Georgia’s lack of an indoor practice facility seems to come up every few years – usually when weather has forced a change of plans for the football team. It’s back in the news this spring after two events. First, Aaron Murray’s spring break work at Oklahoma left him impressed with the Sooners’ facility. That, and a little rough early spring weather, led to a lighthearted (and unsanctioned) PR campaign last week.
Then on Saturday, stormy weather forced Georgia to postpone a scheduled spring scrimmage to Tuesday. That’s no big deal, but several important recruits were in town to observe the scrimmage. The canceled scrimmage changed the day’s plans which gave coaches more time to meet with prospects in person but also took away the central attraction of the day for some. When a prospect remarked ($) that “they need an indoor facility,” fans reacted to a disapproving comment from a recruit and joined the call for a facility.
If you’re one of the people wanting this done yesterday, the good news is that the project might soon be in reach. If you’ve thought of an indoor facility as a waste of good money, the good news is that the price tag need not be as steep as we thought a few years ago.
An indoor facility has been in the works since the Donnan years. It was one of the first things Richt talked about when he got to Georgia. We hear every so often that it’s in the works and a top priority, but here we are a decade later still without one. The same points come up each time, so hopefully a little Q&A will cover most of the background – what’s involved with an indoor facility, why after all this time is Georgia without one, and what would it take to make it happen?
Does Georgia really need an indoor facility?
Depending on whom you ask, an indoor facility is anything from an immediate need costing Georgia recruits and precious practice time to an extravagant monument to the excesses of college football. I think it comes down squarely in the “nice to have” category. Yes, it’s inconvenient to alter the practice schedule, especially during the tight timetable in the season when lost days can’t be made up. It’s also unfortunate to disappoint recruits who might’ve been looking forward to watching a practice.
Recruiting ends up being one of the biggest reasons to have an indoor facility. They’re supposedly heavy artillery in the facilities arms race, and being able to hook up a game console to the display inside your facility is all part of the package designed to impress and awe prospective players. Schools still manage to sign highly-ranked classes without such a facility, but we can’t deny the wow factor.
The actual usefulness to a team is less clear. There’s one obvious use case: practicing during bad weather. There will be other uses – individual workouts, a site to host Pro Day, and even other teams can take cover there. Reality seems to be that the facilities don’t get used as much as we’d expect.
UGA officials have talked about building an indoor practice facility for years, but when UGA administrators toured other universities that have such indoor facilities, they found that the schools’ football teams rarely used the expensive buildings. Instead, the biggest user seemed to be the schools’ track teams, said UGA athletic director Damon Evans. “Football hardly ever utilized the facility,” Evans told the board of directors of the athletic association.
So there’s a cost / benefit analysis to be done. A lot of other programs have decided that what few benefits come from a facility are worth the costs. Of course some of these programs haven’t been the best stewards of their checkbooks.
If there’s even a small need and most other schools have one, why doesn’t Georgia have one yet?
Short answer: given the scope of what Georgia planned for its indoor facility (more on that below), there have been higher priorities for its capital budget. The athletic association has responsibilities to all of its programs, and we’ve seen some impressive projects like the $30 million Coliseum Training Facility. Even when it comes to football, other projects have been more important since Mark Richt became coach. There have been very visible projects like an expanded Sanford Stadium and some improvements out of the public eye like improved outdoor practice fields.
Most recently the athletic association completed a $40 million expansion of the Butts-Mehre facility that primarily benefits the football program. When it came down to it, Mark Richt supported this expansion over a separate football facility.
After seeing other schools’ facilities, UGA football coach Mark Richt said he’d rather have the Butts-Mehre expansion than the indoor football field, said UGA President Michael Adams, who also is chairman of the athletic association board.
What’s the big deal? How much could it cost to put a roof over a practice field?
An “indoor facility” can can cover anything from a simple $6-7 million covered field like Georgia Tech just built to a $26 million facility at Michigan. The range comes from what you want out of the building. Putting a roof over 120 yards of turf is relatively inexpensive. It’s when you think bigger that the price tag goes up.
Georgia and Mark Richt think bigger. Even nine years ago, Richt had a pretty clear vision of a multi-use facility that would be far more than just a covered field.
Richt spoke in detail about a comprehensive facility that he said would include an indoor track and would benefit other teams and the band during inclement weather….It would include a weight room on the bottom floor, administrative offices on the second floor and a third-floor dining hall that would be part of the university dining system.
As you can imagine, that kind of building wouldn’t come cheap. Texas A&M completed a nice facility in 2008 that combined an indoor practice facility with an indoor track at a cost of $35 million. Georgia has braced itself for a big-ticket facility for a while.
Athletic officials considered an indoor facility more than four years ago when Jim Donnan was coaching the Bulldogs. The pricetag then was in the $25 to $30 million range. The cost now would be significantly higher especially with the scope of the project that Richt talked about.
Wait – didn’t we just build an indoor something or other?
Sort of. That $40 million improvement and expansion of the Butts-Mehre building took care of a lot of needs. The weight room was addressed. There’s a lot more meeting and office space. There’s even a large turf-covered area that can be used for walk-throughs and can be re-purposed for large gatherings. The only things it isn’t: a full-length covered field and an indoor track.
I can’t see Georgia throwing away a $40 million project just to build it all over again in a standalone football facility. The good news is that the Butts-Mehre expansion allows the scope – and cost – of an indoor practice facility to be pared back to something that’s more likely to get done sooner than later. Schools like Auburn, Clemson, and Virginia have all recently unveiled new facilities that came in under $20 million.
The bad news is that it might require going back to the drawing board. Georgia’s ambitious facility has been the plan for over a decade now. Would the stakeholders (especially Coach Richt) support a facility that’s pared down to “only” an indoor field? Would the athletic association open the wallet for something that’s not exactly multi-use and might exclude an indoor track? Those discussions to revise the existing plans need to take place before Georgia can start building.
Even so, isn’t Georgia sitting on a pile of cash? Why are they being so stingy?
It’s true – Georgia has about $68 million in reserve funds as of last fall. That doesn’t mean that it’s idle cash. It’s foremost a safety net against any kind of downturn. Properly invested, reserves can also provide interest income to cover some of the minor upkeep projects that we hear about every year.
With annual expenses now over $88 million, the current reserves are about 80% of a year’s spending. That might seem like a lot, but let’s consider the Tennessee situation: the perfect storm of a poor economy, declining support of a poor flagship football program, hefty buyouts for coaches, and $200 million in debt has led to reserves dipping under $2 million and an operating deficit. Georgia’s not nearly in that situation, but it’s not hard to imagine the strain a sustained downturn in football could put on the bottom line.
It’s worth mentioning again that Georgia hasn’t avoided spending on facilities projects. From the 600 level and Reed Alley at Sanford Stadium to the Coliseum Training Facility to the Butts-Mehre expansion, there have been several high-dollar additions and improvements. There are even more smaller projects like the Stegeman Coliseum renovation and new scoreboards. Annual expenses have gone from around $72 million in 2010 to $88 million now. Good financial management isn’t a bad thing.
Where would it go?
Location matters, and that’s been at the heart of some of the decisions that have been made. Real estate is limited in and around the Vince Dooley Athletic Complex. Building a full-length indoor field in that area would require the expensive relocation of something like Foley Field or the Spec Towns Track, or it would cost the football program at least one of its four outdoor practice fields. Losing an outdoor field isn’t optimal, and it’s one of the reasons why the Butts-Mehre expansion only included a short stub of indoor turf – there just wasn’t the room to go bigger.
Most plans then call for any new facility to be built out on South Milledge by the soccer and softball complex. Though the hilly terrain out there would add to the site preparation costs, there’s plenty of room for a facility and parking (even for scooters!). The downside is that the remote location reduces the utility of an indoor facility. A practice couldn’t just be relocated next door for inclement weather – there would be the same logistical steps as there are now when a practice gets moved to the Ramsey Center. The facility would be several miles away from training areas, the main football offices, and all of the other amenities added to Butts-Mehre.
TL;DR: So what’s the outlook?
If you’d like to see an indoor facility, the good news is that there aren’t many higher priorities remaining. There’s a $5 million plan for Foley Field, but that’s already in the fundraising stage. Sanford Stadium won’t be expanded any time soon, but it could always use some improvements. As far as major capital projects (>$10 million) go, the indoor facility looks to be next in line.
Because of the Butts-Mehre expansion, we expect plans for this football facility to be scaled back to a building that could come in around $15 million. That does mean starting from square one and a revision to the master plan, and that will take some high-level approval from the athletics board before we even draw up plans. They don’t exactly meet every week, so it could be later this year for an indoor facility to become an agenda item.
Location seems locked in on South Milledge. That will give the building all of the room it needs, but it will also isolate it from the rest of the football facilities and make it slightly less useful than a building that’s adjacent to the existing practice fields. That’s the trade-off of getting all of the other items on the wish list.
The final hurdle will be fundraising. The athletic association isn’t eager to increase its debt load, so most – if not all – of the money for this facility would come from private sources. With that in mind, a $15 million target looks a lot more attainable than $30-40 million. Still want an indoor practice facility? Send that check to 1 Selig Circle…