Ever since the plans were announced for the Dell Medical Center (and probably even before), Texas fans have wondered about the long-term viability of the current home for the Longhorn basketball teams. And in a meeting with local media Tuesday, Texas athletics director Steve Patterson stated that while the teams would be moving on to a new location, it wasn't presently as high-priority as other, more urgent needs.
"The most immediate project that we've got to work on is our tennis program's facilities," Patterson said.
That's because that same growth of the medical center, which is set to clip away at the Erwin Center's already less-than-ideal parking situation, is also slated to cost Texas its Penick-Allison Tennis Center. As a temporary measure, Patterson said the tennis teams would use the recreational courts at 51st and Guadalupe, which will be repaved. But a longer term solution is needed, one that Patterson said could cost in the neighborhood of $10 million to $20 million.
But that's not to say that a basketball arena isn't on the docket.
"Eventually, we'll be in a new arena," Patterson said. "I think there's probably more interest amongst this group than lots of other folks in that. The reality is that we're going to be playing where we're playing for the next, call it 5-6-8-10 years. Whatever the number is. We've got a lot of projects that need to happen before that. I don't have as much emphasis on that right now as other things like tennis that needs to get addressed quickly."
The Erwin Center opened in 1977 and has served as a multi-purpose arena for that long, something that would likely also factor in.
"When you look at the design for the arena, the Frank Erwin Center has been Austin's arena for the last three and a half decades," Patterson said. "So it functions in a number of ways for a number of constituent groups. Men's and women's basketball are two constituent groups."
That high number of constituent groups — Patterson also listed the UIL, the local music scene and the political events hosted there, among others — means that basketball attendance itself likely won't be a major deciding factor in deciding how big to make the arena, Patterson said. The Erwin Center holds 16,734 people, but Texas men's basketball averaged just 10,186 people over its 18 home games, with the turnstile count considerably lower than that. Because of the low fan turnout, some would like to see Texas get a smaller arena — the current one is the 20th largest in Division 1 basketball and holds the most people in the Big 12 — albeit one with the bells and whistles associated with modern arenas.
"You have to look at all the constituents' needs and then create a brick-and-mortar building that's going to work for three, four decades after it opens," Patterson said. "So I wouldn't focus solely on what basketball attendance is at this juncture. I think basketball attendance historically has been influenced by the play of the team, as it is at lots of places. But I also think we could have a more proactive ticket selling effort around basketball."
Patterson also pointed out that Austin and the surrounding suburbs would soon grow to about two million people, and said that the university could tap into that large base by offering group packages, multi-game packages and selling more season tickets to help drive attendance.
"I don't want to pick on the head basketball coach over exactly what attendance was last year because I think there's a good bit of work that the department as a whole needs to do to do a better job selling tickets," Patterson said.
The takeaway? The athletics department is certainly planning a successor to the Frank Erwin Center that will serve as the home for basketball for years to come. But the details, from projected seating to where exactly the arena will be located, are still a ways off.