Stadium expansion could leave some SEC schools behind

Size matters in college football. And in Texas, where largeness is ingrained in the culture, being bigger is not just a source of pride: it’s a matter of economic survival.
Last week, Texas A&M announced plans to greatly expand their football stadium, Kyle Field, from its current capacity of 82,589 to a whopping 102,500 making it the third-largest stadium in America behind Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and Beaver Stadium in University Park, Penn. The project will take two years, with projected completion in Aug. 2015, and will cost an estimated $450 million.
But the project includes a great deal more than a 20 percent enlargement. According to a statement from the university:
“A new façade will envelope the stadium, with new exterior plaza/mall areas that will enhance tailgating and stadium access and demonstrate Texas A&M’s core values and significant moments in Aggie football history. Inside the stadium there will be increased chair-back seating and additional suites, loge boxes and premium seating with club areas, along with the elimination of all sightline issues. Other amenities will include the latest game-day technology, wider concourses, additional restrooms and enhanced concession areas.”
The stadium expansion will also serve as a powerful recruiting tool to help the Aggies lure the best and brightest high school football stars to College Station. And that, in the end, is what this is all about.
Kyle Field’s nine-figure enhancement is just the latest in college football’s ongoing arms race where schools build bigger, more lavish athletic facilities to put more alumni donors into the seats. That leads to more contributions, which go toward even more opulent structures, all for the expressed purpose of convincing 17-year-old kids to come to one school over another.
Bryant-Denny Stadium holds 101,821 and Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, holds 92,746, just edging out Tiger Stadium at LSU by 204 seats. The largest stadium in the SEC right now is Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, with 102,455, but Kyle Field will nudge the Vols out of the top spot by 45 seats when it opens, assuming no other schools slap a few thousand seats in the upper decks in the coming years.
Perhaps more importantly for the Aggies, the new stadium will be 2,500 seats larger than Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas in Austin. In a state where the size of a man’s hat, truck and ranch all say something about his status, having the largest football stadium in Texas will be a big deal for A&M.
But the question is not who has the biggest structure or the most seats — when the Kyle Field expansion is complete, the SEC will have seven of the 15 largest stadiums in the nation — the question is: what happens to the small SEC schools who can’t keep up?
Missouri embarked on a major stadium expansion when the Tigers first decided to join the SEC. They borrowed $72 million through a bond sale and received another $30 million from the Kansas City Sports Trust. Still, when the project is complete, Memorial Stadium will only seat 77,200, more than the Super Dome and Arrowhead Stadium and Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, but fewer than eight of the stadiums in their own conference.
Vanderbilt has been on a roll, going to two consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history and embarrassing in-state rival Tennessee last year. But the story James Franklin tells will only go so far when recruits visit the quaint 39,790-seat Vanderbilt Stadium, which is smaller than Michie Stadium at West Point and Ladd Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., home of the South Alabama Jaguars.
Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor and Athletics Director Davis Williams knows he has a problem. That’s why he said recently, “I wouldn’t want to say we’ll build a new stadium, and quite honestly I doubt that. But I think that in the next two or three years our fans and everybody else will be looking at a vastly changed and improved stadium. My hope is that by this summer we will have a plan as to what we want to do. We realize that for an SEC school, our stadium really does need a lot of work.”
He likely won’t be alone. Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium seats 55,082 and has no geographic boundaries like roads or buildings precluding future expansion, and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford seats 60,580, more than Mountaineer Field in West Virginia and Boone Pickens Stadium at Oklahoma State, but fewer than Yale, Memphis and 11 of the 14 teams in the SEC.
If schools like Vandy, Ole Miss or Mississippi State ever want to compete for conference titles, their alumni and administrators need to understand that hiring great coaches and having one or two good years isn’t good enough.
It’s grow or die in the big leagues. And when it comes to the stadium expansion race, the longer you wait, the smaller and more overlooked you become.