CINCINNATI — Barely six years after its last expansion, Nippert Stadium is starting to feel too small for the University of Cincinnati football Bearcats.
A 13-0 regular season, an improbable run at a national title and UC’s acceptance by the Big 12 athletic conference have combined to spark conversations about when and how to grow the 40,000-seat venue.
“We are getting to a point where we are going to be sold out of our season tickets,” said UC Athletic Director John Cunningham. “We’re still taking deposits at this point, but we’re going to hit pretty soon a point where we’ve got a waiting list, which is a really exciting thing. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a waiting list for Nippert.”
Cunningham said UC could be years away from moving the idea from the wish list to the short list, but he adds there is an urgency among program boosters to capitalize on the program’s rise to national prominence.
“It’s fun to go talk to donors right now and have these conversations about how we can continue to grow and how we can make this program special for years to come,” he said. “We sold out every game but one. So, we’ve got a little bit of a sellout streak going. Let’s continue that for a while and let’s evaluate where we are in a few years and certainly, there is a possibility that we will expand Nippert.”
UC has other projects in the pipeline as part of a $100 million fundraising campaign announced in November. The Day One Ready Campaign is aimed at preparing UC for the Big 12 by building a $50 million indoor practice facility, upgrading locker rooms, hiring a full-time sports nutritionist and providing access to private jets for recruiting trips.
Cunningham said UC has raised about 25% of the $100 million goal, allowing it to start the locker-room renovation and search for a design team to lead the practice-facility project. While the Day One campaign will help UC recruit and develop players, it will not help UC with another problem: It ranks 57th in the nation in football ticket revenue.
UC’s football program generated $4.1 million in ticket revenue in the 2020 fiscal year, according to Sportico, an online business publication that gets its data from college reports to the NCAA. The nation’s biggest college football programs raked in more than $50 million in 2020, the most recent year for which NCAA data is available. UC ranked last among the colleges it will compete against when it joins the Big 12. Iowa State generated the most ticket revenue, at $13.6 million, followed by $10.1 million at Oklahoma State and $8.5 million at Houston.
“I think they should be planning” a stadium expansion, said Joe Cobbs, a sports business professor at Northern Kentucky University. “I think they should be looking at the feasibility.”
Cobbs said Cunningham is playing it smart by focusing on ticket demand in the short term, instead of launching a stadium-expansion campaign right away.
“A year like this brings in people that were maybe a little bit more casual fans, maybe some of the alumni that went to a game or two and now they’re re-invigorated," he said. "They’re really excited about the future. And so, the challenge for the athletic department is to make those fans more committed."
Cobbs said UC should try to keep fans engaged in the program while they wait for tickets and carefully increase prices to keep ticket demand from shrinking.
“When you think about the fan psychology, they’re going to expect an increase, with the school moving into the Big 12 and with the success that they’ve had, but you don’t want to be thought of as gouging fans in any way,” Cobbs said.
Cunningham said UC will try keep ticket demand high before and after the next expansion.
“We know how special Nippert is when it’s full and it’s an intimidating environment even with the capacity that we have,” he said. “I do think that schools have made mistakes in expanding their stadiums too much. Some of those large stadiums that you see across the country that used to be full aren’t full anymore. And that’s not a good place to be either.”
That’s why Cunningham’s early thoughts on stadium expansion are about the quality of new seats, not the quantity.
“The work we did in the west pavilion was special and we have great suite spaces over there,” he said. “Whatever we do, it’s going to be some combination of seating and premium seating.”
Nippert’s $86 million expansion in 2015 included 53 luxury suites and 1,100 club seats while boosting total capacity to 40,000 seats. Cunningham said new suites could be added to the east pavilion. But no expansion will not block views of the Dieterle Vocal Arts Center, a 111-year-old structure that overlooks Nippert’s south end zone.
Although he has talked about expansion possibilities with donors, Cunningham said the school is not raising money for it and no conceptual renderings exist about what it might look like. Still, the excitement over UC’s quest for a national title has increased urgency for UC to find its next steps for growth.
“You don’t want it to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. You want it to happen again. But you can’t expect that it will. So, there absolutely is urgency. There’s always urgency in this business. But certainly when you have this type of season you want to capitalize on it,” Cunningham said.