Fresno State for years did not have the means or momentum to take on a major renovation of Bulldog Stadium and over time, it has become dated and worn.
Though the newest football venue in the Mountain West Conference, the building has not aged well. The concourses are narrow, the pavement uneven and cracked. The seats between the 20-yard lines, once a vibrant red, have been bleached by the Valley sun to an odd hue. And as a revenue driver, Bulldog Stadium has in ways been an untapped resource for an athletic department challenged to keep up with the escalating costs of college athletics.
But athletic director Jim Bartko on Friday unveiled a vision and early renovation plan that will serve as a launch point for the future of the soon-to-be 35-year-old stadium.
Developed with AECOM, a global architecture and engineering firm that has developed more than 100 college and professional stadiums or arenas, it is transformative for Bulldogs’ fans, the athletic department and the football team that calls it home.
Included in the four-phase plan is the branding of a Bulldog District around the stadium with a pregame festival zone and fan amenities; renovation of the seating bowl to create easier access to seats as well as concession stands and restroom facilities; the addition of suites, a stadium club and new press box on the west side of the stadium; and a football operations building in the south end zone with a new locker room, office space and scoreboard.
$80 million initial potential estimated cost of four-phase renovation plan for Bulldog Stadium
The total cost is a moving target at this point, but sources have suggested it could run to $80 million.
Bartko, who in his first six months on the job has moved quickly to upgrade the Bulldogs’ athletics facilities, did not flinch at that number. Moreover, he said it had to happen for Fresno State to remain competitive in the Mountain West and nationally; football last year generated 47% of the revenues coming specifically from the Bulldogs’ 19 sports programs, and that percentage is much higher at other football bowl subdivision schools.
“For us to move forward in this conference, look around, the whole conference is doing it,” Bartko said. “Colorado State is doing it, Utah State is doing it, Nevada. UNLV is looking at it. Wyoming has done it. Boise did it. Air Force is doing it.
“We have to look at it. It’s going to happen, whether it’s a year from now, five years, because Bulldog Stadium can’t continue the way it is now with the conditions of some areas and the fan experience. In 20 years, it won’t be functional from concessions and restrooms, just the concrete in the walkways and the rails, seating. We need to do it fiscally responsible and make it right revenue-wise, so we can compete for championships.”
The target for completion: 2019.
Representatives from AECOM first met at Fresno State on Feb. 5 and quickly identified areas in need of improvement in and around the stadium.
The atmosphere around the stadium, stunted by chain link and barbed wire fencing, will be addressed in the first phase of the project. The aim is to make better use of the existing space and facilities to connect pregame functions — the tailgating, a festival zone and fan amenities — and improve the game-day experience for fans.
Also toward the top of the list is fan access, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has made the trek up the ramps on the west and east sides of the stadium.
The Master Plan calls for tunnels at Bulldog Stadium in the northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast from ground level into the middle rows of the seating bowl. A cross aisle then ties together the sections on the west and east sides of the stadium.
That was addressed in drawings and a master plan that was delivered this week to Bartko and athletic department officials. In it, Bulldog Stadium is divided into quarters, with tunnels at the northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast from ground level into the middle rows of the seating bowl. A cross aisle then ties together the sections on the west and east sides of the stadium.
The renovation of the seating bowl, which is the second phase, will put an end to that hike for a majority of fans, alleviate it for others, and allow for much better circulation for fans entering in the middle rows of the stadium.
Hiking boots in the future would be a sartorial selection.
Phase three is all bling but also invaluable to the project. Athletic department revenues at Fresno State have increased every year since 2011, which coincides with a run of success on the football field under coach Tim DeRuyter. But while the 22 suites added to the east side of the stadium in 1991 have been sold out in every season but two and ticket sales have improved, the Bulldogs still are well behind their Mountain West rivals in athletic revenue, ranking eighth of 12 in the conference.
AECOM designed a tower for the west side of the stadium that includes premium seating for all levels of ticket buyers — a suite level, a stadium club and club seating and loge seating at the top rows of the bowl — as well as signage and sponsorship opportunities to add to the revenue stream.
$1 million potential amount annually, or more, for the naming rights to a renovated Bulldog Stadium
A renovated stadium also could put Fresno State in line to sell naming rights, which could be worth more than $1 million per year.
In recent deals, Boise State is receiving $12.5 million over 15 years from Albertsons, with $9.081 million going to the athletic department and the remainder to marketing partner Learfield Sports; Cal will bring in $18 million over 15 years after renaming its renovated stadium Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium; Houston sold naming rights to the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union Stadium for $15 million over 10 years.
The final phase is the football operations building, which along with a new locker room and office space will include a reception lobby and an alumni lounge while retaining the ramp the Bulldogs players use to get from the locker room to the playing field.
All of it ties together.
“The fan experience and coming to games has been such a family history here in this community for so long, but nowadays with modern technology, we need to make sure that we can bring 40,000 people in here and they can all have a great time and know that it’s worth the value that they’re spending,” Bartko said. “They’re spending money on donations and parking and concessions and gear. They’re visiting campus and going back to the ag school and business school, and we have to make sure this is the place they can enjoy a game.
“Then we can also recruit the top players and keep great coaches. It all ties into that revenue stream that we need to make sure we continue to have to fund all of our programs.”
And, Fresno State now has made a long-awaited entry into the arms race rather than continuing to sit idle while competing programs upgrade stadiums and football facilities.
“I think as an institution you have to decide if you’re going to compete at the top level of at least your conference in Division I football, and that’s kind of the standard nowadays,” DeRuyter said. “If you can’t compete facilities-wise, you’re not going to get recruits; and if you don’t get recruits, you’re not going to be very good on Saturdays; and if you’re not very good, people aren’t going to show up and then the whole train starts to slow down.
“It’s really encouraging that our administration understands the importance of it and the importance of taking care of our fans. They are our customers; and to initiate a process where we’re going to have improvements to our stadium is extremely exciting not only to our players, but I think to the entire Red Wave.”
There are many steps ahead, including fundraising and financing the renovation. Completing the project in phases will make it more manageable, but Bartko and Fresno State now have a vision, a plan and a target date.
“In the next year, how do we make it a reality? That’s where we have a lot of work to do,” Bartko said. “We’re still in the early stages of what we need to do. But we needed to have some plans. We needed to have an idea. We needed to have a vision of what it could be, and now we’ll see where it can take us.
“From this point, it’s usually a year to put more documents together, to get more estimates, do some market research as to how many boxes can we sell, what’s the price point?”
The project will move as fast as Fresno State can push it. But stadium projects and football facilities have been sprouting across the Mountain West — Boise State opened the $22 million Bleymaier Football Center in 2013, Wyoming added the Wildcatter Stadium Club in 2010, Mackay Stadium at Nevada is undergoing an $11.5 million renovation including the addition of a stadium club and loge seating to be completed in time for the 2016 season, and Colorado State will move into a $220 million on-campus stadium in 2017.
Bartko is confident it can be done at Fresno State, phase by phase, from the new scoreboard to be installed this summer at the north end of the stadium to the branding of a Bulldog District around the stadium, to improvements to tailgating, to cutting into the seating bowl to create that access.
“It’s like a house. At some point you have to do some improvements,” he said. “I hear a lot from our fans: We have no kitchens to cook food for concessions and the restrooms aren’t fully adequate for 40,000 people and the ramps going up are kind of steep, the stairs are getting old.
“At some point in time you have to put some money into capital improvements, and it’s time for us to do it. I think the fans are excited to do it, and we want to take the next step and continue to win championships here and have a great program and help this community engage in what we’re doing. This is the time to do it. Why wait? If we can do it now, let’s do it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada