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Florida planning Ben Hill Griffin Stadium renovations, reduction in capacity

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The Swamp is going to get a bit nicer — but it is likely to shrink, too.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The Florida Gators’ biggest home may soon be significantly nicer — and maybe significantly smaller, too, according to a report from The Gainesville Sun.

Graham Hall cites a project called “Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Facility Upgrades” that is newly listed on the University of Florida’s facilities site to note that it references the completion of a study for stadium facility upgrades and gets a quote from Chip Howard, Florida’s Executive Associate Athletic Director for Internal Affairs — read: assistant athletic director — who has long been the University Athletic Association’s point person on facilities.

“All concepts and projects schedules related to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium are aspirational at this point,” said Chip Howard, Executive Associate Athletics Director for Internal Affairs at UF. “Any major changes to The Swamp would not occur until a project team is hired. Selection of the project professional team will begin in 2022.”

While that’s not a formal confirmation of a project in progress from Howard or the UAA — which will probably announce a project of this magnitude when it has progressed from a stage it deems “aspirational” to one from which it can provide something concrete to the public, like renderings, a timeline, or a project team — it does certainly confirm Florida’s aspirations to renovate the stadium familiarly known as The Swamp, which has not had a major renovation to its seating since the 2003 addition of nearly 3,000 club and luxury seats.

Smaller renovations to elements like its video scoreboards and stadium concourses have come since then, along with the installations of aesthetic accoutrements like an LED ribbon board on the second level and the lighted fixtures that display the slogans — “It’s Great to be a Florida Gator” and “This Is ... The Swamp” — that were once painted on the stadium’s wing walls.

But this renovation is a sweeping one, touching the stadium bowl for the first time in two decades. Quoting one of the first pages in the document detailing the plan proves as much:

Stadium Seating Bowl

The stadium seating bowl improvements will provide upgrades to the access aisles by increasing the width and adding handrails, seating upgrades to include replacement of bench seats with chairbacks and bench seats width adjustments, and concrete restoration. The scoreboards and sound systems will also be upgraded.

East and South Concourses

The east and south concourse areas will be upgraded.

South Endzone

The south endzone will be studied for potential renovations to include a Club area and/or Loge Boxes.

And that document admits Florida’s awareness that some of these upgrades are necessary, with the relevant passage saying The Swamp “requires upgrades to meet accessible guidelines, improve attendee comfort, repair damaged infrastructure, provide advanced technology, and improve concourse areas.”

Of those, repairing damaged infrastructure and continued compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines is clearly the most important — but while the proposed aisle widening and introduction of handrails are musts for some, they will be benefits for all who use the stadium. When people with disabilities and/or physical limitations get accommodated, that generally serves as a high tide that raises all boats.

Some of the other proposed changes, like “bench-seat width adjustments,” probably also serve as creature comforts to some and near necessities for others, and if turning current bleacher-style seating into more of a chairback-style setup limits Florida’s ability to sell chairbacks to fans or reduces capacity, it could well be worth the investment if it significantly improves comfort.

That capacity reduction, though, is all but certain — and likely to be substantial. The study proposes a variety of scenarios for alterations, all of which would result in thousands of fewer seats being available.

The most dramatic scenario for the lower bowl adds a foot of width to the aisles and increases seat width to a full two feet, and was projected to reduce capacity by more than 18,000 seats from the west, south, and east sidelines alone. That sort of dramatic reduction likely makes that scenario one that has received only cursory consideration.

But the most conservative alteration still results in a reduction of about 2,000 seats for those areas, which makes clear that the days are numbered for The Swamp’s current configuration, listed capacity of 88,548, and the ability to announce crowds of over 90,000 fans.

The study indicates that the pre-design phase of this project is intended to wrap up by early January, with the addition of a new video board ultimately taking place in 2023 and the bowl renovations coming in 2024. So there is still time to experience The Swamp as it has been for most of most fans’ lifetimes before it starts shrinking.

As with everything in life, however, there is not as much time as you might think.