Is Funding an on Campus Stadium at Memphis Realistic?

Most supporters of the University of Memphis football program are tired of the on-campus stadium debate. It’s very 2007. Tiger Lane is awesome, and there’s really not a bad seat in the house at the recently spruced up Liberty Bowl. Given that it’s just a few miles down Central Avenue, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is basically an on-campus stadium anyway.

But last week, The University of Memphis’ co-tenant at the Liberty Bowl indicated an unwillingness to accommodate the University’s desire to install additional chair back seats.

The difference of opinion – and need to reach consensus with co-tenants before making changes necessary for the success of its football program – highlights the drawback of the University not having its own, real on campus stadium. In light of the Memphis football program’s recently completed 10-3 season – a campaign which saw the Tigers capture the American Athletic Conference regular season championship and Miami Beach Bowl Championship – is now the time for the University’s athletic department to explore funding an on-campus stadium?

Much has been written and said over the past decade or so about the possibility of an on campus stadium for the UofM. The basic history is that at one point a feasibility study commissioned by the UofM revealed that building an on-campus stadium would be feasible – but the powers that be decided against it. In 2013, Interim UofM president Brad Martin indicated in an interview with Geoff Calkins that the on-campus stadium debate was dead. Martin shut down the idea. Martin and current University President David Rudd (who was Provost under Martin) have pretty much been in lockstep on these issues, and with the athletic department at UofM focused on a $40 million facilities project on south campus – it would seem the debate remains dead.

So it would be silly to think there’s going to be an all out push for an on campus stadium just because Liberty Bowl Game Executive Director Steve Ehrhart is being inflexible about some chair back seats.

On the other hand, the developments of the past year might have Rudd and UofM Athletic Director Tom Bowen reconsidering their position – and perhaps they should. When considering this issue – the primary consideration is simple: funding.

Three of Memphis’ American Athletic Conference counterparts have built new stadiums in recent years – UCF, Houston and Tulane. Additionally, Cincinnati – who is thought to be a possible Big XII expansion candidate – is currently funding an $86 million overhaul of their on campus facility, Nippert Stadium.

Memphis, meanwhile, can’t put some chair backs in without getting road blocked by a guy – Ehrhart – who inked a deal with the SEC and Big XII, thereby denying Memphis’ current conference a valuable affiliation. Ehrhart clearly doesn’t have the University’s interests in mind and why should he – it’s not his job.

That can’t make Bowen and Rudd happy.

Bowen, Rudd and supporters of the football program could and perhaps should at least be contemplating the funding possibilities for an on campus stadium. In examining how UofM’s current rivals have paid for their new stadiums, there are a few main sources of funding available that UofM must at least think about:

1. Student Fees. This was a big source of funding for the University of Houston in building a brand new stadium that opened in 2014. According to the Houston Chronicle:

The UH Student Government Association put a $45 per-semester, per-student fee increase to a student referendum, and it passed by a wide margin as 73.9 percent of the voting body approved the increase.

Given the fact that UofM’s enrollment is approximately 21,000, over a proejcted 20-year bond payoff period, such a student fee could theoretically raise approximately $37.8 million towards an on-campus stadium. After a 10-3 campaign that brought great excitement to the University, is there a better time for such a referendum?

2. Club Seats and Suite Sales. This was the primary source of funding for the University of Cincinnati. According to USA Today, Cincinnati sold rights to 18 suites which are scheduled to bring in $2 million per year over the course of a 20-year bond payoff. That’s another $40 million. Cincinnati’s club seats brought in another $2.5 million per year. Memphis could surely approach those numbers.

3. Naming Rights. International Paper Stadium? FedExStadium? $15 million over 10 years sound o.k.? That’s what Houston got for their stadium. Seems realistic.

4. Ticket Surcharges. Clearly, one of the primary reasons the powers that be at the UofM have been reluctant to pursue an on-campus stadium is because they’ve been tapping donors for other projects (FedExPark, Weight Room, new basketball facility, IPF, etc…)  a great deal of late. There’s only so many times you can go back to the well.

If an on-campus stadium were ever to become a reality for Memphis, the everyday fan is going to have to get involved where it counts – the checkbook. This could be done structurally through a ticket surcharge, or a seat license. Either way, let’s assume that the loyal 20k base of Tiger football fans – you know, the ones that showed up to all the cold weather games this year – would each be willing to pay $100 annually over a 20-year period. Let’s say this came in the form of ticket surcharges – this would account for another $40 million.

Taking these various funding streams together – one can realistically imagine the UofM being able to put together enough funding to finance a stadium project. Sure, it would take a ton of hard work, initiative, political will and courage. Until last week, such a project seemed unnecessary. After all, Rudd and Bowen have to be concerned with the south campus projects first, and also have to be accounting for the various structural changes to college athletics (see: cost of attendance increase) which will drastically alter the budget of their athletic department. They have plenty on their plate without having to worry about a giant stadium project.

And yet it’s also clear that the UofM needs to do everything within its power to position itself for the next wave of realignment – whenever it comes. If athletics is a priority, the UofM needs to keep investing – particularly in football. Realignment 101. Invest. In football.

If the average fans, and students, and corporate partners are all willing to chip in a little – and if their current home is occupied by by a co-tenant who is making their life and mission more difficult – don’t the powers that be at the UofM owe it to themselves to at least reconsider the idea of funding a new stadium?