The University of South Alabama needs an on-campus football stadium.
It was part of the long-term plan when the university first announced it would begin playing football with the goal of becoming a Division I program.
When the Jaguars won their first game against Hargrave Military Academy in 2009 and went on to record two undefeated seasons before a single loss, the plan appeared on track.
Along the way have come some huge milestones, including the school’s first bowl bid, a visit to ACC school North Carolina State, a road win over SEC member Mississippi State and monumental home games against Navy, Mississippi State (which would ascend to No. 1 in the country later that season) and Oklahoma State (ranked in the Top 10 in the country when the Cowboys visited last season).
But still there was no real traction to move the Jaguars’ home games from historic Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
USA Athletics Director Joel Erdmann has been consistently honest while mixing in a bit of humor when asked when the school would begin construction of a stadium to call its very own.
“As soon as somebody wants to put up the money to have their name on the side of the stadium, we’ll start building,” Erdmann says.
It’s a very good line, partly because it’s deadly accurate. The only thing standing between South Alabama and an on-campus stadium is the funding. The estimated price would be somewhere between $85 million and $115 million.
Oh, is that all?
Well, that actually makes South Alabama much further down the road than many universities that have in the past or are now considering a campus stadium.
USA has the great fortune of not being landlocked. Unlike most universities, South Alabama has done such good long-term planning that space for a stadium and even parking is not an issue.
Already the intramural fields have been moved to clear the area where the new football stadium would be built.
That puts USA way ahead of the game. But, back to that name-on-the-side-of-the-stadium issue. Nobody has stepped forward with the kind of money that would greenlight the project overnight. But a collection of pledged contributors has at least made the goal line visible.
Additionally, Lance Crawford of WPMI-TV reported last week that the city and county of Mobile had each pledged $5 million annually toward the creation of the stadium.
That would be a big boost for the private donors Erdmann has already been getting on board.
If funding were to come together quickly, there’s still a possibility the Jaguars could start the 2020 football season in their new home.
But let’s talk about what a new on-campus stadium would and would not mean for South Alabama football, the university as a whole and local football fans.
First, the primary goal of an on-campus stadium is not solely to improve game attendance. There’s little doubt that for every West Mobilian encouraged to attend a USA game there would be a fan from the Eastern Shore who might decide not to travel the extra 20 or 30 minutes.
For USA the issue is not just how many people are at the games but who those people are. The primary selling point for a new stadium is to improve student participation and student life in general. The better the college experience for students, the more likely future students are to want to attend the school.
Even if every game was a sellout, the proposed new stadium is expected to seat only 25,000 initially, so there is no unrealistic goal that 50,000 will suddenly show up every Saturday just because there is an on-campus stadium. Games at Ladd-Peebles Stadium often fail to fill half of its 33,000 seats.
There has been talk that the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the Dollar General Bowl could also relocate to the USA campus. Nobody from any camp is disputing that this is at least a possibility with merit.
But keep this in mind. One of the major benefits for South Alabama to build its own on-campus stadium is so the school will have control of every facet of its game day experience. That’s not an insurmountable issue, but it would be interesting to see what might happen if South Alabama and its new stadium are affiliated with one soft drink company while another game is sponsored by a competitor.
The next step for South Alabama football is clearly a new, on-campus facility. The smaller capacity would actually be a benefit in creating ticket demand and a buzz around the program.
It’s time for this project to come together.
Now, would anybody like to see their name on the side of a stadium?
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.