ALLEN, Texas — As far as seating capacity, there are bigger football stadiums than the 18,000-seat fortress Allen High School will unveil this fall.
After all, this is Texas.
The new Eagle Stadium, located in a booming suburb just north of Dallas, will merely rank fifth in the state among facilities used for Friday night football on a weekly basis.
But it’s that $60 million price tag – $59.6 million, to be exact – that raises eyebrows even in a state where high school football is an obsession.
“Most of the negative stuff that comes out are from people outside of Allen,” football coach Tom Westerberg said. “I don’t really worry about that a whole lot. We’ve drawn quite a few people to the games and I think for the majority of the big games it will be full.”
It will be overflowing when Allen opens the stadium Aug. 31 against longtime power Southlake Carroll, the defending Class 5A Division I state champion and a frequent playoff foe.
Allen raised the money for its new stadium as part of a $119.4 million bond package in May of 2009 that passed with an impressive 63.66 percent of the vote.
Even with such support, there have been critics who say spending $60 million on a football stadium is outrageous at a time when education budgets are being slashed.
“What do I say to that?” Allen school district athletic director Steve Williams asked rhetorically. “I say we’re in a community that overwhelmingly voted to build this stadium.”
Allen’s voters are getting their money’s worth. The stadium is a sunken bowl with decks on each side. There is a three-tiered pressbox on the home side and a giant video screen on the end zone scoreboard.
The district sold advertising on the scoreboard, but not naming rights. It’s just Eagle Stadium.
The feel is modern, clean and big without being ostentatious. There is no row of luxury suites, just two hospitality rooms in the pressbox. Instead, tented plazas in the corners of the stadium will be available for rent.
The school district didn’t budget for individual stadium seats. They surveyed season ticket holders as to whether they would be willing to pay an additional $60 per seat to have the chair backs. The response: aluminum bleachers with seatbacks will be fine.
But they definitely want seats.
Allen’s cramped, former stadium had just 2,400 reserved seats and they were treasured by the families who could get them.
An initial 1,743 people signed up for season tickets at the new stadium, with a limit of four tickets per household. Five more sections were opened up for reserved seating, bringing the total to 8,252. As the final day of season ticket sales approached, less than 200 seats were available.
Even though the football stadium seems palatial, season tickets are still just $40, or $8 per game. A fan can still walk up and purchase a ticket for $10 – if there are any seats left.
While football is a priority in Allen – Arizona State coach Todd Graham was the head coach here from 1995 to 2000 – it’s not the only priority, judging by the school district’s other facilities.
And while Allen is blooming with malls and chain restaurants, the median household income grew to $100,843 in 2009. In other words, this isn’t a town of millionaires footing the bill for the new stadium.
But it is a town that turns out to see its kids play and perform, and the old stadium simply didn’t have enough seats. And if you did get a ticket, it was likely to be a temporary bleacher in the end zone.
“They support and take care of the kids in Allen,” Westerberg said. “Everybody that wants to come to the game is going to have a chance to come.”
To understand how Allen wound up with a $60 million palace of a stadium, you have to understand Allen, Texas.
Long before Allen boomed to its current population of 84,256 (according to the 2010 census) district officials decided to remain a one-high school town.
The result is a high school with 5,388 students in grades 9-12, according to figures calculated by the University Interscholastic League, the organization that oversees public school sports and academic competitions in Texas.
But that figure doesn’t even make Allen the largest school in its six-team football district, 10-5A. Plano East is the largest school in the state with an enrollment figure of 6,016. Plano Senior High has an enrollment figure of 5,315 and Plano West has 4,945.
In Texas, Class 5A schools have a minimum enrollment of 2,090 students. Most 5A schools have enrollments closer to McKinney High, the smallest member of Allen’s district with 2,121.
Allen’s varsity football team has about 100 players. There are another 100 on the two junior varsity teams, and 256 boys have signed up to play freshman football this fall.
All told, there are approximately 1,200 kids playing football from seventh grade on up. But that’s just the football program.
The Allen marching band boasts 800 members. Wearing their blue coats as they line the field before a halftime performance, the Allen band resembles Santa Ana’s army preparing to storm the Alamo.
With the size of the football and band programs, not to mention cheer and drill teams, that’s a lot of parents wanting to see their kids perform on Friday nights. In Allen’s old stadium, not everyone was guaranteed a seat.
The old Eagle Stadium, built in 1976, had just 7,200 permanent seats. Another 7,000 temporary seats were rented out every fall to bring official capacity to 14,000.
“We probably played in the worst stadium for a 5A program in the Metroplex,” Williams said. “We built that stadium as a 3A stadium. And then we added on to it in ’87, but we outgrew that a long, long time ago. There were just so many problems every time you played in it.”
The old stadium was located on what is now a middle school campus. Visiting teams had to dress in the gymnasium. The pressbox resembled a gutted-out mobile home. Parking was so sparse that many fans had to shuttle in from satellite lots and portable toilets became a regular feature.
“We basically bussed to every game,” Westerburg said, sitting in his fieldhouse office that overlooks the new stadium. “We would dress here and then we would bus over to the old stadium.”
Allen won a 5A state title in 2008 despite the inconveniences of the old stadium. The bond election the following spring couldn’t come fast enough for most folks.
“They were tired of the experience they had at the old one,” Williams said. “They were tired of not being able to get seats. And they were tired of having to show up at 6 o’clock to sit in a temporary seat. People were upset because they couldn’t see their kids in the band or the drill team.”
Because classroom space was the priority for the mushrooming school district, a football stadium had never been part of a bond package before. The school district had made other attempts to build a new stadium. A partnership with the city fell through, as did talks with a master-planned retail and residential community.
For critics who call Allen a football-crazed town, the bond package included a much-needed $23.3 million auditorium for the district’s performing arts programs. It also included $36.5 million for a transportation, maintenance and nutrition center.
The stadium itself serves more than just football. Under the east stands is an 84-yard long weight room. Under the west stands is a workout room and coaches offices for the wrestling program. There are also indoor hitting areas for the golf teams.
The football program already had many amenities in the athletics building on the south end of the stadium, including an indoor practice field. The team also has two grass practice fields and another turf field at the track stadium.
Allen’s soccer teams will play some games in the new stadium, but they already have a grass stadium at one of the middle schools.
The stadium will also generate revenue beyond the football program. The day after Allen plays its first game in Eagle Stadium, four smaller schools will play a double-header there. A college all-star game has booked the stadium next winter, and the district anticipates steady business renting the facility for football and soccer playoff games.
“We feel like we’ll have playoff games,” Williams said. “We think we’ll have one on Thursday, one on Friday and two Saturday.”
A playoff game will have to go a long way to match the anticipation for the season opener. Both Southlake Carroll are picked to be among the top handful of 5A teams in the state this season.
“I’m excited about that game,” Williams said. “Not because of who we’re playing. I’m excited because people said, ‘You built a stadium with 18,000 seats in it, you’ll never fill it.’ Well, we’ll have standing-room-only that first game.”
10 high school stadiums in Texas with capacities of 16,000 or more