January 14, 2008

Facility Upgrades Begin In Earnest In 2008

With construction of the new baseball stadium underway, the South Carolina athletic department is in the embryonic stages of the largest athletic facilities improvement project in the school's history.

Next on the list? The expansion of the locker room and football training facilities underneath Williams Brice Stadium and groundbreaking for the much-anticipated $11 million academic enrichment center in April.

The aforementioned projects are the initial steps in USC's $200 million Long-Term Master Facilities Plan unveiled 14 months ago. If the plan's goals are attained, an 'Athletic Horseshoe' complex featuring nearly a dozen buildings will steadily rise over the next several years where the Roost and Sarge Frye Field now stand.

USC athletic director Eric Hyman considers the upgrade of USC's facilities near or at the top of his long list of priorities. So, as far as he's concerned, 2008 is a pivotal year for the Gamecock athletic program.

"The exciting thing about '08 is all the things that should come to fruition," Hyman said. "It's taken a long time. I'm not a very patient person. But I want things to get done and we have to follow the system."

Already trailing badly when it joined the SEC in 1992, USC fell further behind many conference schools in facilities during the late 1990's and early 2000's, particularly in the Olympic sports, when most conference schools acted to improve their facilities and build their athletic programs.

They're reaping the benefits of those decisions today. USC, meanwhile, has struggled to keep up. Hyman hopes USC will close the facilities gap in the coming years.

"In this league, you have to aggressively attack facilities," Hyman said. "You can't hold serve in this league. It's just not going to work."

Without question, the construction of the new baseball stadium in the Olympia neighborhood neat Huger and Blossom Streets may be the most closely watched project on the USC campus in years. It's also the first of what could be dozens of athletic department projects over the next decade or more.

The general contractor - Contract Construction of Ballentine, SC - took control of the site about three weeks ago and the pouring of concrete has started. USC hopes the baseball team will be able to work out at the new ballpark this fall in order to acclimate themselves with it before the 2009 season begins.

Still, despite the fact most of the work relating to the stadium is behind him, Hyman laughed at the suggestion he could now relax.

"In this job you're always walking on the edge of a volcano," Hyman said. "If I had a sense of relief, people would be flying past me. I don't look at it that way. We just try to make every day a little bit better."

An important component of the Long-Range Master Facilities Plan introduced in November of 2006 is a 6,000 to 8,000 seat expansion of Williams-Brice Stadium costing $60 to $70 million with a new upper deck added to the North stands along with club seats and luxury suites.

"We've looked at a lot of concepts on Williams-Brice," Hyman said. "Club seating, suites, all those kind of things. We've got some wonderful possibilities. What I want to do with Williams-Brice is plow the dollars we generate back in (to the stadium).

"One day, I hope to have a tremendous video board and first-class rest rooms across the board. Architecturally, the stadium is beautiful but there are parts of it that need to be updated. I really want to make Williams-Brice Stadium a state-of-the-art facility that we're very proud of."

However, when that expansion project will be completed is unknown. The athletic department has yet to hire a firm to conduct the necessary feasibility study, which will determine what needs to be done with utilities, water, sewer lines and other important aspects of the facility that will be impacted by the expansion.

The multi-million project to add much-needed space to USC's athletic training room facilities at Williams-Brice Stadium is scheduled to begin in April and should be completed before the kickoff of the 2008 season.

Once it's completed, the USC football team will have access to star-of-the-art equipment to help injured players recover faster and more thoroughly from injuries.

Meanwhile, the Williams-Brice Stadium Advisory Committee continues to study the critical issue of seating priority, including annual seat licenses, at the 82,000 seat stadium.

Hyman hopes to have a plan in place for the 2009 season. The ongoing committee is comprised of members of the Gamecock Club Board of Directors and other university boards. Hyman is an ad hoc member.

"We're providing the data and the support, but (the committee) will make the recommendations and determine what is the right thing to do based on the totality of everything," Hyman said. "We hope it happens (for the 2009 season) but sometimes things takes longer than you expect.

"Unfortunately, members of the committee have traveled around and seen that we have not been as aggressive as our competition. It's no different from working for any company. If you don't have the same infrastructure, it's going to put your coaches and student-athletes at a disadvantage."

Planning for the academic enrichment center, the top priority of the master facilities plan, is down to the smallest of details, said Hyman, who is working with a committee in making final preparations.

"We're down to the drapes, the furniture and all that kind of stuff," Hyman said. "We've already designed the concept on it. Hopefully, construction will start this summer and we'll have it done by (the Fall of) '09 when the students come back. It will be as good as any in the country."

How will USC pay for all of these facility improvements? Mostly through bonds as a result of the Legislature raising USC's debt ceiling to $200 million last year, and donations by USC fans in the ongoing capital campaign.

USC Gamecock Club Director and Associate AD for Development Chris Wyrick told Gamecock Central recently that the public phase of the capital campaign should begin this summer.

Some of the funding could come from football profits, if you believe a recent report in Forbes magazine ranking the Top 20 college football programs nationally by value.

USC tied with Penn State for 12th place with a value of $69 million. Forbes estimated USC earned profits of $28.9 million in 2006.

While USC appears to have assumed a lofty position on the college football ladder, there are six SEC teams ahead of the Gamecocks in the rankings.

In fact, the conference has six schools in the top 10, including Georgia ($90 million), Florida ($84 million), LSU ($76 million), Tennessee ($74 million), Auburn ($73 million) and Alabama ($72 million).

Forbes contended the value of USC's football program increased 22 percent from last year when the inaugural ranking was unveiled, the largest jump of any team in the Top 20.

While conceding the ranking was 'very favorable' to USC, Hyman questioned the accuracy of Forbes' numbers.

"It's a rough estimation of football. I don't think anybody (from Forbes) has come and talked with us about it," Hyman said. "They're taking their figures from somewhere. It seems to be relative. They made some broad assumptions. It appears they're just talking about revenue and not the expense part of it. It's hard for me to put my arms around it."

Nevertheless, one undeniable truth emanates from Forbes' findings - substantial football revenues are the key to survival for most athletic departments in the SEC.

"It does give you a sense of what's going on around the conference and the country," Hyman said. "The study shows again that the SEC is the best league in the country. We've been involved in the league for (16 years). I want to compete. I'm a competitor. I want to win with class."

Hyman estimates about 72 percent of USC's $10 million share from the conference distribution last June was derived directly from football, while 16 percent flowed from men's basketball.

"Obviously, football is the engine that drives the train from a financial standpoint," Hyman said. "You really have to focus on keeping the football product viable."

While the USC football program certainly makes money, most of the profits are plowed back into the athletic program. Hyman must do that because most of the other Gamecock athletic programs lose money.

During the 2005-2006 fiscal year, the last one in which audited figures are available, the 15 USC athletic teams except for football and men's basketball combined to gross $546,267 in ticket revenue.

However, the total expenditures associated with those 15 programs were $11.89 million.

The biggest culprit? Women's basketball, which generated less than $100,000 in revenues yet incurred costs of $1.91 million, including $683,000 for coaches' salaries and $401,000 for team travel.

But the Lady Gamecocks were hardly alone.

Total expenditures for the USC baseball team in 2006 were $1.2 million. In addition, it cost $1.3 million for the athletic training room and medical services, as well as $972,000 for academic support services.

Losses associated with the USC baseball program are expected to skyrocket, Hyman says, when the new stadium is completed later this year and the university begins to pay the debt service on the revenue bonds used to finance construction.

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