Florida Football

Just two weeks ago, the University of South Florida broke ground on its new indoor football facility in Tampa.

The $40 million project to be completed next summer comes on the heels of the University of Florida's newest facility in Gainesville, where an $85 million football training center is set to open next spring.

Both of those are even further ahead of what's to come at the University of Central Florida, which last month announced plans to pump an estimated $50 million more into its football stadium and training facility in Orlando.

Beginning to sense a theme here? You're not alone.

What was once an afterthought for utilizing surplus funds has turned into a direct, targeted investment, as universities both in Florida and across the country look to maximize the trickle-down effect of Division I college football success.

Schools pour millions - from both public funding and private donations - into their football stadiums and facilities to attract talented high school recruits, whom they strive to one day develop into NFL superstars, while hopefully winning games and driving revenue back into the university in the process.

And the most influential way for college football programs to get prized prospects through their door is to have the biggest, fanciest and flashiest door.

"The arms race is alive and well," said Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who welcomed UCF with an invitation into its league earlier this month. "The only thing worse than being in the arms race is not being in the arms race. You fall behind and you don't have the tools that you need to get the job done.

"And I don't see it slowing down anytime soon, because that's not the nature of the competition we're engaged in."

Florida's Fight

The Sunshine State's fight to remain relevant in college football's battle for facility supremacy is one of the country's most competitive.

Florida's seven Division I FBS programs combined - Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida International - have an estimated $338 million on the books for stadium upgrades, facility renovations or newly-constructed structures from the past five years up to the present day.

All seven either have finished football projects since 2017 or are in the middle of one.

"Athletics is often the front porch to your university," said Andy Seeley, senior associate athletics director for external relations at Florida Atlantic University. "They're the first thing people run across when it comes to your university. So if you subscribe to that theory, which we do, you want to have the best athletics program you can. In order to do that, you have to be able to attract first-class athletes and coaches.

"So of course, to be able to do that, you have to have these first-class facilities."

The goal with these upgrades is two-fold: Serve the players in the program as well as the fans who support it.

Centralized facilities such as the University of Florida's Heavener Football Training Center, a 142,000-square-foot structure under construction in Gainesville, will bring the Gators' meeting rooms, player lounge, strength and conditioning areas and operations office all under one roof - within walking distance of the team's indoor practice fields.

"Efficiency is extremely important and a critical component as to why we've done what we have," University of Florida executive associate athletic director Laird Veatch said. "You do have limitations with the players - you only have 20 hours per week to work with them - so having them working out, eating, hanging out and meeting in one central location is crucial. The logistics of it all make this that much more convenient."

Upon completion of the new facility, UF officials said project outlines will be put into motion for aesthetic upgrades to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the 88,548-seat venue known as "The Swamp." The stadium's last renovation took place in 2003, when a $50 million expansion included the addition of 2,900 club seats and luxury suites.

Potential upgrades include improved wireless internet throughout the stadium, an enhanced sound system and video boards, and remodeled restrooms and updated concession stands.

"There was a time, maybe in the early '90s, when seat count is all anyone cared about," Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin told The Associated Press. "Just cram as many people as possible in there, but obviously that is not the case when you talk to people who do facilities and stadiums these days. That's not as important as quality and making sure you're creating an environment that people want to come and participate in.

"The days of fans being OK sitting three hours on a piece of aluminum are gone … so we've got to find ways to upgrade the overall quality."

Nationwide Phenomenon

The uber-competitive race for the finest facilities in Florida is just a snapshot of the landscape nationwide.

For the 65 schools playing within the "Power Five" - the five largest and richest conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) in Division I college athletics - an estimated $5.89 billion has been funneled into stadiums and team facilities over the past 10 years.

In a school-by-school study conducted by The Daily Sun, 64 of the 65 Power Five programs have made improvements to their football outfits since 2011, spending an average of $92.3 million per university.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers, who finally broke ground on a $155 million upgrade back in April, stood as the only Power Five team to not have completed or moved forward with a football facility facelift in the last 10 years.

The act of keeping up with the Joneses doesn't come without its shortcomings, however, as evidenced by substantial amounts of debt some athletic departments find themselves in following a project's completion.

One of the more fascinating cases is the University of California, which incurred $445 million in debt following halted-and-restarted renovations to Memorial Stadium and a new athletic center. The school was forced to alter its project to add additional seismic protection, after discovering its football stadium and new facility were built atop a fault line. The unexpected costs, coupled with additional expenses, forced the university to cut five sports - including baseball - to help offset the ongoing deficits.

"We certainly are spending a lot of money on bricks and mortar, on support facilities and on support personnel," said Bowlsby, who previously served as athletic director at Northern Iowa, Iowa and Stanford. "There's a balance between things that make you better and things that make you more comfortable, and you really ought to invest in things that make you better and not things that make it easier.

"You need to do things that help you recruit, help you develop student-athletes and help you plan for games and the like."

Bells and Whistles

While attracting prospective players remains at the forefront of completing football facility upgrades, retaining those recruits with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities isn't far behind.

Football programs across the country have gone to great lengths to make collegiate tenures for players more enjoyable than their rivals, introducing a wave of player-friendly amenities and off-the-wall additions in recent years.

"You've got to invest in order to win big ... let's call it like it is," University of Georgia defensive analyst and former Florida head coach Will Muschamp said at SEC Media Day. "You've got to spend money. A lot of people don't want to hear that, but that's part of it. The bells and whistles are important. You may not believe in them, but recruits do."

The Allen N. Reeves Football Complex at Clemson University, which was renovated for $55 million in 2017, features a basketball court, miniature golf course, a whiffle ball field, bowling lanes, arcade games and a metal slide for players to quickly move from one floor of the facility to another.

At the University of Oregon, the 145,000-square-foot Hatfield-Dowlin Complex features some of the industry's most eye-popping innovations. The $68 million facility, funded by Nike founder and chairman emeritus Phil Knight, features a players' locker room complete with self-cleansing lockers, marble showers, Ferrari leather chairs and televisions (with additional touchscreen capabilities) inside each locker.

Not to be outdone are the reigning national champions, with Alabama currently in the midst of a 10-year, $600-million initiative that includes upgrades to both Bryant-Denny Stadium and additional team facilities. Stadium improvements included four new LED video boards and first-of-its-kind strobe stadium lighting, while the newly-opened Alabama Sports Science Center features advanced treatment services and technology for players with spaces dedicated to cryotherapy, chiropractic, stretch, massage, relaxation, recovery and mental health services.

"The name of the game is you have to outdo everyone else," said Larry Blustein, a national college football recruiting expert with more than 50 years covering the sport. "We're at the point now where in 2021, with social media and word traveling as quick as it does electronically, you have to have the flashiest facilities. You have to sort of suck up to the players now and have these buildings catered just for them.

"And that might not be important to old-school football coaches - but if you have that type of mentality now, you're going to be out of a job pretty quick."

Balancing Checkbooks

One might ask: Why does a quarterback get to enjoy a round of mini-golf or play video games inside a football-player-only facility between classes, while a women's soccer player or men's golfer on the same campus does not?

Like many things in today's society, to the financial victor go the spoils.

According to Fortune magazine, the sport of football alone generates more than $4 billion per year in annual revenue for the 65 universities that compete within Power Five conferences nationwide.

In a research study of those same Power Five schools conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, football helps offset an average of 71% of financial losses annually incurred by non-revenue generating sports, subsidizing other programs such as women's basketball, baseball, golf, soccer and tennis to help keep them afloat.

"I think it was Mark Twain who said, 'If you put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch your basket,'" said former Michigan athletic director David Brandon, who held the position from 2010 to 2014. "I watch my basket pretty carefully when it comes to football."

The Florida Gators football program, for example, produced a profit of $57.3 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, increasing almost $10 million from $47.9 million in the year prior. UF men's basketball generated a profit of $1.6 million during that time, while the 19 other athletic programs on campus suffered a combined deficit of $26.8 million - despite canceled springtime sports not incurring expenses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"One of the things I'm most impressed by is seeing how all of the head coaches across all of the sports interact and support each other," said Veatch, who arrived in Gainesville after seven years with the athletic department at Kansas State. "There is a great appreciation for football's impact on our overall revenue and how that can be reinvested across the board to all of our sports. We understand that football is critically important to all of that."

Preps On Deck

The trend of investing in superior athletic facilities isn't just limited to the collegiate level, either.

High schools across the country are stepping up their game to attract those same sought-after prospects that someday will grace the college gridiron, with communities and private donors plunging millions into Division I-like operations.

In the gaudy realm that is Texas high school football, Legacy Stadium in the town of Katy, Texas, is a 12,000-seat structure built in 2017 with multi-tiered grandstands and a price tag north of $70 million.

Back in the football hotbed that is the Sunshine State, IMG Academy (Bradenton) won the preps national championship a year ago, while also boasting one of the country's most jaw-dropping complexes.

IMG features two football-dedicated outdoor practice fields, a covered turf field and a performance training center that houses a "mind gym" - used for mental conditioning and eye training - as well as a yoga studio and nutrition room.

The Villages High School is set to join the ranks of impressive athletic facilities in the years ahead, as a new expanded campus near County Road 470 in Sumter County opens in the fall of 2023.

The school will feature a state-of-the-art athletics complex, highlighted by an Olympic-sized swimming facility and diving center, tennis courts, and on-site event facilities capable of hosting large tournaments and show productions. The complex will offer multi-purpose outdoor fields, as well as new venues for baseball, softball and track and field.

Plans also include a new football stadium, complete with expanded seating options and a multi-level structure housing player locker rooms, athletic offices and game-day operations.

"When we talk about the future and what's in store, you can't help but get excited," said Buffalo athletic director and head football coach Richard Pettus, who has spent 20 years at VHS. "We're just so grateful to the Morse family and The Villages as a whole, because none of this is possible without them. None of it. This is their vision and we just feel fortunate to help carry it out."

Future of Facilities

What lies ahead in college football's race to relevancy through facilities is the continuation of a never-ending pursuit, industry experts say.

"I think we see the future … we've seen it the last couple years," Blustein said. "We're in a new world of college football and college athletics all the way around. Things just change. Dynamics just change. Times just change.

"And either you adapt to the change or you fall to the wayside."

Universities across the Sunshine State likely won't fall aside anytime soon, as evidenced by the recent work in Gainesville and the first-of-its-kind plans put forth in Orlando.

A redesign of the area surrounding the existing 44,000-seat Bounce House Stadium at UCF is set to include a new operations center and "Recovery River," a hydrotherapy stream for both recreational and rehabilitation purposes, as well as added club seating and premium event space inside the bowl.

"Vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare," UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir said while unveiling the expansion plans at a university board of trustees meeting on Aug. 19. "I want to introduce a one-of-a-kind concept. We will be the only school in the country that has this - a football campus. Who wouldn't want to come participate and be a student-athlete here?"

Those visions should help UCF and the other schools ready to make the next expansions of their own continue the cycle of building, producing, winning and then building all over again. Just this week, Northwestern announced a plan to renovate its football stadium after a $480 million private donation.

"The one thing I'll say is that everything has found a way to be better than it was before," Blustein said. "That's what's going to continue to happen, too. Everything that's being done for these facilities in Florida and everywhere else is done for the betterment of the game, and I think everyone around the game sees that."