Fresno State Football

New turf, new lights, but what’s next for Bulldog Stadium? That’s the $45 million question

A look at Bulldog Stadium before Saturday’s home opener

Fans will notice a new turf field and new lights in 2019. Also will be visible is the list of conference championships.
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Fans will notice a new turf field and new lights in 2019. Also will be visible is the list of conference championships.

Fresno State gets Minnesota on Saturday – a big one for the Bulldogs, a rare home game against a Power Five conference opponent, their first since 2015.

But the glamour and glitz that was to accompany the Golden Gophers’ visit to Bulldog Stadium, that was set aside long ago. A renovation project to address all of the shortcomings in the 39-year-old stadium with better access, new suites and a stadium club never got very far off the ground and was killed early in 2018.

“The vision that we had earlier had a lot of potential,” university President Joseph Castro said in an April 2018 interview with The Bee. “It was a bigger vision. But when we looked at the economics around it, we just couldn’t make it work. It would have required significant private dollars, more than we had committed at the time, and more financing by the university, and we just couldn’t make the economics of that vision work.”

The university instead shifted focus to deferred maintenance on the venue – the restrooms and concessions stands, ADA issues, replacing seats.

About $45 million in campus funds and financing would be available, over time.

ADA issues were addressed, but the university also this summer put $5 million into replacing the artificial playing surface and improving the stadium lighting and electrical infrastructure. It slapped some paint and new graphics on the walls that border the field, a display of conference championships on the face of the suites on the east wide of the stadium, all as part of the first phase of who knows how many to upgrade a stadium that was opened in 1980.

It did nothing about the restroom facilities, limited concessions, antiquated suites.

The concourses and stairways still are uneven, full of cracks.

The premium seats were untouched, continuing to fade in the summer sun; it would be a disservice to red or pink to describe them as red or pink.

So, what’s next for Bulldog Stadium?

And, when biting off a badly needed renovation in bits and pieces, will Fresno State ever be able to tackle access, one of the main and most costly issues at Bulldog Stadium?

Castro, through a university spokesperson, directed inquiries to athletics director Terry Tumey.

What’s next for Bulldog Stadium?

There has been no determination on how much funding a university that has facilities improvements working across campus will be able to provide in 2020, no blueprints on the table for new restrooms and concessions stands or structural improvements to the stadium, no timeline for when the next phase will start or reach conclusion.

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Fans line up for an $8 beer at one of two beer gardens set up within the boundary of Bulldog Stadium during the 2017 opener. Fresno State was able to sell alcohol in the stadium for the first time since 2006, an annual boost of more than $100,000 to the Bulldogs’ athletics department. Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado Fresno Bee file

But that next step will be deliberate.

“It’s going to take a huge investment,” Tumey said. “We’re going to have to try to figure out what can we do in order to do this the right way, because we only have one shot at doing it right.”

Improving fan experience is high on the list of priorities, but the when and the how are to be determined.

“We already know the things that need to be looked at – the restroom facilities, possibly looking at folks who can help us from the concession area and making that area more robust,” Tumey said.

“That’s another part of the fan experience – possibly looking at ways that we can increase the offering for families, having more family-oriented tailgating areas. People do want to enjoy the experience for more than just the game.”

Several ideas, sources said, have been kicked around to provide premium-type seating options similar to some that have popped up across the country, including a party deck.

“Having some diversification in offering I think would help,” Tumey said. “Right now we’re very blessed to have a stadium that has great seating opportunities, general seating, the red seats, which are more premium seating, and then we have our suite offerings. But what would be nice, something that the appetite of Fresno would look at, would be to have something that is in between a suite and a traditional seat, something that gives them a little more of a premium feel.

“In the future, if that was something that we could offer, we think that would be a difference-maker in changing what this thing looks like.”

Falling behind in Mountain West

But it’s more vision than plan at this point, and Fresno State falls farther behind Mountain West Conference programs that have been able to complete major athletic venue projects.

San Diego State will move into a new football stadium in 2022, part of a $250 million project that includes a campus expansion and commercial and residential space.

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A rendering of San Diego State’s new stadium in Mission Valley planned to open in 2022. San Diego State University

UNLV in 2020 will play home games at the new stadium under construction for the Raiders, and will soon be moving into a $24 million state-of-the-art football operations building adjacent to the Rebels’ practice fields complete with a new locker room, a weight room, office space, a kitchen and dining hall and an academics center.

The Raiders stadium in Las Vegas is progressing through July 2019. The Raiders are scheduled to make their Las Vegas debut in 2020.

Boise State, which opened the Bleymaier Football Center in 2013, is exploring a renovation to the east side of Albertsons Stadium that would include wider concourses, adding and updating restrooms and concessions areas as well as more premium seating.

Colorado State moved into a new $220 million on-campus football stadium in 2017 that features 23 private suites, 884 club seats and 224 loge box seats. The Rams’ football operations also are part of the venue with a 9,100-square-foot weight room, office and meeting space, a locker room and player/recruit lounge and a sports medicine center.

Nevada invested $11.5 million to add a club level to Mackay Stadium in 2016.

Utah State in 2016 opened a $36 million four-story premium seating and press box structure that included 24 private suites, 20 loge boxes, more than 700 club-level seats and a 5,000-square foot club lounge. The project included additional restrooms, upgraded concessions, the addition of two video boards and wider concourses.

Even San Jose State, which has won just 23 games and just 16 conference games since it joined the Mountain West in 2013, is a player in the facilities race.

The Spartans have raised about $30 million toward construction of a $40 million football operations building, which also will be home to the men’s and women’s soccer programs.

It is slated to open in 2023 and will include new locker rooms, an auditorium, office space and meeting rooms, game day suites, a dining hall and an athletic training room.

“We are definitely behind, when you look at our brethren within the conference,” Fresno State’s Tumey acknowledged. “Every institution has made some commitment to a capital improvement.

“That’s not to say Fresno State isn’t trying to be in that game, as well. But we have to be responsible. How do we stay in that game? We literally try to go out and find people who are going to help us in that way.”

They can’t afford to do it, they can’t afford not to do it

Fresno State has tried to engage a flagging fan base to improve attendance at football games, a primary revenue driver for an athletics department saddled by and struggling to support 21 sports programs.

It needs more fans in its football stadium, but it hasn’t been able to swing a major renovation to make it more fan friendly.

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Bulldog fans wait in line before checking through security and entering Bulldog Stadium for the Fresno State football game against Toledo on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Season ticket sales this season are trending positively and Fresno State is expecting a crowd in the mid-30,000s for its home opener on Saturday against Minnesota. By comparison, last season’s opener drew 31,170 for a 79-13 rout of Idaho of the FCS.

But it still has not sold out a game at Bulldog Stadium since the 2014 home opener against Nebraska, a crowd that was boosted by a large contingent of Cornhuskers fans.

Game day promotions – Homecoming and Ag Fest, for instance – have not been large draws.

The quality of opponent has not seemed to matter.

The stadium could be a factor in attendance, but it is only one of many, Tumey said.

“When we talk to people about the stadium, we hear about the deficiencies of the stadium. I’ll be the first to tell you that,” he said. “But I can’t say that the issues of the stadium are the end-all, be-all. That’s a major piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle.

“The biggest thing we need to do is increase the engagement piece in its entirety, whether that be stadium, whether that be attractiveness, whether that’s an affinity to be in this place. We have to figure it out.”

Time and money are two things not on the Bulldogs’ side

Time is not an ally. Renovation only gets more expensive – an increase of 5% a year was the figure university and athletics department officials kicked around when unexplained cracking on the east side of the stadium threatened the timeline of the original renovation plan.

Improving access to the stadium would require a significant financial commitment.

“We’ve talked about the ingress, egress to the stadium and how our fans look for some way to help them with the vertical climb,” Tumey said. “How can we make that a better situation? I can’t say that we’ve found a point what that looks like, but I know we’ve bandied about many things.

“Tunneling is extremely expensive. It’s a wonderful idea, but it is a very costly one. A cut through, where you cut through the seating, in some elements I don’t think that’s a bad idea. But we want to have a robust offering. Right now Bulldog Stadium seats around 41,000. If you’re losing (ticket) inventory, how much are you losing? That would be important for us to understand, because we do intend to keep growing Bulldog Stadium, and keep growing the attendance.”

What needs to happen, Fresno State has a handle on that.

Its challenges, as well.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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