The University of Pittsburgh and Penn State debuted state-of-the-art football practice facilities within the past 18 years. Already, both are in the midst of multimillion-dollar renovation projects.
That’s life in college football today, where any building more than a few years old is considered outdated, and laser tag, miniature golf and Turkish urinals are the new recruiting tools.
“When you have your conference counterparts and regional counterparts investing pretty heavily in facilities, we don’t live in a vacuum,” said Penn State chief operating officer and deputy athletic director Phil Esten. “We need to kind of keep up with what’s happening nationally.”
And what’s happening is a constant game of one-upmanship, as schools spend big bucks on lavish amenities with the hopes of landing the top prospects in the country, who will sign their national letters of intent today as part of national signing day.
Pitt undertook a $3.5 million facelift on its practice facility last summer — with further construction already planned — and Penn State is in the process of a $12 million renovation of the Lasch Football Building. But their recent investments are relatively minor across the spectrum of college football.
Clemson University, the Panthers’ Atlantic Coast Conference counterpart, recently made headlines by announcing plans for a $55 million football complex that includes miniature golf and laser tag. The University of Oregon’s Hatfield-Dowlin football complex, dedicated in 2013 with a price tag reportedly north of $100 million, includes Brazilian hardwood and urinals imported from Turkey.
“[Facilities spending] goes through spurts, and it has clearly accelerated in the last few years,” said Gilbert M. Gaul, author of the book “Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football.”
Television revenue has skyrocketed, and the 2-year-old College Football Playoff has increased postseason payouts to the nation’s five largest athletic conferences, or the Power Five, giving athletic departments more revenue than ever.
For many schools, that money is used to help subsidize other sports. Any money left over could go back to the university, but most schools find ways to keep it in athletics.
“If they spend it all, whether it’s on higher salaries, whether it’s on a new stadium, a new locker room or a football performance center or a place with miniature golf or a pool, that’s money that’s not going to academics,” Mr. Gaul said.
He argued most Power Five athletic departments operate according to economist Howard Bowen’s revenue theory of cost, which essentially says costs are tied directly to revenue, and independent of other variables.
Another factor is that while revenues are increasing at unprecedented rates, most of the costs for college football programs, particularly labor cost, have remained stagnant.
“If you’re not going to be paying a player as an employee, this is what you do, right?” Mr. Gaul said. “You just lavish on them all this other stuff.”
If Alabama puts a waterfall in its weight room, you know Ohio State is going to add one a few months later (which is exactly what happened). But does that ultimately matter to the 18-year-old prospects these schools are trying to woo?
Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247 Sports, said usually facilities, even the most opulent, are more of a subconscious recruiting tool than an overt selling point.
“It just makes guys feel more comfortable where they’re visiting without them really even knowing it," Mr. Wiltfong said.
Even extravagances such as waterfalls might not ultimately make up a recruit’s mind, but they could help nudge him in a certain direction.
“In recruiting, if you think of it, you should do it,” Mr. Wiltfong said.
“If you have things that make people go ‘wow’ in a good light, even if it’s not something that is going to be important in their decision, it makes them happy about where they’re at on a visit.”
Pitt’s renovation, which Athletic Director Scott Barnes said would be financed through fundraising, was relatively modest, adding a simple players’ lounge with pool table and big-screen TVs, theater-style seating in the team meeting room and upgrading the locker room.
“It’s obviously something visual where you go in, look it and go ‘Wow, this is beautiful,’ ” coach Pat Narduzzi said in May. “It’s not about the beautiful factor for the kids currently in our program. The beautiful factor is for the guys that are walking through those doors on recruiting visits.”
Many of the upcoming renovations are nothing more than simply improved branding on existing facilities, such as the South Side indoor practice field shared with the Steelers.
“Make it so it’s attractive through the eyes of that 18-year-old recruit,” Mr. Barnes said in December.
Penn State, meanwhile, completed the first part of its renovation over the past year. It included updates to the building’s lobby and team auditorium, and a nutrition fueling station built right next to the weight room. The next step for the Nittany Lions is updating the locker room, equipment room and hydrotherapy area.
“We look at what everyone is doing right now we’re competing with just about anybody in the conference, just about anybody regionally and you can look just as well as I can at what is happening and who is renovating right now,” Mr. Esten said.
As long as there’s money, athletic departments have shown they have no shortage of ways to spend it. The problem will come, according to Mr. Gaul, when a portion of that revenue dries up.
That could come from the television revenue bubble bursting as more people get rid of their cable packages, or legislators challenging the tax-exempt status universities enjoy for fans making seat donations for season tickets.
The biggest blow, of course, would come from some action that would allow colleges to pay players directly. If prospects could sell their services on an open market, the availability of laser tag in the football building might take a backseat to how much a school was offering.
That seems unlikely, though, as such a ruling would challenge the very foundation of collegiate athletics and make any impact on recruiting seem relatively minor.
For now, though, universities will just keep abiding by the mantra of if they build it, recruits will come.
“At some point it’ll slow down a little bit, just by laws of economics, but then at another point it’ll start up again and it’ll keep going,” Mr. Gaul said. “As long as the money keeps rolling in.”
Audrey Snyder contributed to this story. Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG
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