SALT LAKE CITY — When talking about the best seat locations at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the south end zone rarely, if ever, comes up. That should change in a few years.
In a news conference Wednesday, University of Utah officials announced details on its $80 million expansion project for its football stadium. And the biggest details can be described with one word: premium.
The expansion, which is expected to be completed by the 2021 season, will be done exclusively on the south end zone side of the stadium. The south end corners will be closed off to create a full bowl, with nearly 6,000 seats being added. Those additional seats will raise the stadium's capacity from 45,807 to 51,444, making Rice-Eccles the Pac-12’s ninth biggest stadium.
But this expansion plan isn't about getting as many people in the stadium as possible; it's about providing an area that has been missing from Rice-Eccles — an area that Utah expects will end up paying for much of the expansion price tag.
The added seats will be predominantly made up of premier luxury seats — suites, outdoor level seating, rooftop seating and club areas — giving the U. a chance to sell premium tickets to individuals and groups, according to Utah athletic director Mark Harlan.
Harlan said $35 million of the $80 million cost will come from donations, with the rest mostly coming from the profits made from the new premium seat areas.
“Our research has shown a very high demand for these premium spaces,” Harlan said.
That's why Utah is choosing to put nearly 5,000 of those types of seats into the expansion. There will also be 1,000 bleacher seats added.
But the new luxury area isn't the only new thing coming to the south end zone.
The expansions will also include new home and visiting locker rooms, as well as social gathering areas for fans, Harlan said. And many of those areas will have views to the field.
“It’s huge for our program," Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The football program is very excited about this. It’s going to help us on a lot of different levels. It’ll be a great selling point for our recruits. It’s going to make an already outstanding game day experience for the fans that much better.”
The expansion project has been very data-based, Harlan said. Before Harlan took over as the school’s athletic director last summer, former Utah athletic director Chris Hill had hired two consulting firms — CSL and Populist — to conduct studies and market research to not only see if expanding the stadium was feasible but if it was necessary.
College football is in an era of reducing stadiums, not expanding them. Arizona State recently dropped Sun Devil Stadium to 53,599 from a capacity that was once over 71,000. Stanford Stadium has dropped to just over 50,000 from 85,000. California Memorial Stadium has reduced to 62,467 — a 10,000 seat drop from its 2007 capacity.
With college football attendance declining nationally, the trend has been to remove seats in order to avoid the eyesore of playing in front of unfilled stadiums. So Utah wanted to be sure that it could still sell out if it were to expand. CMS conducted surveys of donors, season-ticket holders, alumni, etc. and determined that the interest was there to increase the size of the stadium.
Using the information provided by CMS, Harlan said that the “sweet spot” number between 51,000 and 54,000 became clear.
“This wasn't just Dr. Hill and I, during the transition phase, sitting around on a grease board,” Harlan said. “This was all driven up off of data.”
It was a balance to find a number that would sell out, but also provide access to fans who are on waiting lists (Utah officials said Monday its football waitlist was around 3,000).
With the consecutive sellout streak, the Utah football ticket secondary market has often far exceeded the face value costs. With just 1,000 bleacher seats being added, this expansion likely won't have too much effect on the high demand for tickets — something the U. wanted to keep.
“It’s a gathering place for our community," University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said.
And there will soon be room for more to gather.