Sports Matters

by Dan McDonald

Contributing Factor

It will be critical for Cajun fans to buy into the facilities master plan UL unveils this fall.

UL's athletic program is poised to make the next step in its evolution. It's a big step - and a risky one.

Contributing Factor

It will be critical for Cajun fans to buy into the facilities master plan UL unveils this fall.

UL's athletic program is poised to make the next step in its evolution. It's a big step - and a risky one.

The university has contracted with an outside firm, 360 Architecture out of Kansas City, Mo., to develop a master plan for its athletic facilities. Specifically, the plan will list what needs to be done, how it should be done and in what order the Cajuns' facilities are upgraded.

"Having this plan is going to allow us to move forward," says Ragin' Cajun Athletic Foundation Chairman John Bordelon. "It's something everybody can buy into."

No one knows what the plan will include, but it's almost a certainty that renovation of Cajun Field will be a main focus when details are revealed later this fall. UL's football home for more than four decades is in need of retooling; from the Cajun athletic staff's viewpoint, an upgrade will add more revenue sources.

Increasing the revenue stream is vital, or last season's runaway success - nine wins including a first-ever Division I bowl victory - could become just a once-in-a-generation occurrence.

"This is for our entire athletic department," Athletics Director Scott Farmer said one day before UL's season-opening 40-0 football win over Lamar. "This will carry us over the next 20 to 30 years. Cajun Field has been phenomenal for 41 years. Most of the chairbacks are original and in good shape and that's remarkable. But we have to continue to give our coaches the tools to be successful."

Cajun Field has a listed 31,000 capacity, although many more fans can be accommodated on the end-zone hills that form a natural bowl. The 2009 contest against Southern drew 41,357 fans, and home games with Texas A&M and Alabama have both topped 36,000 in attendance.

Any plans will likely include increased seating capacity, but it won't be just about more seats. As with most major athletic facilities built in the last two decades, Farmer says the plans will definitely include amenities such as sky boxes and club-level seating for both major benefactors and for fans who want an increased amenity level and are willing to pay for it.

That additional income will be important, since funding for any and all projects in the master plan will have to be self-generated. Given the current state of the state, no athletic administrator - including UL President Dr. Joseph Savoie - will be asking for state monies for athletic facilities in the foreseeable future.

Farmer's plan for facility upgrades mirrors what most people do when building or buying houses: borrowing money and paying it off long-term. In UL's case, plans are to sell bonds to finance construction and renovation of whatever facilities are recommended in the master plan, and to use increased revenue the facilities will generate to pay off the debt.

The RCAF's annual fund passed the $1.1 million mark in donations just before the season opener, a 55 percent increase from last year, and total RCAF contributions for the current fiscal year are just over $4 million in foundation accounts - also a big increase from 2010-11. Additionally, UL sold a record 10,143 football season tickets (the number as of a week before the opener).

"The stadiums will also generate revenue," Farmer says. "Club seating and sky boxes are something we don't have now, so anything there will be a plus. But we know once we get this plan, we have to go and do it. We have to generate the funds to get it going."

360 Architecture recently developed plans for Mississippi State and the University of Washington, and Farmer says the firm is under orders to have an early draft of UL's plans and drawings finished prior to Oct. 23. That's when UL hosts Arkansas State on a Tuesday night ESPN2 broadcast - a perfect opportunity to show off the plans to a national audience that will include potential recruits across the country.

"Once the plan is in place, that starts letting our coaches recruit to that plan," Bordelon says, "and it gives us something to show potential donors so we can go out and raise the funds."

UL's already addressed some facility needs. The Cajundome remains a basketball jewel 25 years after its construction, Lamson Park is one of the nation's best softball stadiums, and the Leon Moncla Indoor Practice Facility is the only full-size structure of its kind in the Sun Belt Conference (and something many "larger" programs don't have). But Cajun Field, baseball's Moore Field and the track/soccer facility all need work.

"We'd done just about everything we could on fund-raising without showing the proof on the field," Farmer says. "Now, with the success we had last season, this plan should generate the excitement we need to produce the revenue to make it happen. But we're the ones that will have to find a way to do it."