Several reasons to renovate the Marriott Center, but BYU can't forget the students own half of it

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

BYU fans cheer in the first half of play as BYU and Baylor play Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 in the Marriott Center in Provo.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

PROVO — The Marriott Center wasn't built to make a ton of money. Its reason for being was to pack people in seats for myriad activities, one of which just happened to be the ever-popular sport of basketball.

But money, comfort and safety are issues today as the university tweaks the seating inside, a move that will impact a lot of fans.

Before the Marriott Center, basketball was so popular with students that there were many complicated plans for ticket distribution to ease a demand that had people camping overnight and perching in long lines in the days of the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse.

A look at history provides insight into why BYU moved to make the latest renovations. The basics? To increase comfortable seating, move student seating, expand ticket price choices and make basketball games more profitable.

Two items stand out in this move that have made some unhappy.

First, students have been a huge part of the history and have contributed big time financially.

Second, four decades after the fact with an athletic budget between $30 million and $40 million, BYU needs more revenue from popular spectator events, and in that regard, part of the purpose and utility of the building has evolved.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, BYU students got in free to all athletic events because they paid an "activity fee" in addition to tuition. It was mandatory to pay this fee. In the catalog, it was called "Tuition and Fees." This student fee was used for concerts, theater, athletics, student government, student dances, the Daily Universe newspaper and so forth. Years later, the fees were merged into just "tuition" and students were then charged extra for athletic tickets, concerts and the like.

When BYU built the Marriott Center, the administration had a "building fee" that helped pay for non-academic buildings. Donors paid for half the Marriott Center and student building fee revenue paid for the other half. I'm told the total cost was about $7.5 million.

This big building came about because the Smith Fieldhouse simply could not accommodate BYU basketball fans, especially students. The university also needed a place to hold as many students and faculty for devotionals. For Smith Fieldhouse hoops, many students would camp out overnight in the west annex, and when the doors were opened for the ticket line, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students could not even come inside to get in line.

Tickets to Smith Fieldhouse basketball games were free with a photo ID student card. A similar plan worked for faculty members.

In planning for the Marriott Center, an imperative element on the agenda was to take care of students — pack in as many as possible.

Then student body president Paul Gilbert, now an attorney in Phoenix, was on the planning committee, and he insisted the building accommodate a ton of students.

Designers placed bleacher seats on the north side of the arena because three bleacher seats took up the same space as two chair seats. This is why half the Marriott Center seats are bleachers — for students who were admitted free of charge. Those bleacher seats were reserved for students and later, students began paying for those seats. As student attendance went down, the bleachers were offered for sale to the public.

Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Center was almost finished when BYU began planning the Marriott Center, and the planners decided to use the same architects who designed the Ute arena.

In the original configuration, the teams sat right in front of the students, but visitors complained, and it was reversed. Now it's going back to a design where teams will be on the north sideline as students are moved to the west chair seats on the baseline.

Bottom line of all this?

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