Can new Husky Stadium remain an icon?

When the Washington Board of Regents approved a $250 million renovation of Husky Stadium just before Thanksgiving, it was a move whose time had finally come. The bowl that houses the lower seats, closest to the track and field, is literally falling apart. The stadium is safe, but could be safer.

With Steve Sarkisian and the football program back on its way out of the ashes, it seems appropriate that the team should now have a venue worthy of the best traditions of the University of Washington. And by the start of the 2013 season, they shall have it.

Compared, for instance, to the $500 million project at Cal-Berkeley for a similar facilities upgrade, including a 60 percent remodel of Memorial Stadium, getting it up to seismic code and installing a Football Operations office, UW looks to be getting off cheap. The Huskies are scrapping everything in Husky Stadium except for the North deck for half that much, and that price also includes football offices. And if you continue to compare it to earlier incarnations of what Washington was looking to do - like spend $300 million just to bring the lower bowl up to modern codes and standards - this current deal keeps looking better and better all the time.

"I think people need to realize what an unbelievable opportunity it is to build at this time," Senior Associate Athletic Director O.D. Vincent told this week. "This is a very efficient building for what we're paying."

"The scope is pretty significant for the pricetag," added Jennifer Cohen, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Advancement.

But what is the scope? Other than the funding - something that the UW Athletic Department reiterated back in November would be taken care of through major gifts and new revenues, like naming rights, increased season ticket revenues and premium opportunities through the sale of suites and loge boxes - Husky fans have been very curious about the scope of this endeavor.

To begin with, it's over $200 million more than the next biggest project ever for the athletic department. In November of 2000, the renovation of Hec Edmundson Pavilion was completed for a cost of $40 million, and that was for an arena whose seating capacity expanded by over 20 percent.

Under the approved design, created by 360 Architecture and developed by Wright Runstad & Company for the university, seating won't increase in Husky Stadium. In fact it will go down from 72,500 to 71,200. And they aren't going to go crazy in creating what Vincent called 'Corporate Intrusion' during game day; the plan is to only have 25 suites and loge boxes for sale on the south side of the stadium, along with 2,555 club seats. As a point of reference, Boone Pickens Stadium at Oklahoma State - a stadium that will seat at least 10,000 fewer fans than Husky Stadium - has 100 suites and 4,000 club seats.

"Most people generate revenue and market themselves in a much more commercial way," Vincent said. "We've done a great job of adhering to our tradition over time."

That 'tradition' and sense of self when dealing with sponsorship opportunities, will also be in the front of the school's mind when it comes to maximizing the college game day experience.

As UW continues to wind its way toward renovation - 932 days and counting to the day they host Boise State on September 7, 2013 - the school clings tighter and tighter to the idea that a collegiate experience is what the fans want. Going to Qwest Field, the home of the Seattle Seahawks, in 2012 will certainly be an adventure, admits Vincent and Cohen, but coming back to a new Husky Stadium that blends all the great tradition of Washington football with the modern conveniences one would expect from a state-of-the-art facility, is their ultimate aim.

"This culture is a very traditional culture to juggle," Vincent said. "But we don't want to be left behind. We don't have to be as edgy as a lot of other schools. We don't have to do it, because we've got some things here that make us unique and special. We don't have to go too far out on the ledge. But we also have to be current. We also have to be interesting. We also have to adjust to the business that we're in. Every decision we make we talk about that balance."

Vincent almost said the 'O' word. It's almost impossible to talk about this project without the inevitable comparisons to Oregon and what they have done to catapult the Pac-10 arms race into orbit. For instance, their new basketball facility - Matthew Knight Arena - cost nearly as much ($227 million) as Washington's entire renovation budget for a football stadium with five-and-a-half times the capacity. Matthew Knight Arena has a floor that is supposed to resemble a forest; a training room complete with an underwater treadmill; hot and cold pools; separate practice courts for the men's and women's teams; a full weight room. Instead of upgrading their old home - Mac Court - the Ducks went all out, and in the process created an arena the Portland Trailblazers would be envious of.

"There's a lot of lessons that should be learned there," Cohen said of Oregon's push into the upper echelon of the Pac-10 by way of Nike founder Phil Knight's pocketbook. "But we also believe that Oregon didn't have anything, and they had to create themselves from scratch. They did that, and they were masterful at it. It's worked for them. We don't have to do that at Washington, but we also can't say things like facilities don't matter. If you want to get the best recruits here, you have to compete."

With that in mind, two things will drive the Husky Stadium renovation project forward. One, the 'new' Husky Stadium should embrace the looks and feel of the old Husky Stadium; and two, the school has a chance to start at ground zero and give Husky Stadium a modern touch on a classic piece of Northwest architecture.

"It's so nice to be able to start from scratch and get things right," said Vincent.

So what are the defining features of Husky Stadium as it currently stands? Certainly the views out to Lake Washington are as iconic a sight as there is in college football. Two, the decks. They have become nearly as iconic as the entire structure taken as a whole. And finally, the tunnel. Certainly in Pac-10 circles, the Washington tunnel is the stuff of folklore. With the renovation, all three will be retained.

The athletic department didn't just pull these thoughts out of thin air. The fans let them know what was important to them. Tyee Board focus groups, as well as separate surveys done in August and September of 2010 to roughly 25,000 households with some connection to Husky football, were put out in the field. According to Cohen, these were their general findings (in no particular order):

1) Renovating Husky Stadium would make the program more competitive
2) Game day experience should be enhanced
3) Embrace tradition, so tunnel stays where it is
5) Needs to be privately funded, and everyone has a chance to participate
6) Transparency in pricing
7) Keeping the stadium loud
8) Keeping the Lake Washington view and the facade
9) Keeping the feel collegiate
10) Parking

Actually, there was one overriding thought from most fans. "More important than anything, our fans want a competitive football team," Cohen said. "And with a competitive football team, you can do all the great promos, you can do all kinds of fun stuff inside the stadium. But a great team on the field will enhance the game day experience like no other."

On top of the general surveys, the athletic department also hired Price Waterhouse Coopers to do premium seating interviews, as well as a more quantitative survey on Tyee pricing and amenities. That survey went out to at least 16,000 homes.

They found that Tyee were willing to pay for a number of different amenities, including the quality of their chair, parking availability, proximity to field, as well as access to bathrooms and concessions. It should also be noted that less than six percent of the total seating in the 'new' Husky Stadium will be considered 'premium seating'.

On top of that, the 'new' Husky Stadium will find the band and students section (the 'Dawg Pack') in an unfamiliar place - the west endzone. In order to boost revenues through Tyee ticket sales, as well as avoid the inevitable boost in student ticket prices, the move had to be made. The finances of the renovation hinged on this very point.

But this move has a silver lining, according to Vincent. With the Dawg Pack relocated, the school wanted to make sure they could make as much effective noise as before, so decibels are a priority. In short, the new stadium needs to be at least as loud, if not louder, than before. "It's a huge priority to make it as loud as possible," Vincent said. "What really helps is the roofs. That's why Qwest is so loud, because the roofs reflect the noise back down to the field and hold it in. If you look at any sort of modeling, if you put some of your loudest components in the end zone and it's projecting out to the whole stadium, it's going to make it that much louder." Add to their experience brand new video and audio components - including a new Jumbotron - and that can only enhance the prospects of more sore throats on Sunday mornings.

Compared to Qwest, the 'new' Husky Stadium is going to have seating closer to the field (25 feet on each sideline), as well as back rows that aren't nearly as far back from the action. Now the roofs won't extend as far out toward the field as they do at Qwest, but the new ones will still mean 70 rows on each side of the stadium will be under the drip line, an improvement over what is currently there.

In order to smooth the transition and maximize the students' experience in the 'new' Husky Stadium, the athletic department has created a Dawg Pack Task Force. It's one way the AD is looking to the students to help them with things that could become tradition, but it has to fit within the culture. So even though the chants may be coming from a different direction, they won't stop if Cohen and Vincent have anything to do with it.

"The Go-Huskies chant…a huge priority," Cohen said. "Keeping the band and the student section all in the same place, huge priority."

One of the renovation centerpieces is the inclusion of a Football Operations Center within the structure of the 'new' Husky Stadium. Presumably you'll be able to see it from Montlake Boulevard if you look close enough, so in a way the center will act as the front porch to not only Husky Stadium, but the entire Washington athletic complex. It will be located where the current west facade to the stadium is.

By putting an ops center with the stadium, all the football facilities will be in one place, and not done piecemeal. Currently the football offices are in the same building as the weight room, and all that is separate from the locker rooms, meeting rooms, training rooms, players' lounges, recruiting lounges and the coaches' locker rooms too. That will all change once the renovation is complete.

"We could have easily done a stand-alone football center somewhere else," said Cohen. "I love the fact that Steve Sarkisian and his coaching staff wanted an integrated facility that was close to all the other facilities, close to all of our other student-athletes. That was really important to them, which I thought was unique from a football coach's standpoint. It shows a real commitment to football."

"In this day and age of recruiting and being competitive in football, it's a must," added Vincent. "This isn't extra credit; it's a must to give our coaches and student-athletes an opportunity to compete where they need to."

The football team will still attend training table and get academic support at the Conibear Shellhouse, so they won't be completely isolated from the other UW student-athletes. As a result, the new ops center will free up a ton of office space for the other sports and their staffs without having to create additional space.

Because the 'new' Husky Stadium will be a cutting-edge space, look for the code and standards to be right on spec. For example, the new stadium will increase the number of elevators by 500 percent. "It's a modern building where we can finally take all of those things into consideration," Vincent said, while still encouraging fans to walk to their seats if possible. There were escalators in an early rendering, but not in the version that's set to be built.

Cohen and Vincent believe that 'The Zone' - Washington's tailgating alternative located on the east field during game days - was incredibly popular in 2010, and they envision something similar in scope for 2013. "We believe that we need programming like that in the new stadium," Vincent said. "A 'Zone-like' experience to us is an absolute must, from what we've learned so far."

While pre-game looks to be taken care of, don't expect post-game to change. The Fifth Quarter died under the Tyrone Willingham regime, and because of post-game media and recruiting responsibilities, Cohen doesn't believe that particular UW tradition will be revived any time soon.

"I don't anticipate brining back a post-game event, but it doesn't mean that we wouldn't," she said. "What we want to do is take a look at all these experiences, what are people wanting, what are they willing to pay for, what are things that can take an experience from year to year?"

There will be no bulldozer sightings after the Oregon game this fall; they won't start taking things down until the following Monday. "We save three million dollars on this project by starting that extra three-and-a-half weeks early. Moving the Apple Cup to Qwest is not anyone's first choice, but economically it was a must," said Vincent. "We had to do it."

With 20 months to build from that point forward, what will the school do to keep people in touch with the comings and goings of the project? Vincent and Cohen said that the athletic department is in the middle of choosing some creative ways to keep fans up-to-date on what's going on.

One idea would be to have a 24/7 construction webcam, similar to what Stanford did when they rebuilt Stanford Stadium. Another idea used in the past are photo galleries to show progress from start to finish, and all stages in-between.

The Graves Building lobby will eventually be used as a place where people can find out all things Husky Stadium and what's going on with the remodel, and the AD is taking a look at having a micro-site attached to that could act as a media warehouse for everything you ever wanted to know about the project as it goes forward. News on that should be coming within the next 60 days.

Later in 2011, the AD is hoping to announce the new seating arrangement for Husky Stadium. "It's really going to heat up for our fans come September, because of the last season (in Husky Stadium), and the fact that we're going to really start talking about what the 2013 experience is, but also getting folks excited for what will be an adventure in 2012," said Vincent.
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