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Sobering landscape as Temple ponders football stadium

AKRON, Ohio As Temple nears a decision on an on-campus football stadium, it might want to look toward this tired industrial city 350 miles to the west, where the University of Akron struggles to fill and pay for one that debuted five years ago.

AKRON, Ohio - As Temple nears a decision on an on-campus football stadium, it might want to look toward this tired industrial city 350 miles to the west, where the University of Akron struggles to fill and pay for one that debuted five years ago.

Akron, like Temple, is a large urban university transitioning from commuter-school roots. In 2009, to jump-start a long-stagnant football program and an apathetic fan base, it opened a 27,000-seat facility near the heart of its 222-acre downtown campus.

Packed for its opener, InfoCision Stadium hasn't been filled since. Attendance has fluctuated, mostly downward. In some years the stadium hasn't generated sufficient revenue to cover its debt. And while its 16 corporate suites annually sell out, the 11,000 students who live within 10 blocks consistently stay away, despite free admission.

In the race for the revenue that is the defining feature of a chaotic college sports landscape, schools that played in municipal or professional venues - or in outdated facilities such as Akron's Rubber Bowl - are bringing football back to campus.

These stadiums, as Temple's trustees understand, can enhance a university's brand and make games more convenient for the growing number of students living on campus.

The Owls have not had an on-campus stadium. They played at Temple Stadium in Mount Airy from 1928 to 1975, at Veterans Stadium from 1976 to 2002, and at the Linc since. But as Akron's experience underscores, an on-campus stadium often isn't the revenue and crowd booster it's intended to be. 

In InfoCision Stadium's second season, Akron's average student attendance was just 1,384. Desperate measures have followed. This November, for example, students were lured to a Tuesday night matchup with Bowling Green by a free-tuition giveaway. And to ensure news of the contest was delivered, their parents were e-mailed.

"It's a constant challenge," said Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill. "We have to find ways to keep our fan base growing."

Temple, facing a near doubling of its annual $1 million Lincoln Financial Field lease and with a history of attendance woes, had been expected to make a stadium decision this fall when a university-wide master plan was unveiled.

While that didn't happen, sources on North Broad Street indicate that, if some remaining financial details can be resolved, a go-ahead for a 30,000-seat, on-campus facility could come as early as this spring.

If so, Temple would join Tulane, Minnesota, North Texas, Houston, and several other schools that recently moved football on campus. Colorado State will soon be among them, and UNLV hopes to be by decade's end.

Not every football program is on the bandwagon. In 2011, the University of Alabama-Birmingham killed plans for a $75 million campus stadium. Some blame that rejection for the school's November decision to eliminate football.

Meanwhile, Akron, in competition not just with Ohio State's football behemoth but with its many in-state Mid-American Conference rivals, hoped the new stadium and the 2011 hiring of coach Terry Bowden would lend its program an edge.

But in InfoCision's six seasons, the Zips' overall attendance and revenues frequently have fallen below expectations. In 2009, the average crowd was 17,387. By 2012, it was 9,275 and included fewer students than came during Akron's last years at the run-down Rubber Bowl.

With an annual athletic budget of $25 million, Akron funds athletics primarily through activity fees. For a student taking 15 credits, they can run to $700.

When ticket and other revenues don't make up the difference, the school's general fund has to be tapped. In 2010, despite the new stadium, football-ticket revenue came up $400,000 short of the $1.2 million projection.

Though poor attendance continues to be a problem for schools such as Akron and Temple, some experts insist it isn't nearly so important in 2014.

"People in the seats paying season-ticket prices aren't what these schools are after with these new stadiums," said Jeff Schemmel, president of College Sports Solutions, an Atlanta-based consultant that has worked on stadiums with Tulane, Houston, and other schools. "It's not about capacity anymore. Tulane's holds 30,000, Houston's 40,000. It's about the revenue suites, premium seating, and the added amenities they can create."

While Temple already offers many of those amenities at the Linc, there haven't been enough takers.

Average Owls attendance this year was 23,370, a total some skeptics suggest may be inflated. Figures on football's losses aren't made public, but the university contributes an estimated $7 million from its general fund to balance the $44 million sports budget.

Though the numbers aren't available, athletic fund-raising, an important component of any stadium-financing plan, has grown at Temple in recent years. Still, it lags far behind many other Division I programs.

Estimates on the minimum cost for a new facility in North Philadelphia - the probable site is adjacent to the Geasey Field complex along North 15th Street - exceed the $100 million Tulane paid for a 30,000-seat stadium that the New Orleans school opened this fall.

Then there are parking, transportation, and safety concerns to be worked out and paid for. And if, as at Akron, adjoining properties need to be acquired and razed, costs will rise further.

"I'm not for or against a stadium here, but looking at it as a financial investment, it's hard to argue that it makes sense," said Joel Maxcy, a Temple economics professor who in 2012 evaluated a stadium-feasibility study for Colorado State.

"Even at the low end, to finance $100 million is going to mean $6 or $7 million in debt service," he said. "That's an awful lot of new revenue to generate."

Exactly how - or even whether - a campus stadium would change those numbers for Temple remains to be seen. If ticket demand stays low, implementing such money-raising strategies as premium pricing or personal-seat licensing could be difficult.

Temple officials, who declined to be interviewed for this article, have contended a stadium would make it easier to market the school. They also believe the 12,000 students on and around campus would be more willing to attend games they could walk to.

"That's what you hear. But there's not much evidence to suggest that works," Maxcy said. "In most cases, there's no particular increase in revenue. And today's students aren't coming to games. That's a problem all over college football. Even at Minnesota, student attendance didn't increase from when they played at the Metrodome."

The stay-away student has become a popular topic at athletic-director gatherings, Akron's Wistrcill said. With more entertainment options, constant technological advances, and the near-ubiquity of television coverage, students aren't as enthralled by live football as they once were.

"In some ways, we in college sports have become our own worst enemies," Wistrcill said. "We've worked so hard, mostly with ESPN, to build our product that it's reached a point where it's really enticing and exciting to watch on TV."

This fall, Houston, another member of Temple's American Athletic Conference, debuted $158 million TDECU Stadium. Though the Cougars went 8-5 and earned an Armed Forces Bowl bid, crowds were smaller than anticipated. On some Saturdays, the 40,000-seat facility was less than half-full.

"You usually have to accompany a new stadium with a winning football team," Schemmel said. "Akron has gotten better, but they're not over the top yet. And I think Houston experienced the same thing. They had a mediocre season, and they didn't fill up their stadium the way they thought they would."

Then there's the issue of paying for a new stadium in a political climate in which public funding is virtually impossible.

"There hasn't been any public funding in a while," Schemmel said. "The most popular combination recently has been fund-raising and bonding."

North Texas used seat-licensing fees to help fund the campus stadium it opened in 2011. Purchasers of the $350 season tickets had to make a one-time payment of between $3,125 and $12,500 and agree to donate at least $500 annually. In 31,000-seat Apogee Stadium's first four seasons, the average crowd has been 19,500.

At Colorado State, which is proceeding with plans for a $200 million stadium, Maxcy found that only in the rosiest of forecasts would revenue match or exceed debt obligations. More plausible, he noted, is that CSU could expect to lose as much as $218 million over 30 years.

Akron raised $15 million for its stadium - including $10 million in naming rights - and issued $55 million in state-backed bonds. Its annual bond payments are $3.1 million, of which the athletic department is responsible for two-thirds.

In the meantime, Temple continues to plot its practical and financial options as carefully as coach Matt Rhule draws up a game plan.

"A place like Temple needs a stadium on or near its campus that students can access easily," Schemmel said. "The biggest risk is having to pay for it. But there's no downside if you can come up with that formula."

Temple at the Linc

Here are the attendance figures for Temple football games at Lincoln Financial Field, the Owls' home stadium since it opened in 2003.

Sources: Temple University, NCAA