The Florida Gators have one of the nation’s greatest athletic programs. On Friday, that athletic department issued a release and a video with more details on how the Gators intend to keep it that way via a planned nine-figure facilities upgrade that will include a new baseball stadium, softball facilities upgrades, and a new standalone football facility.
The release’s key details are an updated price tag — now $130 million, up from a $100 million figure touted in 2016 — and an updated timeline — softball and baseball facilities are now Phase 2, with the football complex becoming Phase 3.
But there’s plenty to digest about all three facilities.
The most important of the three facilities, for my money, is likely to be the new baseball stadium, which has been long-desired by the vocal minority of Florida’s fan base that does not pack McKethan Stadium but still has plenty of time to whine about its lack of shaded seating on Twitter.
Those fans are going to get what they have been clamoring for, it would seem — but the complexity of building a new stadium is likely the reason for an increased price tag and seemingly extended timeline for all the facilities upgrades.
Florida’s McKethan Stadium has long been considered one of Florida’s lesser facilities, and is and has been a spartan baseball stadium with almost zero shade and mostly bleacher-based seating. As other SEC schools have invested in baseball facilities upgrades, Florida has made a slow pivot — from public stasis to quiet discussion of what to do to full-fledged work to break ground on a new facility.
The most significant changes in Florida’s direction came as the athletic department transitioned from Jeremy Foley to Scott Stricklin in the athletic director’s chair, with a commitment to significant renovations — at a minimum — likely being part of the pitch Foley made to Kevin O’Sullivan that kept him at Florida despite overtures from Texas in 2016, and the initiative to build an entirely new stadium possibly coming later.
While the notion of renovating McKethan Stadium had long been on some minds prior to that, Florida’s focus shifting to the construction of a new facility in the southwest portion of campus certainly dovetails nicely with Stricklin’s efforts to get Mississippi State a new, state-of-the-art baseball stadium in his stint in Starkville. (Florida’s arguably overdue national championship in baseball in 2017 may have also helped change or accelerate the program’s trajectory toward a new stadium.)
The plan to build a new stadium and situate it in the southwest portion of campus, a poorly-kept secret in recent months, is now officially announced for the first time through this release. And given that Florida was publicly discussing mere renovations to McKethan just two years ago, it’s a staggering undertaking: The University Athletic Association (UAA) will contribute $3 million to Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (IFAS) in exchange for 13.63 acres of land on Hull Road, and then spend tens of millions more on the facility itself.
Construction for the estimated $50 million baseball ballpark, with an overall capacity of 10,000, will begin in the fall of 2018 with a completion goal prior to the 2020 season. Home plate will face northeast with the sun behind the stadium for a cooler atmosphere for the student-athletes and fans. A 360-degree open concourse will give fans constant field views and multiple seating options will be under shade. Permanent chairback seats will increase from 2,408 to approximately 5,000, while fans will also be able to choose from premium seating and non-traditional seating options to bring overall capacity to approximately 10,000. Enhanced concession space with new food options will also be available for fans, while student-athletes and staff will enjoy modern amenities and increased spaces.
It’s not clear from the release where on Hull Road the facility will be located, but the logical conclusion based on the only released rendering of the facility — the image that leads this article — is that it may well be further east of Donald R. Dizney Stadium, Florida’s lacrosse facility, on the south side of the road.
If so, that is likely to create a major congestion problem on game days for Florida’s spring sports, especially on weekends, with thousands more fans crowding into an area that is already prone to getting choked by pedestrian and automobile traffic as is. But that also just shifts an existing problem from the area around the O’Connell Center and McKethan Stadium to a different part of Florida’s campus.
The rendering released by Florida also suggests that most of the chairback seating would be situated in a shaded grandstand extending up both base lines, with some shaded outfield chairback seating just inside the foul poles in both left and right field and additional standing areas down both base lines. The 10,000-seat capacity would also be a major increase on McKethan, which has a listed capacity of 5,500 and has only drawn a handful of crowds of more than 6,000 fans.
I would not be surprised to see that ambitious capacity reduced in the future, but it is of a part with the overall ambition of the project — and while Stricklin had a different fan base to cater to at Mississippi State and returns are still early on how well he did, his recent track record of pulling off an ambitious baseball facilities investment is obviously as good as it gets.
The most expensive of the three facilities upgrades — and what is sure to be the most-discussed and most important one on message boards, blogs, and social media — is set to be Florida’s new standalone football training complex, which is projected to cost $65 million and open in 2021.
Construction for the $65 million 130,000-square foot football training complex will be based on site availability and currently estimated to start in late 2019 or early 2020 with a completion goal of 2021. The facility will serve as the new day-to-day home for Florida football student-athletes and staff. Florida’s meeting rooms, locker room, strength and conditioning area, training room and coaches’ offices will all be adjacent to the practice field, creating maximum efficiency within the program. Other details are still in the development stage and will be announced later.
That “based on site availability” bit is potentially crucial, as the new complex is set to be erected on the site currently occupied by McKethan Stadium — something the release only mentions tangentially, with that “will all be adjacent to the practice field” line. Florida’s outdoor practice field and indoor practice facility are located just feet from the primary pedestrian walkway to McKethan, and separated from that walkway by a metal fence.
This means that Florida cannot break ground on its football complex until it has torn down its baseball field. And given that there are no local facilities Florida could feasibly play baseball games at during a time of displacement, like Florida’s volleyball team did by playing at Santa Fe College and in Florida’s Gale Lemerand Center during the renovation of the O’Connell Center, Florida will have to have a new baseball stadium ready to open about seven months after the final game at McKethan.
Tying the fates of the two facilities to each other is either a brilliant strategem by Stricklin, who will be able to fundraise for baseball by tapping a deeper reservoir of football-first boosters, or a blunder that will be revealed in time, as those football-first fans balk at being asked to fund a baseball stadium just so Florida’s football program can get a shiny new toy.
The complex itself has been announced and lensed before, and there are few changes to it, as it remains largely in the conceptual stage. But it bears mentioning that a facility once thought to be a 100,000-square foot facility, thought to cost $60 million, and projected to be completed by June 2019 after a December 2017 start is now a 130,000-square foot facility costing $65 million set to be completed in 2021 after a start in late 2019 or early 2020.
Feature creep is real. And so is inflation.
The least expensive of the three major facilities upgrades in this plan remains the most desperately needed one — and the good news about Florida’s softball facilities upgrade is that it is still first on the docket, and coming very soon.
The estimated $11 million renovation to softball’s Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium will begin in the summer of 2018 with a goal for completion prior to the 2019 season. Renovations will include a 360-degree open concourse, shade structures for fans and an elevated press box. Fixed seating, which will be all chairback seats, will increase from 1,431 to approximately 2,280 and overall capacity will be approximately 2,800. There will be modern student-athlete and staff amenities, such as locker room and sports medicine facilities, and enhanced experiences for fans.
That 360-degree open concourse — something that will also be part of the baseball stadium — is a new and well-liked innovation in baseball and softball stadium design, one that allows fans to walk around the entire park if they so choose. Chairback seating is nice for a facility that has far too much bleacher seating as is. And the bells and whistles for the players themselves are good, as always.
But Florida’s softball fan base had outgrown tiny Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium’s capacity as of about five years ago — and then the program won two national titles and got even more popular. And the disconnect between Florida fans with a casual understanding of the school’s various programs and those who pay attention to all of them was never more clear than when discussing facilities priorities and considering anything other than getting more seating added to a bandbox of a softball field the biggest pain point for Florida.
This renovation should increase comfort for the diehards and allow fans who have been sitting in trucks beyond the outfield to come in and be a part of the crowd, and does all that for a relatively paltry sum. And while the optics of spending about 10 times as much on facilities upgrades for two men’s sports as Florida will spend on upgrades for a softball team that has been waiting longer for upgrades and winning more in that time are admittedly poor, Florida getting its program most deserving of an upgrade new digs prior to ones for two of the school’s glamour programs is just.
The elephant in the room for the Gators is getting all of these costs met, and this Friday release leaves more questions than answers in that regard.
The projects will be funded through private gifts, bond proceeds, and UAA investment earnings, with no state or university funding. The University of Florida Board of Trustees approved Friday a bond resolution for $50 million for Phase 2 of the UAA’s Facilities Master Plan.
Per state of Florida debt management guidelines, the Board of Governors still has to approve the bond resolution at the end of June.
The UAA has made significant progress to date and already identified funding for $73 million of the $130 million needed for the three projects (including $50 million in bonds, $13 million in philanthropic support and $10 million in UAA investment earnings). The remaining funds needed will be dependent upon the generosity of the Gator Nation as Scott Stricklin and the Gator Boosters staff continue to involve key constituents to support these important initiatives.
Reading between the lines, that means that nearly half — $57 million — of the funding to pay for these projects is still to be secured, and that “the generosity of the Gator Nation” is Florida’s primary plan to get that money.
Probably, this will mean Stricklin — known as a rainmaker when it comes to fundraising — cajoling Bull Gators to get big-dollar donations for the baseball stadium and football facility, and the UAA committing most of that bond money to the impending softball and baseball upgrades, with the possibility of going back to bonds at a later date.
But it also leaves open the possibility that the UAA would seriously consider corporate or named sponsorship for any or all of these facilities — and while the baseball stadium and football complex obviously lack actual names as of yet, Florida’s description of Phase 2 conspicuously omits the Katie Seashole Pressly name of the stadium, and Florida’s description of Phase 3 does not include bond proceeds as part of its funding.
Could Florida coax an eight-figure contribution out of a corporate sponsor like, oh, the market-leading subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company that takes its name from Florida’s athletic teams? Maybe. Are the names of all of these facilities likely to be available to anyone willing to sign a big enough check? Very possibly.
This is as massive a facilities undertaking as Florida has ever approached, one that now dwarfs the renovation of the O’Connell Center — erm, Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center — by including two separate projects costing about as much as that one. It will be the signature initiative of the first five year of Stricklin’s tenure at Florida. And it is a chance for Florida — and Stricklin — to learn from the stumbles of that O’Dome renovation, which was plagued by delays and contractor squabbles.
The Gators will keep playing games on fields and courts and so forth while this happens in the background, but this will be the story of Florida’s athletic department for the near future. We would all do well to pay attention to it.