CINCINNATI - The University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees on Tuesday approved an $86 million expansion of Nippert Stadium that will start at the end of this fall's football season and be completed by 2015.
The school is negotiating with the Cincinnati Bengals for the use of Paul Brown Stadium for the 2014 season. And it is talking to donors who have already pledged more than $10 million toward the new facility. The project approved by trustees is an expansion of earlier Nippert renovation plans, which were estimated to cost up to $70 million.
The renovation includes:
> A new West Pavilion with suites, scholarship club seats and a new press box.
> Improvements to restrooms and concession stands.
> A skywalk connecting the upper deck with the gameday brick plaza on O'Varsity Way.
The new stadium will have a capacity of approximately 40,000.
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"Today is a tremendous day for Cincinnati athletics," Athletic Director Whit Babcock said. "This transformational campaign will allow us to create critical new revenue streams to benefit all 19 sports programs."
UC has already sold out 18 "Founders Suites," which will accommodate up to 26 people and cost $100,000 a year to lease. Babcock said the suites and other luxury seating products will raise at least $4.5 million per year, enough to cover debt service on the project. How much is borrowed will depend on how much UC can raise from gifts and naming rights deals. UC will not change the name of Nippert Stadium, but will make portions of the new product available for naming rights donors. So far, UC has received pledges for more than $10 million in gifts from four donors, Babcock said.
UC says it will utilize private donations and premium seating revenues to fund the project and no university general funds will be used.
Following the breakup of the Big East Conference, UC has tried to gain entry to larger conferences, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, which accepted former Big East rival Louisville last fall. Babcock declined to comment on whether the Nippert expansion will improve its chances of joining a bigger conference.
"It's a plan to improve our department across the board," he said. "No, we don't have a plan to make ourselves attractive to other conferences. We're going to control what we can control. But shoot, as long as we're here and asked to lead, we might as well make it as good as we can across the board."
Syracuse University Sport Management Professor Rick Burton said UC's recent decision to fully fund Olympic sports programs will improve its chances to join the ACC, but its 40,000-seat stadium and a relatively small annual athletics budget will be limiting factors. Burton said Syracuse has one of the smallest football stadiums in the ACC now at 49,000 seats. Louisville expanded in 2010 to 55,000. On the revenue front, UC had just under $40 million in athletic revenue in 2011, according to the Education Department's Equity in Athletics searchable database . The average revenue for ACC teams was $68.1 million that same year.
Even if UC generates several million in additional revenue from new premium seating options, it won't be on par with other big-conference schools.
"I'm not sure that it's enough," Burton said. "My first reaction is that it doesn't give them enough seats. But maybe they're trying to solve the revenue problem first."
The Cincinnati Bengals confirmed late Tuesday that it is talking to UC about the use of Paul Brown Stadium for the 2014 season.
"We are confident we would be able to work out arrangements for them to play as many games as they would like to play down here in 2014," said Bob Bedinghaus, director of development for the NFL team.
Look for updates on this story later today.