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Westneat pushes the Qwest angle

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has jumped on the topic of renovating Husky Stadium vs. moving full-time to Qwest Field, citing supposed Husky fan Mick McHugh as a person of authority on the matter.  This opinion article is filled with a number of questionable assertions and angles, worthy of being "fisked" (see here for the definition if you're unfamiliar with the term:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fisking

The article in question can be found here in full:  

 

Husky fan questions UW's 'Qwest' for a new $250 million stadium

Now that the UW athletic director has everybody talking about money, big-time sports and what it means to be a public university, Mick McHugh's here with a pesky question:

Why in the world is the University of Washington about to spend $250 million for a new football stadium?

"I'm here looking out at this $500 million football stadium, that we've already built, and which sits empty most of the time," McHugh said the other day. "Can't we think about all this a little differently?"

McHugh was at the helm of his Pioneer Square bar, F.X. McRory's. It's across the street from the Seahawks' football palace, Qwest Field.

 

Westneat leads off with an interesting question, and then jumps right in to promoting the opinion of one Mick McHugh - as noted, owner of F.X. McRory's, a sports bar/restaurant located across the street from Qwest Field.  So, any questions here about what McHugh's motivations are regarding this issue?  You don't suppose the idea of significantly boosting his fall Saturday business is clouding his judgment any do you?

For the past year, McHugh has been buttonholing anyone who comes by about his idea to have the Huskies play all their home games at Qwest.

As of now, the UW plans to break ground next year on remodeling Husky Stadium on campus. BusinessWeek magazine has dubbed it "the most expensive renovation of a sports facility in NCAA history."

Why not just use Qwest instead?

"Five miles from campus, we already have one of the best football stadiums in America," McHugh effuses. "It's 5 miles, that's all it is!"

We'd like our own stadium, the UW has said. For reasons of money and tradition.

There's a worry that games at Qwest wouldn't bring as much football revenue. That's possible, but McHugh says the folks who run Qwest Field insist it isn't true.

 

Let's be clear here - the UW is looking to renovate Husky Stadium for one reason: money.  If they thought they'd make more money at Qwest Field, then they would seriously consider moving the games there.

Westneat tries to grab the reader's attention with the note about the Husky Stadium renovation being the most expensive in NCAA history.  Perhaps, but this is also very likely one of the most comprehensive "renovations" in NCAA history.  It could just as easily be called a rebuilding of the stadium, because everything but the North upper deck is going to be demolished, removed and replaced with all-new structures.  Seen in that light, the estimated $250M cost is much more reasonable - consider that Minnesota's new on-campus stadium with a capacity of just under 51,000 cost nearly $290M.  Washington is going to be getting roughly 57,000 brand new seats for less money than what Minnesota paid.

As for his contentions about what kind of revenue would be generated at Qwest vs. a rebuilt Husky Stadium - that's a good question, but it's not the best question.  First off, the rebuilt Husky Stadium is highly likely to still have greater capacity than Qwest - Qwest seats 67,000, and UW officials have said that the rebuilt Husky Stadium won't go below 70,000.  Second, Husky Stadium will be even newer than Qwest and should be designed to maximize revenue via club seats, luxury boxes and concessions.  Even then, it's possible that the new Husky Stadium won't be quite as lavish as Qwest in an attempt to keep costs down, but that brings up the other point - how much rent would Qwest charge, and how much of the revenues generated by the stadium for Husky games would be returned to the University athletic department?  That's the real question here.

As far as the distance, it's still neglecting the point that it's not on-campus, and getting to the games will require students to hop buses en mass instead of simply walking.  I'm sure efforts will be made to try to get as many students to games there in 2011 while Husky Stadium is being rebuilt, but that's another expense the University would have to account for in determining which option is more fiscally prudent.

Then there's tradition:

"Moving games downtown to Qwest Field would significantly change the game-day experience," the UW said in promotional materials for the project. "Student attendance would likely drop off and the tailgating experience would be compromised."

It's good to see the UW standing up for what matters about college.

But seriously, anyone who's ever been to a Husky game knows the allure. It's a fine place to see a game. And after first asking for public money for the remodel, the UW now hopes to do it through all-private donations

 

Westneat takes a bit of a potshot here with his comments on tradition.  What he's missing here is that it's more than just that fans would lose out on one of the things that makes Husky games special - it's that by losing those extras, the appeal of going to the games decreases, and by extension it is a certainty that attendance would decline.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to see a Husky game you had to attend in person - games on TV were not frequent.  Nowadays, every game is on TV, so for fans that want to see the Huskies play, they can either watch from the comfort of their own couch or among fellow fans at a sports bar, or pay big bucks for tickets and deal with the hassle of getting to and from the games and being exposed to frequently lousy weather.  Take away the things that make attending the game special and just watch as attendance drops off significantly.

Those people that really love the tailgating experience?  Many of them are the UW's biggest athletic department boosters, the people who help keep the department running with financial independence from the school (aside from rougly $2M yearly in tuition wavers from the State to support Title IX compliance).  These are not people you want to alienate if you want them to continue making generous donations that keep the athletic department from having to dip into the general fund of the University.  Which brings me to Westneat's next part:

There's a larger issue here though — yes, larger than football — that Woodward unwittingly bumbled to the fore.

Which is: You build sports Taj Mahals, you get no sympathy when you come asking for the really important stuff.

Scott Woodward, the UW's athletic director, caused an interstate diplomatic uproar last week when he called the University of Oregon an academic "embarrassment." But what jumped out at me is that Woodward seemed to link a perceived decline in that school, and its ability to draw state funding, with its over-emphasis on building fancy new sports facilities.

"In my mind, it's a wonderful athletic facility," Woodward said, speaking of Oregon's remodeled sports complex. "But they've watched it at the expense of the university go really down."

In other words, where were their priorities?

Forget about Oregon, McHugh is saying. Where are ours?

"The UW is raising tuition, they're restricting local enrollment, they're closing themselves off from the community," McHugh says. "What if they took that $250 million for the stadium and used it for scholarships instead?"

 

What Westneat and McHugh don't seem to understand here is where that $250M to pay for the stadium rebuilding is coming from.  The first $50M is coming from private donations from big boosters.  Would these people be as likely to contribute the same amount for scholarships (and it's not clear what scholarships McHugh is suggesting - athletic or academic?)

The rest of the $200M will come from essentially user fees - revenue from the new stadium to pay off public bonds.  Those revenues will come mostly from increased ticket prices, higher Tyee dues and more seats becoming restricted to Tyees only, and some will come from increased concessions revenue and possibly from stadium naming rights.  It is highly unlikely much (if any) of that money would otherwise be donated to the University to increase its endowment.

In other words, the argument that the $250M would be better spent on helping out the University's budget woes is to miss the point that they really aren't related.  And in fact, it can be argued that the $250M spent to rebuild the stadium actually helps the University's budget woes, because that reinvestment in the athletic department is designed precisely to keep the department self-sufficient for the long haul and not need to start asking for funds from the University's general fund.

McHugh's got a self-interest here — he wants 65,000 potential customers walking by his bar six Saturdays each fall. If you've ever met him, you know he's also got a gift of gab and blarney.

Gee, you think maybe he's got a self-interest here Danny?  As in he's clearly so biased by the financial ramifications that would benefit him as to invalidate his opinion as being remotely objective?

But McHugh is no sports hater out to deflate Husky football. He goes to Husky games, and his business lives or dies with the Seahawks, Sounders and Mariners. He argues that other schools — UCLA and Pitt, for example — have thrived at off-campus stadiums.

"You could have the Husky marching band going through Chinatown on the way to the game, with the whole of Pioneer Square in purple and gold. You could bring the UW to the city. The city would love it!"

Pitt and UCLA have "thrived"?  I guess I've missed that amid all their mediocre seasons.  When Pitt was a great football program, they played in Pitt Stadium on campus.  To say nothing of the fact that in the case of UCLA, there has never been an on-campus stadium option.

And McHugh can claim all he wants that he's a Husky fan, but as noted above, he lacks objectivity on this issue due to the significant financial benefits if Husky games were to be played at Qwest.

All that purple and gold?  We already get that at Husky Stadium where it comes naturally because it's - you guessed it - on campus.  The city?  It would somewhat embrace it, but there are plenty of people in the city that are not Huskies.  And it also ignores the fact that Qwest Field would not support anywhere near the amount of branding and identification with the University, nor would Husky games get first crack in terms of scheduling priorities.

I asked McHugh if it wasn't too radical to ask any big-time university to say "no" to its own football stadium.

"Well, then let's just be even simpler about this," he said. "These are lean times. We have a stadium. So the real point here is to just use what we already have."

Whoa. Now that is radical.

 

Yes, let's use what we have - Husky Stadium.

Look, there is a real discussion to be had here on this issue, but this was a poor attempt at it.  As I noted above, the issue is about finances.  And the real questions are these:

 

  • How much money will the rebuilt Husky Stadium generate?
  • How much money would be generated at Qwest Field, keeping in mind projected attendance differences vs. Husky Stadium?
  • How much of a cut would Qwest Field take out of those revenues?
  • How long will a rebuilt Husky Stadium stand before needing fundamental rebuilding (note that the original bowl has lasted 90 years, and the South upper deck 60 years)?
  • How long will it take the athletic department to pay off the $200M in public bonds, and how much of the added revenue generated by the rebuilt stadium will go towards paying those off?

Those are the questions to ask.  And I have a very strong suspicion that the University already has a good idea of what they are, and thus why the drive to rebuild Husky Stadium instead of renting Qwest Field.

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