SALT LAKE CITY — When in March the University of Utah announced a feasibility study on Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion, it naturally raised the question of whether now it will be easier to get tickets.
I can answer that before the study is even released: For a price.
The university is assessing what should be done by closing in the south end zone. One improvement sure to occur is new locker rooms. The current ones resemble Roman catacombs. Recruits are steered to the glistening Eccles Football Center, a few hundred yards south, rather than toward the locker rooms.
Rice-Eccles is a delightful venue from almost any angle, except the one where the players dress.
Medical/training facilities will also be added.
There was already high demand for tickets when Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
The Utes have sold out 38 consecutive games since 2010, and the renewal rate is 98 percent. Along with success comes the need to accommodate growth.
With expansion will come expensive upgrades. The red bleacher seats throughout the stadium are fading to pink, but officials have waited to do something until they can do everything. Bright new seats will arrive along with the bright new south end zone complex. Concourse areas are expected to be widened.
Also among the questions is how many seats would be added. The answer is between 5,000-10,000, which would put capacity at 50,000-55,000. But for those who have been unable to get season tickets, new availability could cost an arm and a leg — and maybe a kidney.
Colleges nowadays seek that sweet spot, where the stadium isn’t the largest, but it’s always sold out. That’s where the Utes are now.
No university is looking to add $15 bargain seats. The serious money comes in TV rights and the sale of luxury suites and loges. So that’s where the south end zone is headed, providing, at least in part, premier seating, dining and other amenities.
There is a growing worry about dropping attendance at most colleges, which has occurred at many places. Availability of games on TV and mobile devices makes it tempting to skip the hassle and stay at home.
Clearly, the era of monstrous stadiums is over.
Stanford dropped its capacity from 85,500 to 50,424 in 2006. Yet even now — when Cardinal teams are usually good — the stadium is seldom filled. In 2013, Cal dropped its capacity from 71,799 to 62,500. Yet when the Utes played there last fall, it wasn’t close to a sellout. Had it not been Band Day at Memorial Stadium, it would have been embarrassing.
Michigan — still the nation’s biggest stadium — dropped 2,300 seats in 2015. Ohio State’s venue is undergoing a $42 million renovation, at a loss of 2,600 seats.
Catering to fewer people, who spend more, isn’t just a football theme. Airlines are fashioning luxury flights that cost tens of thousands of dollars round trip, and include things such as sleeping cabins, caviar, lounges, butler service and showers.
A flying bowling alley can’t be far behind.
Such things are available, though not for everyone.
Among the complicated issues for Rice-Eccles — and all stadiums — is internet access. Today’s fans don’t want to wait until leaving the building to get updated stats. Nebraska installed high-density WiFi throughout, at a cost of millions. Such a project requires installing a device for every 45 or 50 people (Memorial Stadium seats 90,000, down from over 91,000). Yet technology’s inexorable march could even make that obsolete. Experts believe cell phone technology may soon allow every fan to access data without relying on WiFi.
An improved Rice-Eccles will include more and better bathrooms and concessions. That’s always a starting point, like installing an offensive line. Club-level amenities will almost surely follow. It’s all there in order to guarantee that everything is taken care of except, of course, winning.
That’s Kyle Whittingham’s job.
But more seats won’t necessarily mean access for every fan. Old, narrow seats are often replaced by sections of wider, more expensive ones.
“The study will provide the university valuable data in evaluating demand and determining potential revenue sources, including private donations and possibly increased ticket revenue,” a news release said.
Maybe the U. should change its slogan from “Imagine U.” to “What’s in your wallet?”