Fix Your Danged Stadium Already! (No. 3: Rice University)

Tobi WritesAnalyst INovember 1, 2009

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 22: Chase Clement #16 of the Rice Owls passes the ball against the Texas Longhorns on September 22, 2007 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. Texas leads 54-7 in third quarter. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

In honor of Halloween, here is the third in my 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.

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.

With Eastern Michigan and Kent State discussed, I am going to turn the harsh spotlight from the MAC.

In attendance terms, FIU and FAU would be among the next schools to address, but frankly, they are in the process of doing what is needed at their schools.  They get a flyer.

Today I am going to skip a bit ahead and talk about Rice University.


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OK, in the interest of full disclosure, as a senior in high school I applied to Rice and didn't cut the mustard in the interview process.

I hope Owl fans will still judge the suggestions on their own merits rather than suggesting they originate in any kind of sour grapes. I still have quite a lot of fondness for Texas's premier university.

Rice Stadium, and why it doesn't work for Rice University

Rice University is a tiny private school with a little over 3,000 undergraduates. They only have 44,000 alumni, 12,000 of which live in Houston.

Rice Stadium (originally called Houston Stadium) was built to seat 70,000, and now seats 47,000. 

The Owls attendance has generally stayed between 10,000 and 15,000 since the NFL Texans moved in next door, but they averaged 20,000 last year with the team's excellent play on the field.

A Little backstory on Rice/Houston Stadium

Back in the 1940s when the Texas publics in the Southwest Conference were much smaller, Rice fielded a competitive team.

They were so competitive, in fact, the city of Houston decided to build a 70,000-seat shrine to the SWC Champion Rice Owls to replace their 37,000 seat existing stadium, Rice Field.

This new stadium, initially called Houston Stadium, was to host both Rice games and the "startup" University of Houston Cougar games.

(UH, located 4 miles from Rice, launched football in 1946 as a member of the Lone Star Conference. They would eventually form the Gulf Coast Conference and play in the Missouri Valley Conference before the prestigious SWC finally let them in, in 1971.)

It is important to understand Rice football was the top level of football in Houston up to 1945.

The launch of football at UH was only the first blow in a series of hits to Rice University's program.

Bud Adams and The AFL destroy college football in Houston

In 1960, a rich Texas oilman by the name of Bud Adams decided to buy into the AFL and put a pro team in Houston at Jeppesen Stadium (now UH's Robertson Stadium), 3.5 miles away from Houston Stadium.

This move would destroy college football in Houston for the next 50-plus years.

As the Oilers grew in prosperity, they became the team the unaffiliated Houston football fan would spend their money to see, not Rice.

The Oilers fans felt comfortable sitting the appropriately sized 36,000-seat Jeppson Stadium, while the Owl fans felt more and more uncomfortable sitting in an increasingly vacant Houston Stadium.

The Oilers established what I call a pro football "killzone," an area of consumer dominance that consumes the finances of area fans a college program might otherwise be able to tap.

Things only got worse when the Oilers and Cougars moved into the much larger Astrodome a mere three miles from Rice in 1965.

It was the end of Rice football dominance, and it permanently stunted the development of UH Cougar football.

Flight of the Oilers

The Owls and the Cougars had an opportunity to change the direction of their programs in 1995 when the Oilers, a mere eight years after successfully extorting $67 million in upgrades to the Astrodome from the city, tried to demand a new stadium. Houston mayor Bob Lanier told Adams to take a long walk off a short plank, and the team moved to Tennessee.

Both Rice and UH drew higher attendance numbers in the years the NFL was absent from Houston.

If Rice and UH had made their grievances known publicly and really worked city government, perhaps they could have established a political firewall to prevent the NFL from getting a new stadium in their backyard again.

A prepared unified front possibly could have pushed Reliant stadium to a site somewhere far away from the universities.

Alas, that opportunity was lost and the NFL returned to Houston in 2002 a mere 2 miles away from Rice Stadium.

The shrinking of Rice Stadium

In 2006, the leadership at Rice made an unprecedented move for a major university— but the kind of choice one might expect from a university known for that level of academic excellence — they reduced the capacity of their stadium.  They cleverly removed the endzone bleacher benches in the lower level of Rice Stadium, so the only seating in the lower bowl would be along the sidelines.

That cut the capacity of the stadium to a much more manageable 47,000.

It cut upkeep costs and made the stadium a much more enjoyable place to watch games by substantially reducing the number of empty seating. 

Rice Stadium had always been a cutting edge stadium as from the initial planning stages it was planned with the idea of having excellent visability from every seat.  The reduction of seating only improved that, putting all permanent seats parallel to the sidelines.

 (Photo by Amble. Taken from Wikipedia per fair usage guidelines)

The lesson of the UT games

The University of Texas Longhorns play the Rice Owls in football in an effort to maintain UT's exposure in Houston for recruiting purposes.  UT has 70,000 alumni living in Houston and wants the game played at Reliant every other year instead of Rice Stadium.

With a larger fan base, this game effectively becomes a home game for UT.  Reliant with it's added revenue streams can offer Rice more money than Rice could make having the game at their stadium.

From UT's perspective, playing the game at Reliant adds to the perception that UT is on a different level than Rice.  When the Longhorns come to play, only a pro stadium is up to par for the game.

A&M hasn't played Rice recently.  A&M is close enough to Houston that they don't need to play a Houston university.  There are no other programs who would draw more than 35,000 at a high end to play Rice in Houston.

The 47,000 number is clearly seen as the high end of what Rice officials assume they can draw.  I think in effect the only opponent who could hit that number is UT, and recent history clearly show that Rice Stadium is not a venue in which UT is willing to play.

(If the NFL was not in the area and also sapping UH's attendance, UH could potentially fill the stadium for games against Rice as well.  That situation does not exist.)

So what is the point of seating for 47,000?

The current and potential future usage of Rice Stadium

Today Rice Stadium hosts Rice Owl games, which, as noted previously, have not exceeded 21,000 since the NFL moved back into the neighborhood. (Those numbers are not going to move much over the next 30 years with the Texans nearby.) It also seats high school football games which have similar high end attendance numbers.

Having such a large capacity stadium that will regularly have so many empty seats supresses attendance.  Fans do not want to sit in a stadium that is 2/3 empty.  Having such a stadium reduces a fan's impulse to return fro the next game.

The games aren't as fun in an empty stadium and there is no sense of scarcity to fuel early ticket sales.

There is a reason that Major League Soccer has gone to smaller 15,000-30,000 seat capacity stadiums.  They had to in order to build regular attendance.

Pro Soccer is seeking to build a new Houston stadium.  Rice Stadium could fill that need with some minor tweaks if their capacity was smaller.

At some point in the future, non-NFL pro football may return to Houston.  If or when it does, there is no guarantee that team won't want to play at Reliant. 

If that team should chose a smaller venue, Rice stadium has some advantages over Robertson Stadium.  As long as Rice Stadium's capacity is similar or slightly larger than Robertson's 32,000 set capacity, Rice will be in the driver's seat.

My recommendations

As with all posts in this series I am going to give a cheap recommendation and an ideal recommendation.

In either scenario, further seating cuts are needed. The stadium really should not seat more than 30,000 -35,000 and even that might be pushing it.  More seats equate to unneccessary maintainance costs.

The lower deck seats currently only seat about 17,000, so demolishing the upper decks would likely not be a good idea.  The pressbox and some luxury suites would need to be rebuilt costing more money and in general no FBS conference wants to see their member drop their stadium down to an FCS-level capacity.

Rice Stadium is an excellent skeleton of a fantastic stadium.  The facilities there need to be upgraded to reflect the money the university possesses, not the small size of it's student body.  Restroom facilities need to be sufficient for 30,000 and need to appear clean, somewhat new, and well maintained.

That is really just a given for stadiums that want to grow a fan base.

The concession stands should be somewhat cutting edge too, towards that goal.  Rice should reach out to prestigious local resturants and try to work deals.  Perhaps resturants and the city can pay part of the costs to upgrade the concession areas. 

You should be able to get concessions at Rice games that no other university in Texas offers.

Watching a game at Rice Stadium should be an event.

The cheap recommendation

As far as seating goes, Rice could tarp the western upper deck.  That would reduce capacity to 32,000 --- a much more appropriate number considering capacity needs.

Just like the last reduction it could likely be done in a cost effective manner and still look fairly good.  There are no luxury boxes at the top of the west grandstand, so tarping it would not be distracting.

Especially in the case of Rice, I do not recommend the cheap option.  I think for Rice to survive and prosper long term they need to spend some money and treat their stadium like the historic landmark it is.

The more costly recommendation

I'd recommend tearing out the edges of each of the upper decks.  Specifically, sections 150-152, 159-161, 250-352, and 359-361.  That would reduce capacity to a little over 34,000.

If it would make it easier to film games, I would but in cement platforms for TV cameras in their place.  I don't know if doing that would help TV crews in filming the games, but if it would that is what my first thought would be to do with the areas. 

If not, I might suggest just putting up a statue on a pillar of an owl looking down on the stadium in each spot --- basically bringing some art to the stadium.  A different species of Owl could be immortalized in each end zone --- fiercely overlooking the Owl games.  This would be an enjoyable facet of the games for young Owl fans --- a key in developing lifelong fans --- as well as a marketing point for fans of the high school games played in the stadium.

I'd also recommend considering converting the upper third of the remaining western upper deck into luxury boxes, a move that would further reduce capacity by another 3,000 or so, to a permanent seated capacity of maybe as little as 31,000.

Rice has more wealthy fans per fan than any other University in Texas, so it follows they should have more luxury boxes per seats than most stadiums.  Even if they go unsold, these boxes could be used in nonstandard ways -- perhaps even as lures to land top professors who love football.  Even in that usage, those suites would bring more value than empty bleachers do.

If nothing else consider it as a better usage of space.  Rather than having an unprotected bleacher that will wear down, that area would be converted into seating protected from the elements.

Finally, I'd work to have alumnium bleacher backs installed behind all of the alumnimum bleacher seats.  It is still acceptable to have bleacher benches for seating, but is a lot less acceptable among older fans today (who are used to molded backed seats in luxurious pro stadiums) not to have any back support for those bleacher bench seats.

Giving fans the ability to lean back comfortably while watching the game will help tremendously in fan acquistion and retention.

A final word

Rice University needs to play football for the added exposure it provides the small academic powerhouse, but it doesn't need to bleed money and esteem doing so.

I hope Owl leadership might consider these recommendations to further shrink their stadium to an appropriate size so they can build more of a self sufficient program.

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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