This article was published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Baylor Line and written by David Pickle.
The new McLane Stadium is terrific for football and fans, but with the $290 million investment pay off for the University and Waco?
THE QUESTON WAS ALWAYS THERE, even amid the euphoria that came with the announcement and construction of McLane Stadium.
Yes, we all intuited that the beautiful new stadium alongside the Brazos River was needed, but what about the cost of $266 million Is football really worth that much?
It may be years before that question can be fully answered, but surely early signs support the notion that building; one of the nation’s best college stadiums on the Baylor campus benefited not only the athletics program but also the university in general.
The decision before the Board of Regents was never as simple as whether the university needed a new stadium. Floyd Casey Stadium was outdated, austere, and inconveniently located, but those factors alone could not justify a quarter-billion-dollar expense. After all, Baylor rang up consecutive winning records in Floyd Casey’s final four seasons, producing a Heisman Trophy winner in 2011 and a never-to-be-forgotten Big 12 championship in its 2013 finale. However bleak Floyd Casey Stadium may have been, it was getting the job done.
Baylor’s leadership, however, recognized both the opportunity and the threat before it. The university needed an athletics program that was built to last, and rejoicing in occasional success no longer was the goal for any Baylor sport, let alone football.
The coaches and student-athletes who built the winning football records from 2010-13 came with the expectation that they were creating something special and that, eventually, the experience of playing Baylor football would meet or exceed anything else offered in the Big 12 Conference. Remaining in Floyd Casey Stadium would not get Baylor to the top of the Big 12 and keep it there. Since football is the financial engine that drives the rest of the athletics program, the actual question related to Baylor’s long-time viability in major-college intercollegiate athletics.
The good news, of course, is that nobody has to worry about what might have happened. With the commitment to McLane Stadium, coaches were retained and Baylor has attracted better players than at any time in its 117-year football-playing history. The result has been two consecutive Big 12 championships (the Bears won consecutive Southwest Conference championships only in 1915-16), the conference’s best record over the last three years (tied with Kansas State), an ESPN GameDay visit, and attendance that exceeded capacity by 1,570 fans per game in McLane Stadium’s first season. When the 2015 season opens, the Bears almost certainly will be ranked in the top 5 nationally, perhaps as high as number 3. Few Baylor fans ever dreamed of such heights.
And, of course, the stadium itself truly is the best. The sight lines are outstanding, Wi-Fi availability enhances the fan experience, and the video board is magnificent. The restrooms are enormously improved from Floyd Casey, as are the concession areas. The concourses are spacious, and the views of the campus may be even better than anticipated.
So, the stadium has been good for Baylor football – without question, as coach Art Briles might say. How, then, is football good for Baylor?
First, the obvious: Any fan who didn’t feel the green-and-gold blood pumping harder on football Saturdays last fall probably should see a doctor.
Any fan who didn’t feel the green-and-gold blood pumping harder on football Saturdays last fall should see a doctor.
Homecoming events at the stadium with the team practicing below, exploring the campus before the games, crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Brazos pregame and postgame – few of us had ever felt so proud and unified in all of our Baylor experiences. No matter how good a product Baylor put on the field in the sixty-five years of Floyd Casey Stadium – and there were more good years than bad – the sense of community was never what it could be.
That’s all positive, but the takeaway for a $266-mi1-lion outlay must mean more than the alumni feeling better about themselves. At this point, we can travel back to 1984, when an unheralded Boston College football team defeated defending national champion Miami on a last-second pass from quarterback Doug Flutie to receiver Gerard Phelan. At the time, Boston College was in the process of transforming itself into a national-destination institution, and the notoriety from college football’s most famous Hail Mary pass, and Flutie’s subsequent Heisman Trophy, boosted the efforts to an unanticipated level.
“Just as we were increasing faculty, financial aid, and all of the components necessary for that kind of growth, we had this tremendous visibility with Doug Flutie,” Reid Oslin, BC’s former football sports information director, told the NCAA News in 2007. “We had dozens of nationally televised games. We experienced an increase in applications. Souvenir sales, which had not been strong at that point, skyrocketed.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
Baylor, in fact, is the latest version of what is known among researchers at the Flutie Factor, which holds that a previously low-profile football or basketball program can generate major benefits for the overall university with sudden, unexpected success. George Mason University, which earned a surprising berth in basketball’s Final Four in 2006, generated $876,000 in merchandise sales in the time surrounding the Final Four; typical bookstore merchandise sales were $45,000 per month. And the school’s affinity credit-card program saw huge increases in applications, activation, and usage far beyond the initial euphoria. More importantly, however, was the effect on incoming students. In a typical year, 20 percent of accepted students enrolled, but after the Final Four run, 6o percent followed through.
Similar, and perhaps less ephemeral, success stories have played out at Gonzaga and Butler in men’s basketball and, to an extent, for Baylor with its 2005 women’s basketball championship.
The NCAA, understandably concerned that small programs would pour too much money into an operation in which there’s a loser for every winner, commissioned a study that found little correlation, on average, between athletic success and large-scale windfalls to colleges and universities. The “on average” qualifier was significant, however, because a few higher-education institutions have benefited in a large way.
Baylor appears to be one of them. Certainly the athletics program is on a roll. Football tickets sold out in McLane Stadium’s first year, and there’s a large waiting list in year two. In 2014, Baylor athletics topped $1 mil-lion in licensing royalties for the first time ($1.2 million, to be exact), with that number increasing for the fifth consecutive year. And Baylor football has become one of the most popular products on television; the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic garnered the largest postseason television audience of any game outside the three playoff contests. All of that means less financial support is required from the university in general. (Only twenty athletics programs nationwide generate revenue over expense without institutional support.)
In fact, the school’s most recent financial statements indicate what may be yet to come: Intercollegiate Athletics Income rose to $33.2 million for the fiscal year ending May 31, 2014, up from $31.4 million a year earlier, with increases due to advance ticket and event sales, football suite revenues, television income, advertising income, and rental-contract advance payments that will be earned over the next one to eleven years.
The bigger story, however, may be found in the success of the overall university in recent years. This fall, Baylor attracted its largest freshman class in his-tory. Year-over-year deposits, an indicator of which students will enroll, surged 13 percent from 2012 to 2013. Deposits for prospective minority students were up 20 percent, while the percentage of deposits from out-of-state students topped 30 percent for the first time.
Fundraising for the two-year period from February 2012-14 was also energized. During that time, the university raised an astonishing $345 million. For certain, much of that came from lead gifts to fund McLane Stadium and the Paul L. Foster Campus for Business and Innovation, but the fact remains that $178 million was raised for academic purposes and $167 million for athletics. Significantly, more than 40,000 people donated, 18,000 of them for the first time.
In short, Baylor’s trajectory is upward. Observers can debate questions of correlation and causality with regard to athletics, but few would dismiss the effect of the almost constant media expo-sure that has accompanied athletics success. What-ever the cause, it is a great time to be a Baylor Bear. The university now ranks number seventy-one on the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the highest ever, and number forty-five in the magazine’s high school counselor rankings.
As for McLane Stadium, some of the advantages are found in the moment. Other universities will build larger video boards, the in-stadium Wi-Fi will become the norm, and the overall newness will fade. Baylor, however, now is in a position of maintaining and building rather than playing a huge game of catch-up.
College football itself is navigating difficult issues involving participant safety and amateurism. Baylor’s athletics leadership is working with other major colleges and universities throughout the nation to ensure those matters are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties so that football can continue to benefit student-athletes, fans, and higher education itself for decades to come.
If they succeed, alumni can cross the bridge to McLane Stadium in twenty years and marvel at what a bargain it was.