A facility facelift doesn't have to be a big-ticket expense. More and more schools are finding low-cost solutions to upgrading their fields and courts.
By Patrick Bohn
Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: pb@MomentumMedia.com.
Like many schools across the country, Towson University has been trying to make itself better known to the public in an increasingly crowded sports landscape. Mike Harris, the school's Senior Associate Director of Athletics for External Operations, found a way the school's basketball court could help.
"We'd seen the buzz that schools like Boise State and Oregon received by giving their playing surfaces a unique design, and we wanted to do the same," he says. "We decided to tint the floor of our basketball court with a unique tiger-stripe pattern."
Part of a larger project to refurbish the basketball arena's hardwood floor, Towson added the court tinting to much approval from coaches, fans, and players. And the school did so at an incredibly low cost, spending less than $300 for the eight gallons of tint needed to create the design.
While not every athletic department will get such a great return on a small investment, plenty are scaling back on facility renovations. With no school funding for projects available, administrators are using volunteers, accepting donated supplies, or opting for simple makeovers.
Despite cutting costs, athletic directors are still trying to create the best possible gyms and fields for their student-athletes and fans. In this article, we look at how a handful of schools are taking the low-cost route while still giving their facilities an upgrade.
FLOOR TO WALL
When Ryan Frost became Athletic Director at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H., four years ago, one of the first things he wanted to do was renovate the school's gym. After realizing that wouldn't be fiscally possible, he came up with a simpler plan: upgrade the walls and the floor.
"We aren't going to have the money for a new gym for decades," Frost says. "But by making a few small changes, we still completely transformed the look of the facility. I also spread the cost out over two years."
Year one entailed putting a new logo on the floor and banners on the wall. An important initial decision was choosing which of the school's logos to use. "I wanted a new cougar logo on the floor, but more importantly, I wanted the school to have some uniformity," Frost says. "We had different logos on different buildings across campus, and I thought it would be best to present one consistent look."
The school was constructing a new scoreboard to honor its departing athletic director, so Frost chose the cougar head image from the scoreboard to become the school's primary logo. This was painted on the floor, giving the gym a whole new feel.
For the banners, Frost chose green and white with black accents and sport-specific logos--such as a basketball for the basketball team. He went with banners that were large enough to show all the years teams won tournaments or went undefeated and allow for future years to be easily added. "I called schools in the area and asked what companies they used," he says. "It was all about finding the least expensive banners that fit our need."
Frost wound up purchasing eight banners for $100 each, and he says the student-athletes have been wowed. "It gives them a sense of pride," he says. "Kids will point to their team's banner and tell their friends they were on that team."
The next year, the walls were repainted. Frost decided to scrap the previous shade of green and put the school's official green on the bottom of the wall, while the remainder would be white. "I liked it not only because it matched our school colors, but works really nicely with the banners," he says.
Along with keeping costs low throughout the upgrade, Frost had another major priority. "The athletic director I replaced had been at the school for 40 years, and he's still an active member of the community," Frost says. "So I was constantly bouncing ideas off of him. I didn't want him to be upset about any changes we were making. I wanted him to be proud."
MURALS TO THE RESCUE
Last October, the men's basketball team at Bemidji State University moved into the locker room previously occupied by the school's ice hockey team, and Head Coach Matt Bowen wanted to make the most of the space. His budget, though, was a big fat zero. So he turned to his alumni and came up with a low-cost idea.
"Athletes need a locker room to be more than a place to change their shoes," Bowen says. "They need a place to call home--a place they are comfortable going between classes to relax or watch film. To create that kind of atmosphere, we added a large mural depicting current and former players on one of the walls.
"The mural also helps in the recruiting arms race," he continues. "As an athletic department, we want to present a strong product to student-athletes, and having a unique facility is part of doing that."
A collage of action shots, the mural is a large sticker that attaches to the wall. It covers 250 square feet and is adjacent to the team's lockers.
While working with the company that designed the mural, Bowen faced a few tough choices. "I wanted to make sure it looked relatively consistent, so I only selected players we had digital photos of," he says. "Enlarging old photos to the size we needed really degraded their quality. We've also had a lot of uniform changes over the years, so we stuck with players from the last four or five years when the uniforms have been the same."
Bowen had another challenge in the mural's creation, which was to stick to the $1,500 fund he raised through golf outings and speaking one-on-one with alumni. "I told the designer what we could afford, and the first idea he came back to me with cost twice that amount," Bowen says. "I told him, 'I'm not kidding. This is the amount I have to work with, so if you want our business, you have to stay below that.' And to his credit, he came up with a great design that fit our needs."
Shrinking the cost also meant literally shrinking the mural. In the original plan, the photos covered the wall from the floor to the ceiling, but Bowen had the mural shortened by a foot and a half on the top and bottom, and scrapped plans to have the design cover ductwork.
Despite its reduced size, the mural has been a hit. "We've sent pictures of it to recruits and alumni, and they've been impressed," Bowen says. "And our current players love it. It helps them bond, and that's a big part of what we're trying to do."
ONE STEP AT A TIME
Teams at Ames (Iowa) High School have experienced a lot of success over the years but when Athletic Director Judge Johnston came on board 10 years ago, he worried that might not be sustainable due to deteriorating facilities. "We were athletic-facility poor when I got here," he says. "Athletics are competitive, and we weren't keeping up with the Joneses at our level. But we also didn't have a lot of money lying around to fix the problem areas."
With a long list of needed upgrades, Johnston's plan was to take it one step at a time. To start, he focused on smaller projects that would be relatively inexpensive while at the same time providing something for student-athletes to feel good about.
"We've won as many state titles as any high school in Iowa, and I wanted to show that off," he says. "When we have alums come through, we want them to be able to see their accomplishments. But our trophy cases were in disarray. So I set about to change that.
"We built a separate case for each of the 21 sports we offer, and it only cost about $35,000," continues Johnston. "Doing that really opened a door to our alums and community because they started to feel good about coming into our facilities."
Taking small steps led to larger ones. "By doing smaller projects like the trophy cases by ourselves, people took notice," Johnston says. "For example, the district was then willing to put new bleachers and a wood floor in our gym."
From there, donors started stepping up. "We received a generous gift from a couple who wanted us to put a turf field in," Johnston says. "Although it didn't cover the full cost of the field, having that donation in my back pocket was crucial. You know you're always going to get the smaller donors, but you need the three or four big ones to succeed."
Johnston also tapped the generosity of local community members who were eager to help but couldn't donate cash gifts. "A local dump truck company told me it couldn't give us any money, but it could provide us with non-stop trucks for two days," he says. "It's a different way to skin the cat, but it's just as good as cash for our bottom line. We've had several other companies donate equipment to us, and that's been a big help."
Johnston says that by looking for community members with an interest in the athletic program, you can find people willing to cut you a break, as long as you're willing to think beyond standard fundraising gifts. "We needed some rock to provide a foundation for a field and the owner of a local rock quarry took 30 percent off the cost," he says. "You'll find people willing to do that if you beat the bush hard enough."
The scope of the project doesn't matter, Johnston found, since small changes can make a big difference. "When we got our turf field down and it came time to draw lines on it for soccer, I made them orange to match our school colors," he says. "We're the only school in the state that has orange lines for soccer, so it helps us create an identity, which is our goal."
TIGER WITH NEW STRIPES
In the midst of building a new basketball arena, Towson is working hard to create a brand for its teams, which led to the idea of adding striping to its court. But the school didn't want to wait until the new facility is completed in 2013 to implement the idea, and the scheduled refurbishing of the current floor gave the athletic department the opening it needed to test out the tinting.
"We want to have a new design on the floor of the new arena," Harris says. "But we decided to try it out on the current floor first. This would give us an opportunity to get feedback on the design and make any needed changes."
Although the striping pattern covers the whole court, the shading is barely noticeable when on or near the floor. It's only as spectators move farther away, or see the floor on television, that the distinct tiger-stripe design jumps out.
The school looked at nearly a dozen different shades of tinting before deciding on a light one that Harris describes as slightly conservative. "The company that came up with the design showed us a full spectrum of shades, from very light to one that was darker and cherry-like," Harris says. "We went with the lighter route because we didn't want to do something over the top or distracting. The tinting was going to go through the three-point line, so we had to make sure the line would still be easily visible to players."
While deciding on a shade for the tinting, Harris was keenly aware that the final product would be judged by several different groups associated with the university. "These types of projects usually strike a chord with the athletes, but we wanted to make sure that our alumni weren't turned off by a drastic change," he says. "You have to walk a fine line between going too far and doing something that doesn't make an impact. We listened to what coaches, student-athletes, and others in the department had to say, but in the end, we had to go with our gut."
After coming up with the final design, Harris took it to the Internet, and saw a significant reaction. "We put a teaser on Twitter that we were placing a new design on the court, and when we started applying the tinting to the floor, we added a time-lapse photo gallery of the process to our Web site," he says. "That got people talking and drove a lot of traffic to our site during the summer, which is traditionally a slow period for us.
"The fans and student-athletes were happy with the results," Harris continues. "That was most critical. And now we feel like we've created something that allows viewers flipping through TV channels to come across our game and instantly know what they're watching."
Sidebar: SEAT CHANGES
When the University of Florida decided to replace some of the seating in its basketball arena, it didn't need to worry about draining its budget. But it did worry about draining its fan base.
The Stephen C. O'Connell Center is home to the Gators' basketball teams, and also hosts concerts, graduations, and other campus events. After 30 years of wear and tear, its lower level bleachers needed a facelift. "We had three major goals: maximize seating as best we could, correct any safety issues, and maintain the fan experience," says Lynda Reinhardt, Director of the O'Connell Center.
To improve on the spectator experience, one early idea was to replace the bleachers, which were solid rows, with individual seatbacks. Although conversations with ticket holders indicated they preferred individual seats, the conversion would mean a significant decrease in overall capacity of the Center.
"We realized we'd lose about 1,000 seats, and that just wasn't feasible," Reinhardt says. "The type of bleacher seating we chose allows us to put a larger number of fans close to the court, while also giving us the flexibility to move the bleachers as needed depending on the event."
Maintaining seating was especially important when it became apparent that one of the main safety concerns to be addressed was adding handrails in the middle of the stairways separating sections of seats. While the handrails would greatly increase spectator safety, the wider stairways required would cost the center about 200 seats.
Once the school realized the arena's seating capacity was going to drop, it set out to explain the situation to ticket holders. "We posted an article on our Web site in July explaining why we were renovating the bleachers and why it would result in a loss of seats," says Mike Hill, Florida's Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs. "We also included seating configuration changes in the brochure we sent out to ticket holders in August. Third, we set up a hotline for people to call if they had questions or concerns.
"It's important to be proactive and communicate with your customers as soon as you have all the specifics," Hill continues. "When you make changes that affect the people who contribute to your program, establishing their expectations early will make them feel valued and not dismissed."
Sidebar: ALL FOR ONE
In 2008, Norfolk State University Athletic Director Marty Miller determined that his school sorely needed a new track surface to support its track and field teams. Unfortunately, there was no money in the coffers. So Miller turned to his football team for help.
"The school is often presented with the opportunity to play guarantee football games," he says. "We put the money from those games into our general athletic fund, which then contributed to the new track surface."
Getting the football team to agree to play a tough game in order to help the track program might be a tall order at some schools, but not at Norfolk State. "We emphasize to all our teams that when we're successful in one sport, it impacts all sports," Miller says. "If our track team is successful, the entire school gets exposure, which leads to better recruits, more wins, and ultimately, more money for all the teams. By presenting it to each program that way, they're willing to help each other."
The guarantee game, however, wasn't going to be enough to pay for the new track surface by itself. Miller needed to tap into alumni for donations. "Our teams get a lot of support," he says. "The fans know the history and success we've had. We approached them and explained how the track was a need for our student-athletes. They were willing to give to help us with that."
To select the track surface, Miller turned to his coaches for advice. "They know what's out there, and what would be best suited to our student-athletes," he says. "So I had them look at what other schools across the country have."
Norfolk State eventually chose a surface made of rubber and polyurethane that is in place at many top track programs across the country, including the University of Oregon. The track was completed in July 2010, and it hosted the AAU Junior Olympics later that year.
"Hosting events such as the Junior Olympics was another reason we looked at putting in this surface," Miller says. "The meet was a tremendous success. It brought significant money into the community thanks to the presence of thousands of competitors and fans, and it opens up opportunities for us to host high-profile events in the future."