Nippert Stadium’s long-awaited renovation is in its final days. The Cincinnati Bearcats are set to unveil the $86 million facelift of college football’s third-oldest stadium on September 5 against Alabama A&M (yawn), some 33 months after former director of athletics Whit Babcock–who departed for Virginia Tech in January 2014–first announced the university’s intention to enter the collegiate sports arms race.
After touring the new grounds earlier this summer (hard hat and safety vest required), it’s difficult to describe just how visually imposing the upgrade makes the stadium appear. At first glance, it looks as if it has more than doubled in size—in reality, capacity bumped up only from 35,000 to 40,000—thanks to the hulking, five-story addition of gleaming, modern architecture seamlessly constructed atop the 100-year-old venue, the surrounding campus reflecting off 130 yards of floating, glass-enclosed steel. “[Nippert] has all the charm of a Wrigley Field or a Fenway Park,” says a slightly hyperbolic Brendan Fouracre, UC’s senior athletic director of facilities and operations. “We wanted to preserve that experience and how it sets into the campus.”
What UC has managed to cram into the structure is no less impressive than its stature: a 1,100-seat club suite level, a stadium command center, an on-site video/audio production center, numerous private event spaces, nearly two dozen private suites (all of which have already been sold for between $500,000 and $1 million on 10-year commitments), and a state-of-the-art replacement for what was previously the worst of the dozen or so press boxes I’ve ever worked in. And due to the narrow nature of Nippert Stadium’s western concourse, all of this is vertically stacked above the action below, strikingly close to the field. “There’s no bigger high-definition TV in the country,” quips Fouracre.
Enhancements throughout the rest of the stadium have followed suit. Gone are the concrete staircases that turned the east side of the stadium into a dungeon, replaced by an aerial walkway and connecting bridge to the Varsity Village athletic facilities. Concourses have been significantly widened, concessions have doubled and diversified (craft beer!), and the total number of restrooms has tripled. Navigating the innards of the stadium, once a task, has the potential to be a pleasant fan experience for the first time. So far, the right people are taking note, too.
“All the parents and recruits who have come in have been amazed,” says third-year head coach Tommy Tuberville. “We are really excited to have such an awesome facility to show off.” His quote rang true in mid-June when the Bearcats received a verbal commitment from La Salle High School star running back Jeremy Larkin—a big win for a program that has struggled for decades to persuade top local prospects to stay home.
Without question, this is a better Nippert Stadium, one that feels like big-time college football. But while the functional improvements can’t be overstated, the larger question remains: Will it pay off? This renovation has loftier ambitions than simply impressing recruits, reporters, and fans. The ultimate goal is entry into a premier athletic conference like the Big 12 or ACC, even if the university won’t state it quite as candidly. “In any enterprise, you always look to gain your advantage and develop that edge,” says Fouracre. “We want to be the class of whatever league we may be in. We’re making a statement that we want to compete at the highest level.”
It’s a party the Bearcats weren’t invited to in early 2013 when the erstwhile Big East Conference dissolved, leaving UC in the fledgling American Athletic Conference alongside not-quite-perennial-powerhouses such as Tulsa, East Carolina, and Central Florida. Nearly three years and $86 million later, Nippert Stadium finally looks the part of the power conferences it aspires to. The problem is that the prospects of attaining a new conference home have improved very little in spite of jumping through those financial and architectural hoops, and I fear that UC’s outspoken efforts will fall on deaf ears—at least in the near future. Regardless, the university has no intentions of waiting by the phone. There’s still more work to do. “Hopefully, the [Fifth Third Arena] project will officially come together this month,” says Fouracre.
The arms race continues.