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What we learned from our Arizona Athletics facility tour

We got to tour all of Arizona Athletics’ new facility projects. Here are some takeaways.

We were lucky enough to get to tour all the Arizona Wildcats’ new facility projects — there are a lot of them — on Thursday, and here are some of our biggest takeaways.

If you have any questions about the new facilities, be sure to leave them in the comment section below. Not every tidbit could be included in here.

Arizona will begin selling beer and wine at football games this fall

It finally happened, and our full story on this can be found here.

The Indoor Sports Center is behind schedule

About two months ago, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke estimated that the Indoor Sports Center would be completed in “November-ish.” Now, the UA is saying it will be functional when the spring semester begins in January 2019.

“We were trying to push it, but it didn’t make sense to,” one UA official said. “Real-world problems started to affect our project when tariffs on steel and other buyouts started affecting the project numbers.”

This fall, the football team will practice on that grass field you see above. It is actually two 70-yard fields that can be converted into one 100-yard field.

They can also practice inside Arizona Stadium, and do some conditioning work on Bear Down Field, if necessary. (The turf isn’t conducive for much else, though, Heeke said.)

When it’s complete, the Indoor Sports Center will not only house football practices, but it will also used by other UA teams and will serve as a gathering spot for fans on game days.

Heeke envisions it becoming an extremely important component of Arizona Athletics, calling it the “footprint” of the department.

The renovations on the east side of Arizona Stadium will be a “race to the finish” and won’t be totally finished until the second home game

Heeke apparently wasn’t kidding in May when he said the UA might be sweeping the floors and painting the walls at Arizona Stadium as fans file in for the season-opener against BYU on Sept. 1.

“We’ll be fully functional by the opener, there’s just going to be some things that might not be totally finished,” Heeke reiterated Thursday. “Kind of like your house, you’re still working on a few punch-list items that need to be done, but it’ll be good.”

There is a concession stand and restroom in the northeast corner that are “a little touch and go for the opener.”

Heeke said the project has been backtracked because of some drainage and utility issues on the east side of the stadium.

“We’ve tried to address a lot of that so that backed us up a little bit, but I think it’s just a big project to do in that short of a time period,” he said. “But we knew we had to do it and we got pushed back with the approval a little bit, so we were under the gun from the very beginning.”

Here is the latest construction update from the UA’s website:

Masonry walls, roof structures and MEP rough in progressing from south area C to north area A. Trim and finishes now also underway in areas C and B. Lower bowl demolition is complete for super vomitories and seating aisle steps and water proofing is underway. Storm drainage improvements and other underground utility relocations are almost complete.

All the ins-and-outs about the renovations, including the latest renderings, can be seen here.

Heeke said Arizona has added 4,500 football season-ticket holders since last year, and that the rate of renewal is upward of 90 percent. He did admit that some of those new season-ticket holders were people who didn’t renew their tickets in previous seasons.

“We will pass last year’s sales for sure and hopefully well beyond that,” he said.

The capacity of Arizona Stadium hasn’t changed, but Heeke would like to reduce it eventually.

All these facility upgrades should help the UA regain its status as a prominent athletic school

Arizona’s athletic performance has dipped across the board over the last two decades. It finished 51st in the Directors’ Cup Standings this year, which was its worst finish ever. The year before, it finished 42nd, which was also its worst finish at the time.

The Wildcats used to be mainstays in the Top 10 back in the 1990s and early 2000s, boasting some of the top teams and student-athletes in the country.

But with virtually every UA athletic program receiving some sort of facility upgrade recently, it should help the school attract top-tier talent again.

This quote from Heeke is about softball, but the gist of it can be applied to every sport:

“We want to make sure that we can keep those great players in the West, that this is the destination for them, and facilities have become a big issue,” he said.

“Across the board, you have more competitive teams out there, more people investing in it. It’s become tougher ... and there’s just a lot of good players out there now and there’s a lot of good programs. ... All of a sudden [softball] became such a national thing and kids were going everywhere and the investments back east in those conferences was just astronomical, especially in the southeast. Most of those programs never ever had softball. There were only two or three in the whole league that had softball that 20 years ago.

“Now they’re all in on those sports, but geographically they compete against each other so much. Everybody had to invest into it really quickly, so a lot of us in the Pac-12 are kind of catching up to a degree because it is such a national game.”

Speaking of softball...

Arizona usually hosts several games against local junior colleges in October, but that won’t be feasible this year because of all the renovations to Hillenbrand Stadium. The Wildcats will likely play fall ball in Phoenix, I was told.

The Hillenbrand Stadium updates are expected to be completed in February, just in time for the 2019 regular season. The UA recently released some new renderings of them, which you can see here.

The upgrades include (but are not limited to):

  • a larger and climate-controlled press box
  • new shade structure for the infield
  • new ticket and souvenir stand
  • new restroom and concession facilities
  • new premium club seating
  • new dugouts (they will have restrooms inside them now)
  • a “standing deck” on the third base side
  • about 100-150 additional seats

The eight-time national champions haven’t reached the Women’s College World Series since 2010, but it’s hoped these new facilities can help them reach the sport’s pinnacle again.

“When you combine this with the Lapan Center, it’s just going to be a first-rate facility,” Heeke said. “It was always a great facility. Now it’s just, as Coach (Mike) Candrea likes to say, a face-lift.”

This is what the site currently looks like. The grandstands and concourse are gone, but the field is intact. Sort of.

The “next step” for the UA is to upgrade the adjacent soccer and track stadiums on East 15th Street and Plumer Avenue

“We want to do a lot of things out there eventually,” Heeke said. “We want to be sure that we’re committed to that whole footprint there, and then we need to invest in that from a locker standpoint, just an overall standpoint. The facility needs a lot of work.”

Heeke said the UA has kicked around the idea of moving soccer and track on campus, but it’s unlikely to happen.

“Where would you put it? What kind of green space exists?” he said. “Right now we’re trying to examine some ways we can elevate that entire complex and make it more full service for the student-athletes and for fans.”

Mulcahy Stadium — the UA’s soccer stadium — has some glaring issues. The visiting team doesn’t have a dressing room, there is one concession stand, few restrooms, no shade, the press box fits like five people if you’re lucky, and it simply isn’t the best-looking facility.

Plus, fans are crammed into rows of metal bleachers, which are not only uncomfortable, but incredibly hot during Arizona’s Sunday afternoon matches.

“You have to build something that identifies all that — team rooms, tickets, concessions. We would probably centrally locate that for both track and soccer if we have enough space so we only need to do it once,” Heeke said.

“It needs some aesthetic improvements when you talk about fencing or the entryway. We need to define it as a first-class facility. The seating component, yes, but it’s not bad, it just needs to be touched up a little bit.

“I think shade is pretty tough. It’s just tough to do. Shade’s great, but there’s never a point unless you put a dome over something that you’re going to be totally in the shade.”

Extra items

  • The total cost of these projects is $66 million. They are funded through a combination of private donations and the newly implemented student fee, per the UA. Heeke said Arizona is on a 26- or 30-year finance plan.
  • There is a new interview room in McKale Center. (That’s where press conferences take place for volleyball, basketball, and gymnastics.) It is much bigger than the old one, and it was created it by knocking down a wall between two smaller media rooms. (You guys probably don’t care, but this is a big deal for us media folks.)
  • Men’s golf, women’s soccer, men’s tennis, and women’s track and field got new locker rooms in McKale Center. Women’s swimming and diving and men’s track and field had their locker rooms remodeled. Here is what Heeke had to say about them:
  • The locker rooms are supposed to be done by Aug. 1, but that seems like an optimistic timetable, given what we saw Thursday.
  • As for the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center, the 50-meter pool is being rebuilt and expanded to 65 meters. The number of 25-yard short course lanes is increasing from 18 to 22. The pump and plumbing infrastructure is being replaced and “significantly upgraded.” There is new chemical and filtration infrastructure and storage. The project is expected to be completed by January 1, and should put the UA in the mix to host NCAA events. Here is what it looks like now: