Arizona Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke calls himself a traditionalist.
As he guided the media on a tour of Arizona Stadium on Friday, he stopped to marvel at some of the archaic details that are still baked into the nearly-100-year-old venue.
“This structure, and these first 30 rows, still remains the original construction of the stadium, the 1928, 29 structure,” he said, patting the stone foundation of the west-side grandstands. “So a lot of history, a lot of tradition here.
“Some of the old tie-up stations are still existing here from the early 1920s, 1930s, where you’d actually tie up a horse or you’d tie up your carriage as you came to a game, which is pretty interesting. Historical components of this stadium help tell a story of the evolution of a program and a university quite frankly, and so we don’t want to lose all of those elements.”
But Heeke also considers himself to be a realist, which means it’s time for some of those artifacts, as charming as they may be, to give way to modern amenities.
More than ever, college football programs are finding it difficult to fill seats, thanks to things like rising ticket prices, wonky kickoff times, and the compelling TV experience fans can get from their couch.
To combat it, schools have to conjure new, creative ways to entice people to the stadium.
Take the new SkyClub Box on the west side of Arizona Stadium, for example. Renovated this summer, the new space offers an open-air environment with enhanced food and beverage options, a buffet, and scenic views of both the field and the areas surrounding campus.
The club, which was still receiving touches Friday, will also be lined with TVs so fans can stay connected with the action when they leave their seats to socialize or grab a bite to eat.
“That’s the future of all sporting events,” Heeke said. “We’re in competition with television, obviously, and what they have done to provide an experience basically on your couch. We’ve got to again prove that there’s no better atmosphere than being inside the stadium on game day and seeing live action. On top of that, we can recreate a lot of the things that you can get on your couch now inside of the venue. And so we give the best of both worlds.”
Here’s a look inside the new SkyBox Club in Arizona Stadium. They’re still putting on the finishing touches. pic.twitter.com/ltJlyMkwnY— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 6, 2019
It comes at a cost, to be sure. Entry to the SkyBox Club is $3,000 per person per season.
But eventually those luxuries will be available to everyday season-ticket holders. Heeke said Arizona’s next big project is to completely dismantle and rebuild the longstanding grandstands on the west side, which he estimates will cost $120-$150 million.
It dwarfs the $60+ million the UA recently spent to overhaul the east side of Arizona Stadium.
“We want to be builders,” Heeke said. “We need to catch up to a certain degree across the board with facilities. It’s been a priority of mine since I arrived. It has been a priority for the President and really addressing our physical plan, as is happening across campus. But the big project that we’re focused on is the west side renovation, the seating areas on the west side.We’ve done some things. We’ve tried to widen the seats, so it’s going to be a little bit more comfortable, but the fact of the matter remains that it was built in an era where the space between seats is just not comfortable.
“So that is the project that’s on the horizon. We’re in the midst of final designs of that. We’ll take the next eight to 12 months to pull that all together. And then we want to launch that project, and it will be a multi-year project because you can’t do it all in one year, because we will not vacate the stadium. That’s our intent right now. We would play through the construction over a two-year period.”
Until then, the west side has received some minor enhancements like more points of sale for concessions, plus more TVs and restroom trailers—basic commodities fans have been wanting for years.
And when the major upgrades are complete in a few years—well, at least that’s the plan for now—the UA hopes the new-and-improved Arizona Stadium will not only draw people to games, but also improve the product the field, which has been middling at best over the last decade.
“We’re in the midst of trying to build a full, comprehensive football program and I’m excited for our fanbase to get in here and see what’s going on,” Heeke said. “Our goal is to be a competitor for a conference championship here, and to get to bowl games on a regular basis. Those are important pieces for our football program. No reason that can be done in Tucson and be highly successful here, and we’ve got to stay focused on that. I think we can have a really good year.
“And the future, I believe the foundation of it is coming together and the important piece is the foundation. We’re not just going to build this house of cards and try to quick fix it.”