave of the fiscal future.
"Kentucky is looking at that right now," Byrne offers. "I think it's still too early to have a strong opinion about it. We'll pay attention to what Kentucky does with the proposed new basketball arena and renovation of their football stadium too." Also, as part of the new rights-contract with Learfield Sports, fans should be seeing some new signage and advertising at Scott Field, inside and outside, beyond what shows on the message boards.
"We've historically not had a lot of signs in our venues, and we're not going to double them right now or anything like that, but you'll see an occasional corporate sign."
Certainly there are other State sports with pressing needs of their own; a total track renovation, redoing the Pitts Tennis Centre, a golf practice facility for immediate examples. Certainly Diamond Dog fans know that Coach John Cohen has big plans for returning PDS to the trend-setting status it held when he was playing outfield for State. And for several years now concepts have been kicked (tipped?) around about how to add premium seating to Humphrey Coliseum within the existing physical frame.
The handful of State folk who went to the re-sited 2008 SEC Tournament game at Georgia Tech got a look at one idea; open suites circling the stadium, though at the Hump this would mean taking out existing concession stands, storage areas, and offices underneath the upper level and fitting them along the inner concourse. Additional regular seating is not a priority. As Byrne reminds, the new master plan will be "more than a year" in completion. "But we've got to begin the (data collecting) process now to understand. We're hiring a company that is going to come do a market research study for us; for Davis Wade Stadium, for the Hump, for Dudy Noble Field to understand what our market can support in seating, in high-end seating, skyboxes, all those types of things."
Hopefully the market, not to mention revenue increases from greater season football season ticket sales, Bulldog Club memberships, and Southeastern Conference network deals (see story published Wednesday morning) meets the needs expressed by Bulldog coaches. "When you go through all the requests, just this year it would have exceeded our operating budget!" Byrne grins. But it's no joking matter that the director wants to give his coaches the tools and State fans the venues that help Bulldog teams win.
"Are we really committed to being successful? Yes, we are, but it takes resources to do that. Kids pay attention to those things, are we going to do metal bleachers or chairback seats? Are we going to do the nice finishing touch with brickwork and things like that? We're talking millions of dollars."