Navy accepted the Big East’s invitation to join the conference as a football-only member 3 years ago, but didn’t officially become a member of the now-American until this month. That’s a long time compared to other schools joining new leagues. Instead of making it easier to join a new conference, being independent actually made things more difficult. Navy couldn’t just trade one conference schedule for another. Without those 8 fixtures every year, Navy had a lot of scheduled games that either needed to be played, bought out, or otherwise dealt with. They couldn’t have joined right away even if they wanted to.
While it might have been fun for the Mids to have been part of a BCS conference in that system’s last hurrah, the 3-year wait was probably better for Navy in the long run. Rather than jump into the league and work things out as they go, the program had the opportunity to evaluate itself relative to their new peers and target areas where improvement were needed. A good example of this is how Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was brought up to Big East/American standards.
At the end of the teleconference that introduced Navy as the Big East’s newest member, there was this exchange:
Don Markus (Baltimore Sun): Chet, are there any plans or has it been discussed about expanding the stadium, the size of the stadium?
Gladchuk: Actually, there has been, Don. We have had some dialog with the Admiral and we have talked about it to some degree with the city of Annapolis. But one thing we are very careful about is the aesthetic character of what we call a memorial that happens to be a football stadium. We never want to lose that and also the accommodating infrastructure in the surrounding community is something we are sensitive to. Specific to your question, we have a vision for what we call Phase IV of Navy-Marine Corps, which will include expanded seating, additional hospitality areas, locker rooms will be upgraded and some other amenities that will put us competitively in-line with other BIG EAST institutions as they pertain to recruiting and fan accommodations.
Markus: Do you see these plans coming to fruition in the next few years as you join the league?
Gladchuk: Don, I’m going to start the moment we hang up this telephone.
Most of that Phase IV vision is now a reality. The HD video boards, south end zone recruiting/reception areas, new media center, and the Akerson Tower club lounges are all complete. The one thing missing from that list, though, is arguably the most notable: expansion. The original Phase IV proposal was to increase seating capacity to 40,000 (and included this rendering). That was later whittled down to 38,000, with the additions to be made this year to coincide with Navy joining what is now the American Athletic Conference. That was reported two years ago, and we haven’t heard much since. Assuming that construction won’t begin in the middle of football season, it appears that plans have changed. Why? To answer that, we have to look at why expansion was proposed in the first place.
It’s important to understand Navy football’s niche in the crowded DC/Baltimore sports marketplace. There are 2 NFL teams, 2 MLB teams, an NBA team, an NHL team, a MLS team, and a Power-5 conference state school all easily accessible to the Annapolis sports fan. It’s an extremely competitive market, as it is for many colleges in areas dominated by pro sports. Most of those schools at least have a large alumni base to draw upon for ticket sales, but being one of FBS football’s smallest schools, the Naval Academy does not. Some alumni eventually move back to Annapolis, but USNA’s graduating classes are scattered around the country (and the world) as soon as they receive their commissions. Without a large population predisposed to supporting it, Navy football has to have a broader appeal.
It’s certainly true that nothing works better than winning games when it comes to putting butts in seats, although marketing a college football program isn’t quite as simple as “win and they will come.” The team still has to be sold even if they aren’t winning, and some people are still going to prefer professional sports no matter what. Fortunately, Navy is winning, but they also have a few other ways to carve out a place for themselves in the area market.
One way to compete in a crowded sports marketplace is to reach out to more than just sports fans, and Navy football does this well. Game day in Annapolis means more than football. It’s a spectacle complete with bands, a parade, the march-on of the Brigade, fly-bys, and more. The renovations to enhance its “memorial” aspects– dedication plaques, class arches, the Hornet display– have turned the stadium itself into an engaging destination. For years, Navy has sold “The Great Annapolis Tailgate” as part of the Navy football experience, making it a social event as much as a sporting event. You don’t need to be a football fan to have a good time at a Navy game.
A lot of that also goes into Navy’s marketing to families, which is another pillar in their overall strategy. The pomp and pageantry is entertaining to kids that might not be able to focus on 3 hours of football. If that’s not enough, sliding down the hill on a cardboard box probably is. Navy games are also usually free from the boorish behavior that can often be found at pro games, making for a family-friendly environment. Most importantly, a family of four can actually afford an afternoon in Annapolis.
And that’s the biggest thing that the Navy brand represents compared to other options in the area: value. A family of two adults and two children can buy season tickets on the hill at NMCMS for $400. That won’t even buy you a PSL for a single seat at M&T Bank Stadium, which is the price you pay just for the opportunity to buy a Ravens season ticket. With Division I football and entertainment in a picturesque setting, Navy offers a lot of bang for the buck. That value is why stadium expansion was being considered.
When Navy announced that it was joining the Big East, it was joining what was still a BCS conference at the time. Even if the BCS itself was on its way out, teams in those leagues were names that people recognized. If a Navy football ticket already offered a lot for the money, would it offer even more with a schedule of opponents that were more recognizable? If so, then demand for those tickets would increase. Attendance figures over the last several years support that idea. Navy’s average attendance since 2008 was 33,411, which is already 98% of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium’s official capacity of 34,000. In that same span, the Mids played 7 home games against BCS-conference teams. The average attendance in those games was 35,143, or 103% of stadium capacity. Based on those numbers, it would make sense to look into adding seats at NMCMS to meet the higher demand.
The difference now is that the Big East of January 2012 is not the same conference that Navy is a member of today. Both Louisville and Rutgers have moved on, and the “Big East” name has been replaced by the American Athletic Conference. There was evidence that the market would support additional seating when Navy decided to join the conference, but the loss of those name-brand commodities makes it difficult to tell if there will still be increased ticket demand. It would be prudent, then, to see how the market responds to the American before proceeding with stadium expansion. At this point, it’s difficult to predict.
As much as it was mocked in the last few years of its life, the Big East name still had a 20-year football history behind it. National championships were won under the Big East banner, as were Orange Bowls, Sugar Bowls, and the Rose Bowl. The American might be the same conference, but it’s going to take time for the new name to build a history and identity of its own. Admittedly, it is going to be different from the Big East’s. However, if the American plays to its potential and assumes the mantle of top Group of 5 conference, then it can still be something that resonates with area fans.
Part of that new identity will also be the development of intra-conference rivalries. By “rivalry,” I don’t mean that something necessarily has to rise to the level of Army, Notre Dame, or Air Force– the teams that come to mind when Navy fans think of the word. I’m thinking more along the lines of Miami-Virginia Tech. Those two schools had little history with each other before they joined the Big East, but they became can’t-miss games on each other’s schedules since both were annual conference contenders. Today, it’s still a big game for each school even if one of them is struggling.
Navy can foster the same kind of rivalries, especially if they contend for the West Division crown from the beginning. If Memphis, Houston, and Navy are the top teams in the division for a few years, then those matchups are going to have a big-game atmosphere that will draw a crowd. Cincinnati, USF, and UConn might have enough residual Big East-ness about them to generate some of the same BCS-team attendance bumps that we’ve seen in the past. Over time, some Tulsa coach might say some mean things about goats or some SMU player could toss the Gansz Trophy into the Severn. You never know what weird event will trigger a college football rivalry, but the more regular the opponent, the more likely it is that something like that will happen. Big games draw big crowds, and if those crowds are regular enough, then maybe NMCMS will need more seats to accommodate them.
That’s a lot of “ifs” and “mights,” though. When stadium expansion was first being considered, there was several years of data making for a compelling argument. There’s no such data now, and moving forward without it carries substantial risk.
One doesn’t have to travel too far to find a cautionary tale when it comes to stadium expansion. Maryland carried out a $50 million renovation of Byrd Stadium that was completed in 2009. The Terps’ football program went through a renaissance from 2001-2003, winning 10+ games in each season and one ACC title. Attendance went up after that run and topped 50,000 in 4 of the 5 seasons from 2003-2007. Based on that success, and despite consultants warning against it, then-AD Debbie Yow decided to move ahead with expanding Byrd Stadium.
The problem with Maryland’s expansion is that it was almost entirely luxury suites. There’s more money to be made from suites and other premium seating options to be sure, but that’s only if you can sell them. In a market dominated by pro sports, college sports are the value alternative. Suites are the opposite of value. Not surprisingly, Maryland has had a difficult time selling them:
The consultants surveyed area corporations and other potential suite buyers and found “a very low level of interest,” according to a 2004 market assessment prepared for the university by Turnkey Sports of Columbia and Shugoll Research and Team Services of Bethesda.
“The survey results show a marked weakness on the suite side,” the study said.
The consultants said in the report that the tower’s new suites and mezzanine seats could still be successful. But it said Maryland’s situation was different than many other large state universities because the school faced stiff competition for suite sales from other nearby venues.
“With new premium seating products at FedEx Field, MCI (now Verizon) Center, M&T Bank Stadium, Camden Yards and the Comcast Center, the university will be entering a market that is already very heavily penetrated and saturated by the competition,” the report said.
Given a choice between premium seats at premium (professional) events and premium seats at “value” events, companies looking to entertain customers are more often than not going to choose the former. When the football team began to struggle and attendance plunged accordingly, those new suites became a $50 million albatross, with 1/3 of them going unsold.
(It should be noted that suites and premium seating were also part of NMCMS renovations. However, it was on a much smaller scale. NMCMS went from 0 suites to 26 suites, with almost all of them sold. Byrd Stadium now has a whopping 63.)
Navy’s plans aren’t nearly as ambitious. Regardless of whether you’re adding suites or regular seating, though, the lesson is the same: listen to the market. Expanding NMCMS would still be an expensive undertaking, especially if it’s done in a way that conforms to the building’s aesthetic. Until we know that those seats will be filled, it doesn’t make sense to add them.