As the University of South Alabama approaches its eighth season of fielding a college football team, the Jaguars have called Ladd-Peebles Stadium their home since the start. However, that may not remain true in the future.
Dr. Tony G. Waldrop, the university’s president, recently sent an email to the USA community about the possibility of constructing a stadium on its campus in West Mobile.
“Over the past year, a small group of USA trustees, administrators and staff have been exploring the financial, logistical and infrastructural requirements associated with the possible construction of an on-campus football stadium. This phase of the process has been largely completed, and I want to provide you with an update on the current status of this initiative,” Waldrop wrote.
“The intent of this process, from the outset, was to determine if construction of a football facility was feasible, with no predetermination about how the university would proceed after the process concluded. The small working group was comprehensive in its approach, and its actions included site visits to existing stadiums as well as the engagement of expert consultants to review the concept, design, engineering, pricing and possible locations of a potential stadium, and understanding of key issues such as vehicle and pedestrian ingress and egress, parking, concessions and stadium technology.”
Waldrop went on to explain that the logical site for an on-campus facility would be where the current intramural fields exist — near the current football field house. New intramural fields would be established at another area of the campus.
Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which opened in 1948, seats approximately 40,000 fans. The facility hosts high school games as well as the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the Dollar General Bowl (formerly known as the GoDaddy Bowl) on its FieldTurf artificial playing surface. In addition to occasional concerts and special events, it recently was the site for one of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s first major campaign stops.
“Since 1948, Ladd-Peebles Stadium has served as Mobile’s sports centerpiece,” said Vic Knight, Executive Director of the midtown facility. “We are looking forward to hosting over 30 football events this coming season including premier high school football contests, the Reese’s Senior Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl, the 5th Quarter Classic and six University of South Alabama home games, all of which should combine to draw over 300,000 fans through the stadium’s turnstiles this year.
“When USA decided to start a football program and field its first team back in 2009, the City of Mobile and USA were fortunate to have Ladd-Peebles Stadium that could be used to launch and grow the first Division I college football program in our city’s history. We have been proud to serve as its home for the past seven seasons.
“As South Alabama continues to pursue the possibility of financing and building an on-campus football stadium, we fully support their efforts and understand that any decisions made in regards to such a facility will be done in the best interests of the school, the program and the Mobile community.”
Other schools recently added stadiums
According to Waldrop, USA’s new stadium would be in the range of 25,000 seats, with an option for future expansion. The projected cost of the stadium would be between $85 million and $115 million.
These figures line up with the construction of two recent sports complexes. In New Orleans, Tulane University constructed a 30,000-seat facility after four decades of playing in the Superdome. Yulman Stadium cost $75 million, and the Green Wave has been there since September 2014.
“The impact of playing on-campus on the entire Tulane University community has been indescribable,” Brandon Macneill, Tulane’s executive associate athletic director/external affairs, told Lagniappe. “The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is a world-class building and may be the best place to watch an NFL game in the country.
“However, you could be on campus on game days and have no idea there was a game being played. What Yulman Stadium has done for student life and program pride has been off the charts. Our student attendance has skyrocketed and the entire campus community has come together. There is no substitute for the pageantry of college football on Saturdays in the South and we finally have that experience here at Tulane. The ability to attract tens of thousands of people six times a year to campus — more than have ever been on this campus at one time the previous 40 years — has been an incredible recruiting tool for new friends, donors (for all areas of the school not just athletics), prospective students and student-athletes.”
Meanwhile, up Interstate 65 in Montgomery, Alabama State moved into its Hornet Stadium in November 2012. It seats 26,500 fans and cost $62 million. ASU previously played its home games at the 21,000-seat Cramton Bowl which opened in 1922 as a baseball stadium.
Officials with USA have said there is not a set timeline for building a new facility in West Mobile.
“The results of this process tell us that construction of an on-campus stadium is feasible. At the same time, we also know that construction of a stadium can only be achieved with the assistance of external financial partnerships and significant philanthropic support. We will continue to examine possible models for financing, but at this time the university has not identified sources of funding that would allow us to advance to the next stage of planning,” Waldrop said.
“Although funding is clearly the greatest challenge, our due diligence in examining the many options for a possible on-campus stadium have provided answers and data that are of great benefit. We will continue to explore all options as we move forward, and I will update the University community with any future developments.”
Three firms helped in study
Last November, USA’s Director of Athletics Joel Erdmann, Ph.D., discussed the selection of three consulting firms to assist with the exploration of the financial, logistical and infrastructural requirements associated with the possible construction of an on-campus football stadium.
The consulting firms were CDFL Architects and Engineers, based in Jackson, Mississippi; Populous, an architect and design firm headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri; and Hunden Strategic Partners, a real estate development organization in Chicago, Illinois. Each company has experience in the development of stadium projects.
“CDFL and Populous will lead us through the concept, design, engineering, pricing and possible locations of a potential stadium, and assist with our understanding of key issues such as vehicle and pedestrian ingress and egress, parking, concessions and stadium technology,” Erdmann said in November. “Hunden will advise us on the current and projected local marketplace in relation to a stadium, potential revenue-generating opportunities that a stadium might provide, the interaction of a stadium within the campus and surrounding community, and how these issues impact design decisions.”
Ladd has busy schedule
After opening the 2016 season at Mississippi State, the Jaguars host Georgia Southern on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. During the previous football season, USA averaged 16,039 fans over its six home games on its way to a 5-7 overall record. The closest South has come to selling out a home game was against MSU when 38,000-plus attended.
In other events planned at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the inaugural Mobile Gridiron Challenge is planned for Aug. 27 with four out-of-town teams featuring some of the nation’s top talent. Saturday’s lineup includes Amos P. Godby High of Tallahassee, Florida, versus Thompson High of Alabaster at 1 p.m. Thompson is led by former Spanish Fort coach Mark Freeman. Later, at 6 p.m., Paul W. Bryant High of Tuscaloosa takes on Henry B. Plant High of Tampa, Florida.
The Mobile Sports Authority will sponsor the 5th Quarter Classic game on Sept. 17 between Florida A&M and Tuskegee at 6 p.m. The Dollar General Bowl is set for Dec. 23 at 7 p.m., while the Reese’s Senior Bowl wraps up the football season Jan. 28 at 1:30 p.m.
South Alabama Athletic Director discusses stadium’s potential
Joel Erdmann, Ph.D., is entering his seventh season as the director of athletics at the University of South Alabama. Under his guidance, the Jaguars have become one of the most respected members of the Sun Belt Conference.For the 2015-16 academic year, USA was presented with the Vic Bubas Cup recognizing the top overall school in SBC competition. Since he arrived, many athletic facilities at the West Mobile campus have been renovated.
Erdmann has also overseen a football program that became the fastest ever to play in a bowl game at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level. With the announcement last week of USA’s plans to have an on-campus football stadium, he took some time from his busy schedule to discuss with Lagniappe what the future holds for the Jaguars.
Lagniappe: You began your stint as athletic director in 2009. How has USA changed since then, especially after winning the Vic Bubas Cup for the first time since 2000?
Erdmann: I think the Vic Bubas Cup is due to the good, hard work of those who have come before us and laid the foundation. We have been able to stand on that foundation and do things we have never done before. Part of the impact of adding football in 2008 is that we went from participating in a group of over 300 NCAA Division I institutions to a member of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions. You are perceived to be in a much smaller circle of competition.
Recruiting for all students improves. When you hear about the “arms race,” it is perceived as only related to athletics. In reality, it involves the areas of athletics, student life and academics. Prospective students and families want to go somewhere that provides certain amenities. Part of higher education today — perhaps not having the biggest and nicest but at least having a presence — are stadiums, residence halls and libraries that look a certain way and provide a certain type of environment.
Lagniappe: A lot of people will see the $85 million to $115 million price and ask, why build when Ladd-Peebles Stadium is already there?
Erdmann: Ladd-Peebles Stadium has been very good to us. The support of its board and the city has allowed us to grow our program. I do believe the hope is that one day we would be able to play on campus. We view a potential football stadium as much more than a house for a game six to seven times a year. An on-campus stadium adds to the environment of a campus. It would be a rallying point for students, alumni, faculty and our community who can have a sense of coming to campus.
They can visit that specific tailgating spot that their family has gone to for 15 to 20 years. It becomes a culturally ingrained component of who we are. There are several schools that play off campus, but most desire to do it on campus.
Lagniappe: There is a precedent for such a move. USA once played basketball at the Mobile Civic Center prior to building the on-campus Mitchell Center.
Erdmann: This is similar, but to a much grander scale. Rather than several thousand people for a basketball game, you are looking at 20,000-plus that will flood the campus. The impact will be much greater.
Lagniappe: How will the on-campus stadium project be funded?
Erdmann: Unquestionably, it requires a tremendous amount of philanthropic support. Money will come from external entities. There will be significant sponsorship. There may be naming opportunities, long-term tickets or suites.
This will be very similar to building a house. We have to have a significant down payment. It will not happen without external support. The funds would not take away from academics of the school.
Lagniappe: Tulane and Alabama State have built similar-sized stadiums on their campus during the last few years. Tulane said the experience of playing on campus as opposed to the Superdome couldn’t be measured. How would it affect the USA football experience?
Erdmann: That is 100 percent true. They are so many opportunities when you play on campus. There is the simple concept that residential students can walk a short distance to go to the game. It would be very convenient. It’s fun; it’s easy. Especially at homecoming, the [academic] colleges and reunions can be near their buildings.
Playing downtown is almost like having a road game. From an operational standout, the football team and the band and the ticket staff and security are traveling to a home game. Logistically, it is not that far but it involves a lot of moving parts.
Lagniappe: As USA enters its eighth year of football competition, is an on-campus stadium the next step in the evolution?
Erdmann: I will say it would be a large step. The way I personally view it, not just a step for the football program but it is a step for the entire University of South Alabama. To say “we are having game days on our campus,” it impacts everything.
Lagniappe: Your official biography shows you are also the executive director of the Jaguar Athletic Fund. What is that?
Erdmann: It is the fundraising arm of the athletic department. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The Jaguar Athletic Fund would play a major part in raising funds for an on-campus stadium. To raise this much money will take a team effort. A lot of people will be needed.
Lagniappe: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Erdmann: I think the significance of the feasibility study is that we now have accurate and reliable information on building a stadium. We are not guessing or estimating. We have a game plan.
I would love for it to happen at soon as possible. Right now, it is all contingent on funding.