Fix Your Danged Stadium Already! (No. 1: Eastern Michigan University)

Tobi WritesAnalyst IOctober 21, 2009

In honor of fast-approaching Halloween, I am doing a series on problem stadiums that haunt programs at the FBS level. 

These recommendations were originally conceived in a thread I wrote a few years back at Collegesportsinfo.com, based on muti-year attendance averages vs. stadium capacities.  My opinions have been refined over the years using feedback from other sports fans.

For every FBS program, football should be the university's No. 1 or 1A revenue generating sport.  Potentially, football revenue and football-inspired alumni donations could pay for all of the other sports.  If you blow football, you will lose massive amounts of money on sports.

At the bottom end of the FBS, stadium troubles often cause a lot of issues.

I am going to start at the very bottom of the FBS attendance roll.

No. 1 Eastern Michigan University

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Eastern Michigan has long been the worst-attended program at the FBS Level, drawing less than 10,000 per game over multiple years.

Some have argued that as a strong reason for EMU to move to the FCS level.

My personal feelings on the matter are that changing affiliations should never be your first step.  Address the factors that haunt your program today and then evaluate the level at which you should play.

Some of the issues that figure into EMU's attendance issues cannot be changed. 

EMU is only seven miles away from the University of Michigan, which draws 110K per game.  Even though the Wolverines are not a pro team, they might as well be.  EMU is playing in what I have named a "Killzone."  They are competing against a football business that dominates the public's football entertainment dollars in their area, just like NFL teams do in NFL Killzones.

EMU is also a bit of a commuter school.  That hurts attendance as well.

These factors strongly suggest EMU will not draw a consistent 25,000 to Rynearson at any point in the next 20 years, no matter how competitive they are on the field.

But there is one glaring factor that can be fixed to help attendance.  Rynearson itself.

What is wrong with Rynearson?

One might look at Rynearson Stadium and say it is a pretty nice stadium that lacks the cobbled together feel of a lot of other MAC schools.  The seats are all along the sides of the field, which should really be ideal for drawing good attendance to a small FBS stadium.

So why does this stadium hurt them?

The placement of the field.  It absolutely kills them.

With the track there, there is nothing that can be done to fix the field placement.

The stadium was expanded twice and apparently done badly both times.  In 1974, the WFL's Detroit Wheels played at Rynearson, leading to an expansion of the stadium capacity to 22,227.   They drew horrifically at Rynearson .  In 1992, the stadium was expanded to satisfy the NCAA's then minimum capacity rules to its current capacity of 30,200.

Sadly, the leadership of EMU made the same error that a lot of small FBS programs make and built around the running track instead of taking out the running track.

Track draws a few hundred fans. FBS football draws tens of thousands of fans. 

The two sports have entirely different fan requirements and should ideally never be addressed by a shared resource.  That track should have been taken out and built around a soccer field or something.

A small FBS school can build a workable stadium with a track as long as the needs of the football program are not compromised.  After all, football is the main revenue generating sports at FBS schools.

It is fine to have a track around your football field if your stadium seating is on each sideline from goal line to goal line, but usually once you hit a capacity of about 20,000-25,000, any kind of cost effective expansion—the kind a MAC school might do—needs to go in the end zones.

The mistake that poorer Division IA universities often made in the 1970s to late 1990s was to retain the track and build the end zones around the track.  Doing this creates thousands of bad seats that fans do not want to sit in.  It in essence creates seats that will usually be empty, which in turn makes the stadium feel empty, further discouraging fans from attending.

This is the mistake that EMU made with the 1992 NCAA mandated expansion. That expansion turned what should be a wonderful tribute to a coaching legend into a disrespectful black eye.

It is high time for that to be rectified.

My Suggestions

I try to be as cost effective as I can with my suggestions. 

With this stadium, I'm going to start with an ideal recommendation and then follow up with what will probably be a more cost effective and politically palatable recommendation.

Option 1: Demolish Part of the Stadium Seating

While technically the best solution would be to rip out all of the seats south of the goal line—essentially almost all of sections 110-120—how much would that cost, and would the university go for it?  That is a lot of concrete.

It would probably reduce capacity by about 20 percent to somewhere around 24,000 seats.  That would immediately make the stadium feel less empty and would make the fans in the stadium feel better. 

It would dramatically increase the odds of an occasional sell out. The university would be smart to really push the tickets for the season opener after the demolition is complete.

Perhaps a good draw like Army would be willing to come in for the opener.  If EMU could pull from student loyalty and local Ypsilanti goodwill to sell out Game One after the stadium work, it could do a ton to change the fortunes of this program overnight.

(The potential of selling out games helps drive ticket sales on hot game tickets.  There is currently little chance of a sellout at EMU with a 30,200-seat Rynearson.)

The track could stay, as it doesn't dramatically hurt the fan experience in the seats between the goal lines.

24,000 is a very reasonable maximum attendance number for EMU in the near future.  If the NCAA ever does return to a 30K minimum stadium capacity rule—highly unlikely after all the programs that rule killed or hobbled the first time around—EMU could have temporary semi-circular end zone berms created to sit in front of the track behind the end zones.  You could throw the band back there.

This does require the university tacitly admitting the old administration blew the 1992 expansion.  Some universities—even some in the MAC—have effectively done so. 

It should be noted that potentially some ill-will could come the way of any administrator advocating tearing down multiple millions of dollars of concrete construction because it was not well thought out.  Care would need to be taken with word choices.  Blame the NCAA—not the previous administrations.

EMU has done much better at selling tickets the last couple of years, but I think this course of action would get EMU's attendance up 2000 overnight even over thos improved recent numbers and, if combined with the kind of scheduling and promotional efforts I suggested above, could get that average up to a MAC respectable 17,000 even in bad years.

Option 2: Rip Out the Track and Move the Turf South 30 Yards.

If there is an unacceptable level of push-back to the idea of dropping stadium capacity, another option would be taking out the stadium's track.  This would probably be a cheaper option.

This would allow the turf to be moved southwards, making the 6,000 or so bad seats into acceptable seats.  That said, I don't think EMU would get the bang for their buck that the first plan offers.

Unlike the first plan, the press box and the seating would be a bit cockeyed, which is generally a bad idea in football stadium design.

Eventually, EMU could do a dig down to move the front row seats closer to the field, but it is debatable that attendance numbers would ever reach that point with that layout.

On the positive side, Rynearson in that configuration would be a great home for an occasional Canadian Football League game or even a Detroit area-based CFL or MLS team.  30,000 seats is perfect for a CFL audience and workable for a MLS team.  The stadium in this configuration could hold the wider CFL and MLS turfs.  Perhaps that could generate some revenue.

EMU would still need to build a new track with a few bleachers around it.  Maybe for a season they could rent out a nearby high school track.

EMU needs to make changes.  For the benefit of future students, it is time for the student body and alumni to demand changes from their leadership and support the costs to implement those changes.

Articles in this series:

1) Fix your danged stadium already, Eastern Michigan University!

2) Fix your danged stadium already, Kent State University!

3) Fix your danged stadium already, Rice University!


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