Barbour Addresses Athletic Facilities Renovations, More In Town Hall Meeting
In the first of a series of town hall-style meetings with the Penn State community, athletic director Sandy Barbour and other executives met with a small group of students in the HUB Auditorium on Monday night to address the athletic department’s future through 2016-2020, and the new athletic facility renovation plan announced earlier in the month.
Barbour began her presentation by announcing the “Strategic Plan Framework” for the athletic department over the next five years. The basic outline, and details on each point, are below:
- Comprehensive Excellence — Achieve, promote, and support academic and competitive excellence and student-athlete health and well-being that uphold Penn State’s tradition as a national and conference leader.
- We Are… — Deepen loyalty and affinity with all stakeholders by conveying who we are with intention and authenticity. Creatively share the unique Penn State story.
- Key Partnerships and Relationships — Secure, enrich, and grow collaborative and constructive relationships and partnerships, both on and off campus.
- Culture — Cultivate and sustain a “best place to work” environment that fosters pride, accomplishment, and team spirit.
- Financial Model — Maintain a self-supporting financial model that provides fiscal sustainability and investment in future growth and ensures the success of our student-athletes.
Since this is still relatively early in the process, Barbour’s presentation didn’t say much that hasn’t already been released or said in some form. She reiterated the athletic department’s commitment to the student body, the student-athletes, and the Penn State community, and stated the department was creating opportunities for success within its 31 varsity programs. The heart of the conversation was the question and answer part of the event, however, where students could ask Barbour what they wanted to know about the renovation process and other parts of the athletic department. Here are some takeaways from that session:
Penn State needs more “spaces for people to gather”
The California Memorial Stadium renovation project at the University of California was jumbled at best, causing the athletic department to accrue serious debt by the end of Barbour’s tenure. A student asked her what she learned from that experience that she can apply towards Penn State’s facilities evaluation and renovation “master plan.”
“First of all, don’t cut the trees down,” Barbour said, jokingly referencing the dispute the University had with the California Oak Foundation, causing a 22-month delay in renovations.
“But really, I would say the absolute, number one thing I learned was about creating spaces for people to gather,” Barbour said. “We build a club section that has been used by faculty and staff because it’s a great space. It’s designed for the community to gather… I think we have an even bigger opportunity here at Penn State to do that, particularly in Beaver Stadium. We have the Mount Nittany Club, and that’s fabulous. But how do you create more spaces that serve different purposes?”
A specific fundraising plan for the campus-wide athletic renovations hasn’t been established yet
Barbour went on to quickly explain another lesson she learned, one her doubters referenced from the Cal renovation plan as a red flag when she was first hired in July 2014: The financial aspect of supporting such a large project.
“The other thing I learned [at Cal] was around communication, and around being really, really deliberate from start to the end about the financing plan, about, ‘How are we going to afford this?'” Barbour said.
She made a very fair point, saying it would be irresponsible to speculate about a specific amount the renovations might cost the athletic department at this point in the process. Barbour said she loses sleep over the possibility of that number though, and that an estimate would come closer towards the end of the evaluation process.
“That’s a big part of what this master plan is about,” Barbour said. “I’m not gonna kid you, I wake up at 3 and 4 in the morning sometimes, imagining what that number might be. It’s way bigger than any of us want it to be. But this is gonna help us understand where we are, and how much this is gonna cost, and maybe tell us to dial back some of our tastes, that maybe some of things we thought were ‘needs,’ we really decided were ‘wants,’ and we have to dial it back a little bit.”
“But also, the University, we’re entering into another [fundraising] campaign, probably starting next July,” Barbour said. “So part of the master plan will have us look at creative funding sources and mechanisms. We’re also working, from an operational standpoint, at what we may be able to take off of our operating to devote to capital projects. So I would say some combination of operating, philanthropy, traditional debt, and some other kind of creative funding.”
When asked about the current plans of how the athletic department plans to raise funds for the renovations, though, Barbour was more vague. She said there will be a time in the future to come up with ideas for creative fundraising. Barbour, who sold the naming rights to the field at California Memorial Stadium, didn’t rule out the possibility of something similar at Penn State, and while she didn’t seem visibly likely to heavily consider it, said all options are on the table.
“There are no plans at this time” to sell naming rights, Barbour said. “Again, we’ll look at all kinds of opportunities. We’re not ruling it out, but we’re not ruling it in [either].”
Beaver Stadium is not the only venue that will be renovated
Barbour stressed that, while Beaver Stadium is obviously the most high-profile athletic venue, it won’t be the only venue to undergo renovations. Two venues were specifically brought up — McCoy Natatorium, home of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, and Jeffrey Field, the stadium which hosts the men’s and women’s soccer teams. When asked, Barbour elaborated on Jeffrey Field’s shortcomings and the fixes in store down the road.
“Jeffrey [Field], not unlike what I said about Beaver [Stadium], has probably the finest playing surface in maybe the world, and certainly the country,” Barbour said, giving a shoutout to the Turfgrass Management program and the athletic grounds crew. “So our team is taken care of from that perspective. But the bathrooms are [bad], the scoreboard doesn’t have a video component to it, the concessions are just a little shack, and the visiting team meets for pregame and halftime in basically a tent under the stands. I could go on and on. So yeah, there are things that can be addressed there. What our master plan would do is say, ‘Alright, here’s how we’re going to address these needs.'”
Barbour said an idea to fix the three main problems at the field was to make a building that can house the restrooms, concessions, and locker rooms, and that the soccer program and the athletic department would have to figure out how to raise money for them — in the future — through fundraising.
More sports need to become self-sustaining
When it comes to revenue, only three sports are self-sustaining — football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey. Barbour said it should be a goal to make other sports profitable in a variety of ways.
“Every one of our programs needs to [be profitable] from a philanthropic standpoint, and, dare I say, from a revenue standpoint,” Barbour said. “Most of our programs have the opportunity to attract fans from a ticket standpoint, and some kind of corporate sponsorship or revenue opportunity. Whether it be that side of it, or the philanthropy side of it, each and every one of our programs do need to try to close that gap.”
“I think what we have to have our programs understand is, whether they can close the gap and become a self-sufficient sport or not,” Barbour said. “We need to be looking at raising as much from a philanthropic standpoint as we possibly can, engaging with our donors and alumni, and raising the support level for each of those programs. The other side of that formula is always being good stewards of our resources. We have to spend efficiently. Every dollar saved is as good as a dollar made.”
Don’t expect a drastic drop in student ticket prices any time soon
When it comes to football season ticket packages for students, Penn State has one of the highest prices in the country at $218 for seven home games — an average of more than $31 a game. When compared to schools such as Alabama ($12 per game), LSU ($10 per game) or West Virginia (free), tickets to see the Nittany Lions play seem overpriced, but those schools have athletics fees that are buried as a part of tuition costs, making the ticket prices artificially appear lower. Barbour discussed the fee model vs. the current model in place, and doesn’t expect a change at Penn State going forward.
“Obviously, that’s a push-pull,” Barbour said. “The approach before has been to not do a fee. I know our President [Eric Barron] would prefer not to do tack-on fees. What happens with that fee is, then everyone pays it, and [only] 20,000 out of the 45,000 students on campus go to the game. That’s been the choice. There are different models, but I do think it’s really, really important [to realize] that when you look at our price vs. someone else, the difference is that student fee.”
“There will be a time and place” to honor Joe Paterno
In May, Barbour told the Philadelphia Inquirer the athletic department would “know when it’s time” to honor Joe Paterno. Five months later, Barbour’s stance on the subject — for better or worse — hasn’t changed.
“I assume that time is coming,” Barbour said, “but we know that there are still legal things out there that need to be resolved. There will be a time and place.”
Photo Credit: OS Archives