The Ohio State University Stadium, called “The Horseshoe,” opened in 1922, when the White House first got this cool thing called radio. Yet, the stadium is still going strong, packing in more than 100,000 fans on fall Saturdays.
The University of Michigan Stadium, called “The Big House,” was built five years later, in 1927. And, yes, you might be surprised to learn that football games are still played there.
No NFL stadiums are as old as these. Most pro stadiums are relatively new and can now cost easily north of a billion dollars. Indeed, as we all know, Qualcomm Stadium, which opened in 1967, is considered an aging dump, and the San Diego Chargers want out. They're threatening to move to Carson, where they plan to build a new $1.7 billion stadium. They want the city to come up with public support or they plan to bolt.
So why do college stadiums have much longer shelf-lives? And why don't colleges with stellar, popular football programs demand new facilities, like the NFL?
Well, here's one big reason:
“UCLA can't threaten to move to Michigan,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and a renowned sports economist. “The NFL really leans on cities for help. Colleges can't do that.”
That's right, they have no leverage. Ohio State's football team, which won the national championship last year, can never move from Columbus, Ohio. Even if it wins back-to-back championships … Even if the grass isn't mowed just right ...
“It's a huge impact, no doubt,” agreed Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes and editor of the website, fieldofschemes.com. “There's nothing like the fear of a team relocating, whether it's a realistic threat or not, to shake loose some public dollars.”
That's another thing. Most colleges can't get public dollars to fund their stadiums upgrades. (They can't move, remember?) Yes, Ohio State and the University of Michigan have expanded and improved their stadiums over the years, but it's been through donor contributions, suite sales, naming rights and ticket revenue primarily. Rarely, does a school build a brand new facility, though. It's too costly.
“When you're footing the bill out of your own future revenues instead of fobbing a large chunk of it off on taxpayers, suddenly renovation sounds like a much more realistic option,” deMause said.
Ohio State is currently going through a $13.7 million expansion. The athletic department is paying for it.
“We're totally 100 percent self-supporting,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith told NJ (New Jersey) Advance Media. “We fund all of our projects through private dollars.”
A few years ago, the University of Washington appealed to the state legislature for $150 million to help improve Husky stadium, which was built in 1920. And it got this reaction:
“We were cutting billions of dollars out of our budget, and we are going to build a stadium. Really?” Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told Bloomberg News. “I was OK with saying ‘No.’”
So the Huskies now play in Idaho …
No, of course not.
The athletic department came up with its own financial plan to raise the money for the renovation. No money came from the state or from the school.
“This is like one of those times when you say ‘No’ to your kid, and he says, ‘Darn, I really want that,’ and so he decides to mow a bunch of lawns and babysit,” Hunter told Bloomberg. “In the end, they are getting a great stadium that will last for years.”
Only a few NFL teams have sought renovations. The Green Bay Packers did a $300 million renovation to historic Lambeau Field starting in 2001. It required a half-cent county sales tax that was hotly debated even in football crazy Green Bay. The measure passed 53 to 47 percent.
Cities that didn't pony up lost teams. These were not idle threats. Baltimore lost the Colts to Indianapolis. Houston lost the Oilers to Nashville. Anaheim lost the Rams to St. Louis. Cleveland lost the Browns to Baltimore.
A renovation of Qualcomm is out. The Chargers don't want it. It paid for a study years ago that said it would not pan out financially. So it's a new stadium or bust.
Colleges have not escaped criticism when it comes to their upgrades. More and more schools are doing so to remain competitive. Ole Miss is pumping in $175 million to improve its stadium, for instance. Some say it's getting out of hand and forcing colleges to take financial risks. And it does impact the public coffers in at least one way: Donors get tax breaks for the checks they write. However, the support is nothing compared to what many pro franchises get.
Many of the improvements are what NFL owners cry for, such as more luxury seating and technological advancements. Ohio State plans to install Wi-Fi.
And what about fans? The poor fans, forced to attend these ancient facilities?
A Yelp reviewer said this of Michigan's stadium: “The Big House. How can you get much better than this? Seeing the team run out on the field as they jump up and touch the banner... being a part of the biggest crowd in college football that week every time the Wolverines play at home ... it's the best!”
A Yelp reviewer of Notre Dame's stadium: “The feeling that you get when walking into this stadium can not be put into words. The pride & tradition are in the air. The best experience I've ever had at a football game!”
Even some former NFL stadiums are missed by their fans. The Washington Redskins used to play in RFK Stadium before moving to the their new digs, FedEx Field, in 1997. Some fans complain the experience is not the same.
Again, a Yelp reviewer: “I miss the days of RFK Stadium it was quaint, it was small, but it was the HOME of the Redskins!!!!! It was actually in DC and the experience that you had at RFK was freaking awesome. The experience that you have a FedEx Field not so much.”
Maybe the fans won't have to wait much longer for a replacement. Already, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is pushing for a new stadium. Ironically, he wants one with a retro feel of RFK.
Other NFL stadiums are also showing incredibly short shelf lives. In Atlanta, a new stadium is under construction to replace the Georgia Dome, which opened in 1992. St. Louis is scrambling to find a way to build a stadium to replace one built just 20 years ago.
Critics point to these college stadium renovations to show they can work just fine on the NFL level. However, there's that one big problem …
“Sure, Qualcomm can be renovated,” deMause said. “For that matter, the Chargers could keep playing in Qualcomm the way it is now — it's not like Dean Spanos is going broke there. But they would make more money in a renovated stadium than an unrenovated one, and more in a new one than a renovated one. This is all about the NFL and its teams trying to maximize revenue — so naturally if they think they can get the moon and the stars, that's what they're going to ask for.”