Video board changes will wait at Notre Dame Stadium
SOUTH BEND -- That the potentially most contentious of details were absent from Wednesday’s revelation of Notre Dame Stadium’s $400 million expansion and renovation project was hardly an accident.
University of Notre Dame president the Rev. John I. Jenkins is cognizant of how easily the football elements of the project could overwhelm, if not outright take over, the news of the day and the big-picture vision that drove the process from a rough conceptual in May to the green-light phase this week.
The 750,000 square feet of additions primarily in the form of a student center, classrooms, offices, a digital media center, meeting rooms, and, yes, premium seating for football are ambling toward reality after Jenkins met in Rome, Italy, Tuesday and Wednesday with various university committees and the school’s full board of trustees.
Even the adopted formal name — the Campus Crossroads project — morphed from more football-related working titles to reflect the integration of academics, community and pragmatism with athletics in one of the priciest and ambitious college football stadium projects in history and the single largest building project ever at Notre Dame.
“In my job, I feel the responsibility of continuing what my predecessors had, which was vision,” Jenkins told The Tribune. “To not simply keep on doing what you’re doing, but to imagine a new possibility. And what excited me the most about this is that vision, to see a possibility where people haven’t thought of that before.
“It strikes me that it represents the best of Notre Dame. And I hope it’s seen that way, a sort of integrated crossroads for various activities for the university to preserve the community, to preserve the connectedness, to preserve the beauty of campus.”
Football purists will likely look past that macro view to what it means on football Saturdays, particularly as it pertains to two unaddressed hot-button issues — the possibility of adding video boards (JumboTrons) to the 84-year-old structure and switching from a natural grass playing surface to synthetic FieldTurf.
Each of those has its own timeline separate from the more deliberate one tied to the Campus Crossroads project. Jenkins said that project is expected to take 33 months from groundbreaking to completion, but groundbreaking won’t begin until the funding is secured. That largely will come from benefactors, Jenkins said.
“We’re estimating that will take a year or two,” said Jenkins.
The decision and announcement regarding FieldTurf is imminent. As far as video boards?
“It is being deliberated,” Jenkins said. “But it’s not part of the announcement we’re making (Wednesday).”
What is part of the announcement is some big news on the basketball front. Because the new student center, to be built on the west side of the stadium, will contain sports and fitness facilities, the current building being used for that purpose — Rolfs Sports Recreation Center — will become the new free-standing practice facility for the men’s and women’s varsity basketball teams.
As far as the football program’s wish list, Irish fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick have pushed for the addition of the video boards at Notre Dame Stadium, but there has been plenty of pushback.
“If you look at many pro stadiums with the big video boards, they look like a circus,” Jenkins said. “They just don’t have that traditional feel, and we don’t want to lose that. And in the minds of many of our supporters it’s the tension between preserving the tradition while embracing whatever developments will enhance the experience. I think all of those are part of the decision.”
Jenkins said the desire to have better access to data and video while attending games could be addressed through enhanced broadband connectivity in the stadium and some by the introduction of video.
“The shape that will take has not yet been finalized,” university spokesman Paul Browne said. “However, to the extent we provide video — whether in the concourse or in the stadium itself — similar to the philosophy in Purcell Pavilion and the Compton Family Ice Arena, there will be no commercial signage or advertising.”
There’s no debating the addition of 3,000 to 4,000 premium seats. They’ll be added above the existing stadium rim on both the east and west sides. There will be both indoor and outdoor options, but mostly they’ll be a club seat concept, like at Compton Family Ice Arena.
The current press box on the west side will be dismantled and a new one will be constructed on the east side of the stadium. The main (NBC) television booth will stay on the west side, as will game operations facilities (coaches’ booths, replay, public address announcer, scoreboard and timing, sound, security, etc.). Radio booths will be located with the new media area on the east side.
The capacity of the stadium, currently at 80,795, won’t necessarily go up 3,000 to 4,000 in total. Some of that gain may be offset by resizing some of the current bench seating, by reducing the number of seats per row or by the new construction eating up some of the old seats.
The University of Michigan, in a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, added 3,010 club seats and another approximately 1,300 seats in luxury suite seating in its most recent renovation/expansion at Michigan Stadium, which carried a $262 million price tag.
A Michigan spokesman said the school realizes roughly $11 million in revenue from those new premium seating options, with all 81 suites sold out since the second year of their existence — 2011. Michigan did resize some seats in the lower bowl to allow for more seating room when it made the conversion.
Notre Dame’s last stadium expansion, which netted 21,000 seats, came at a cost of $53 million. That cost also included faster elevators, permanent souvenir stands, meeting rooms, fancy landscaping and more toilets.
It took 21 months to finish the expansion and four years to clear up the resulting lawsuits that sprang up from the embarrassing and expensive flooding of the main concourse on Reopening Day in 1997. (Repairs were reported to cost $4 million.)
The original cost of the stadium that coaching icon Knute Rockne conceptualized, but only got to coach five games in, originally was tagged for $700,000, according to newspaper accounts. It came in with a final price tag of $750,000 — about 1.4 percent of what the expansion cost 67 years later.
In terms of the Campus Crossroads project, there were significant evolutions from the time the idea was unveiled in May until the study was completed and presented to the trustees.
The plan to build on the north end of the stadium was scrapped. So, for now, are designs to include a permanent restaurant and varsity shop and the concept of physically connecting the stadium with the Joyce Center.
Still in play are structures to be added to the west, east and south sides of the stadium. Those on the east and west will rise nine stories high, with the top three rising about the rim and providing views of the field. The south building will be six stories high, but won’t feature any views toward the playing field.
The west structure will house a student center. The south will belong to the music department. There will also a hospitality area planned for the south side. On the east, the psychology and anthropology departments will share that space with the new digital media center.
Thus, Notre Dame will go from a facility used six to eight days a year to 365 or thereabouts. Jenkins also is open to ND Stadium hosting other events, such as concerts.
“The thing I’m most excited about is the vision of an integrated structure for these various activities,” Jenkins said “It’s symbolic, I think in my mind, of an aspiration for an integration across the university.
“Athletics is often a place out there, kind of an independent activity, apart from the university. This will join it with academic and student activities. It’s great to have this multi-use facility. It’s great to have faculty integrated with students in proximity with natural interaction.”