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Premium-seating upgrade for Nippert Stadium

by John Bach

UC unveiled an effort to build an impressive four-story addition of luxury boxes, suites and premium seating options to its historic Nippert Stadium, which officials say will substantially boost athletics’ bottom line.

Though the timeline for the project will depend on private gifts, the improvement -- projected to cost up to $70 million -- would replace the existing press box on Nippert’s west side with a structure more than double its present length and one story taller.

From the top down, the four levels of the yet-to-be-named glass-enclosed pavilion would be used for a camera-crew deck, press and coaches boxes, suites and club-level seating. Current plans call for skywalk links to Tangeman University Center.

“The primary reason we are doing this project is to change our financial model in the athletics department,” athletics director Whit Babcock said during the December 2012 press conference. “Balancing our budget in this department has been a challenge in recent years.”

Babcock pointed out that UC has one of the lowest sports budgets ($27.5 million) of the 76 Bowl Championship Series schools as a result of three revenue factors: a “below-market” TV contract in the Big East, continuing debt payments on UC’s Varsity Village and a lack of premium seating for football.

The premium-seating model works

“Quite frankly, we don’t generate enough revenue off our football stadium,” he said. “The premium-seating model works. There’s not many schools out there simply adding bleacher seats in their expansions.”

While Babcock said it was too early to put a number on how many seats will be added as part of the stadium upgrade, he indicated a potential increase of 5,000 seats and that a “round number” like 40,000 would be “nice.” Nippert currently seats 35,000.

“There is no way to my knowledge that we can get up to 50 or 60,000,” he said. “I don’t know that we have the infrastructure to handle that. But right now, we don’t have any plans to add bleacher seating.”

Revenue from premium seating, Babcock said, will elevate all sports at UC and could even clear the way for restoring scholarships in Olympic sports that have lost funding in recent years. In 2009, UC started phasing out scholarships for men’s swimming and diving, as well as men’s track and field/cross country. The infusion of funds, he said, could also pay for improvements at both Fifth Third Arena and the Armory Fieldhouse.

Upgrades all fans will appreciate

Beyond box seating and a private club lounge, the Nippert remodel calls for upgrades that everyday fans will appreciate, including roomier concourses, upgraded restrooms and better concession areas.

“This project will also include improving the fan experience on the concourse level,” said Babcock, as he described some of the biggest improvements since the facility was first completed in the 1920s.

Construction began on Nippert Stadium in 1915 and was finished in 1924. The existing press box was completed in 1992. UC has used the Nippert location as a playing field since 1901, making it the second-oldest playing site in the nation for college football behind University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field (1895).

“Our football stadium, nestled right here in the heart of our Uptown Campus, is recognized even outside Cincinnati as one of the great stadiums in America,” said UC President Santa Ono. “Nippert is part of our brand. It is part of the UC student, alumni and fan experience and part of our history.”

Babcock agreed, pointing out that players and fans have indicated they far prefer Nippert over Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals play and to where some have suggested the Bearcats move all their home games.

“Nippert is part of our fabric,” he said. “It’s our edge; there is nowhere else like it in the country. There is no better home-field advantage than Nippert Stadium. It is also an integral part of our overall college experience for our student body.”

Babcock said UC will still play an “occasional” game at Paul Brown when “we really need to go big,” but he also indicated there were “six-figure” revenue losses in recent years from playing there against West Virginia and Louisville when attendance figures hit only 42,000 and 48,000.

As for improving UC’s chances to better its bid as conferences realign, Babcock said, “It’ll put us in a leadership position within our conference.”

While naming rights will be made available for the pavilion addition, Babcock said the name Nippert Stadium would never change.

He expected to give an update in the spring of 2013, but the project will not be completed in time for the next football season. Once under way, the project is expected to take 12 to 18 months, and it will be constructed in two phases so the Bearcats are never without a press box during the season.