ASU takes big step with Sun Devil Stadium plan

A rendering of what the north end zone at Sun Devil Stadium will look like after renovation.

TEMPE, Ariz. — The evolution of Sun Devil Stadium already was underway Wednesday as construction workers tore out metal bleachers from the north end zone upper deck. It is a small step, separate of the $260 million renovation plan announced Tuesday. But symbolically it is enormous.

With construction happening and a firm plan finally in place, there is a prevailing message around Arizona State’s athletic department: It’s about time.

Funds still need to be raised and ground is far from broken on the revamped stadium. But ASU already took a big step into the future, one it believes to be much brighter because of the project.

"This is critical to our long term success as an athletic department and as a university," ASU senior associate athletic director Rocky Harris said. "And it’s long overdue."

Fans will get their first look at the overhauled north end zone upper deck at ASU’s spring football game April 19. The demolished seating will open up the stadium to Tempe Town Lake and reduce the facility’s capacity by roughly 5,700 seats.

Harris said ASU is looking into letting season-ticket holders with seats in the demolished sections purchase the parts of the bleachers in which they sat. The rest will be auctioned.

Harris and other ASU officials led a small group of local media on a tour of the north end zone Wednesday, but what came up more than anything was the larger stadium plan, to which ASU has committed $210 million.

Demolition of roughly 5,700 seats in the north end zone already is underway.

ASU on Tuesday also launched a fundraising campaign to raise $50 million through private donations. The number quickly led to some skepticism — not unjust, given ASU’s history of struggling to raise funds — but the university is confident the total can be reached.

"Historically at ASU, there’s no chance we’d raise $50 million," Harris said. "But based on who we’re talking to and what they’re saying and how committed they are to making this happen, I’m confident that we’ll get there."

Sun Devil Athletics was creative in its approach to fundraising lately. It partnered with the ASU Foundation to identify new donors. The two groups never collaborated previously. ASU also reached outside its established donor base, no longer relying on the same group of benefactors.

In one recent week, Harris said, ASU secured $1 million donations from two separate donors who had never before given to the athletic department.

Perhaps most significant to the fundraising plan is ASU’s targeting of six "founding partners," donors who would give $6 million each to make up $36 million toward the goal. In return for the donation, the six will receive their own club suites at the stadium and be honored with a statue outside the stadium. ASU already identified more than six potential founding partners.

The model represents a new kind of thinking at ASU, thinking that has the athletic department in position to reach greater heights than it ever has. With a new football stadium, new revenue streams and increased donor support, ASU could finally ascend into another tier of college athletics.

Amid the new thinking, though, ASU is tasked with balancing history and tradition against the need to modernize and keep pace with peer institutions.

In its initial renovation announcement, ASU made specific note that Tillman Tunnel, the south end zone field entrance named for late linebacker Pat Tillman, will be preserved. ASU also listened to fan feedback over the desire to see fireworks after touchdowns and scrapped plans for a shade canopy over the stadium (the estimated $132.2 million price tag also had something to do with it.).

Other traditional elements of the stadium will remain through the renovation, but there will undoubtedly be change, and fans may not like some of it at first. For example, ASU will explore selling the naming rights to the stadium. Harris said Wednesday it is uncertain if the name "Sun Devil Stadium" will remain. It could, Harris said, but ASU could also receive an offer to sweet to refuse. The "Frank Kush Field" label will remain, Harris said.

"We’re taking that off the table," Harris said of the field named for ASU all-time winningest football coach. "But the stadium naming rights are on the table. We don’t know the details around whether ‘Sun Devil Stadium’ will be in it or not. Ideally, it would."

The new plan calls for ASU’s student section to be relocated to the south end zone, a move certain to rile at least a segment of the student fan base.

For every change that could create mixed feelings, though, there are even more changes fans will enjoy, such as lower bowl seating closer to the field, more legroom and a new state of the art video board.

More than anything, though, fans, alumni and boosters would enjoy the success that could come with such massive project. If all goes according to plan, ASU will have the newest and perhaps most modern football stadium in the Pac-12 by Oct. 2017. That should help ASU better compete on every level — from academics to recruiting to on-field results — with the rest of the Pac-12, if not the nation.  

The formula is not simple, the process will not be quick, and there is no guarantee ASU will evolve into a powerhouse. But in getting a stadium plan finalized and beginning to secure funds, ASU has taken the critical first step toward that.