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October Panel: How University Leaders Drive Financial and Developmental Success in Collegiate Athletics and Recreation

11/13/2019 4:19 PM | Cinnamon Thompson (Administrator)

During SCDF’s October breakfast panel event, we explored the connection between college sports facilities, the success of sports programs, and the overall image of the university as it relates to these concepts. Moderated by Chris Nations, president of the Nations Group, our panel consisted of five different collegiate sports professionals, all of which provided a different perspective from the usual panel made up of development and design professionals.

Speakers on our panel included: Paula Smith, director of intercollegiate athletics at University of California, Irvine; Craig Pintens, athletic director at Loyola Marymount University; Rich Mylin, director of recreation at University of California, San Diego; Andy Fee, athletic director at Long Beach State University; and Dr. Lindy Fenex, director of recreation at University of California, Riverside. The panel discussed various strategies and tactics for sport & fitness-related complexes, as well as challenges associated with not only developing these new facilities – but also with funding them. A common theme throughout the discussion was the sense of pride that athletics and their corresponding facilities create for students and alumni, as well as the manner in which athletics are a critical financial driver for universities.

Health and Wellness

Another common theme across all panelists was the versatility in their positions, almost all of them had worked at a number of different universities across the nation. Regardless of where each panelist had worked, whether past of present, they all noted the push for health and wellness-focused common areas across each and every campus. While athletics are a primary driver of the campus, athletic directors are also seeing an increase in demand from all students for health and wellness-related amenities. This is in addition to the facilities used for university spectator sports. Multiple panelists cited the demand for students of all types – not just student athletes – to have robust access to gyms and exercise equipment. Many students are seeing this as a requirement of their student housing hall, instead of utilizing a more centrally-located student gym. The old model for university gyms is changing to embrace both physical and mental wellbeing of their student body. Nap pods, massage chairs and other amenities are also finding their way into what panelists referred to as “rejuvenation spaces.” Most students – athletes or not – are coming to campus with much greater expectations for robust amenities in all spaces throughout the campus. Items such as nap pods and massage chairs are finding their way not only into recreation centers and gyms, but into more mainstream and highly trafficked areas of today’s college campus.

Mental health-related amenities are an additional item which panelists noted as having been on the wish list of students. Quiet spaces for yoga, meditation and counseling are among the biggest drivers. In order to maximize space and profitability, many of these quiet spaces reserved for mental health and relaxation uses are also intended to be multipurpose spaces. Mental health-driven amenities are not seen as desirable by today’s student population, but expected and necessary, in today’s climate of increased awareness on this topic. These program elements along with common public meeting spaces promote inclusivity, accessibility and comradery for students and athletes alike. While these spaces are essential, it is not always cost effective to devote an entire space to such a use. Today’s trend could very well be obsolete in a decade, so flexibility of uses in these spaces becomes the key factor. All panelists agreed, that regardless of whether the space is driven by a rejuvenation, mental health, or recreational use, we are more likely to see smaller spaces that are easily adaptable to suit multiple needs.

The Showpiece of the University

Athletic venues say a lot about a campus, something we can all agree on. While sports facilities are a source of pride for students and alumni, they are also a great source of pride for the surrounding community. When sports events are not taking place, these facilities create new revenue streams, serving as venues for local high school graduations, concerts, eSports tournaments, community events and more. Multiple panelists agreed with the statement that an exceptionally designed college sports facility is the showpiece of the entire campus. Another way these venues function as a “showpiece” is in the area of fundraising. Students, alumni, and other donors want to feel their dollars are well spent. Academic prestige will always remain important, but a sports venue is more external facing to the outside world. These venues are often the face of the university, the gathering place for generations of students to share a common ground.

Athletic facilities come in two forms, which is the competition venue, and then the combined form, which includes the competition venue paired with the training and recreation aspect of the building. Internally-facing training areas are all about recruitment and retention of athletes in addition to performance. Student-athletes and coaches“live” in these facilities.  Athletes and their parents have an expectation that universities will offer the best in training and care to help their children reach success beyond school as athletes or leaders in society beyond sport.  These spaces must demonstrate that, from branding and amenities to nutrition and performance technology.  Experiential spaces in these training complexes facilitate collaboration and socialization with other student-athletes. Many of these facilities include social areas for mingling with peers, building strong bonds between players that result in mental wellbeing, teamwork, and on-court success.

This focus on experiential design in competition and performance venues, while a benefit for the student, has additional reach to the alumni and community users. Flexible, open spaces with comfortable seating and TVs are in demand by students but can be adapted on game-day.  This was noted as being especially important in the area of donors, because it is emblematic of the hospitality and camaraderie spaces that these VIP alumni expect as part of their event experience. Athletic entertainment is a crowded marketplace. The concept of a “pre-function” event space is becoming more popular, as it adds to the experiential quality of the facility. Experiential elements are gaining traction across all property types, college sports facilities are no exception. From big stadiums to small venues, experiential design has an effect on college sports, and in turn the potential finances generated.


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