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Beaver Stadium Renovation: Reliable Loyal Fans, Students, Faculty & Alumni Deserve Better

On Tuesday May 21st on a remotely held Zoom meeting Penn State’s Board of Trustees will be asked to vote on a proposed $700 million renovation that remains, even to Trustees being asked to vote on it, shrouded in mysterious details with mystical future revenue predictions.


No one argues that we need to renovate Beaver Stadium. No one argues that it has an economic impact on this community. The question about the renovation is simply the scale of the renovation, the amount of money being spent and the current inability to project what the future business model of college sports will look like.


Yet Trustees have been asked in a resolution to sign away an additional $630 million and to yield oversight and decisions to “officers” of the University. ($70 million has already been allocated and spent). But rest assured, if more money needs to be borrowed to complete the project the resolution stipulates that the officers of the University will come back to the Board to ask for more.


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Nearly twenty years ago Penn State hosted a football fantasy camp. For several years a small group of alumni and fans would come to campus in June for a multi-day camp that concluded with a flag football game in Beaver Stadium.


As coaches, we were at first a little skeptical about this whole thing. But by the end of that first camp, we’d learned more from the guys who came to the camp than they could ever possibly learn from us.


The morning of the game in Beaver Stadium, we sat the guys in a meeting and asked them what Penn State football meant to them, and why they were here.


One man, with tears in his eyes, told us that he’d sat in the same seats with his father from the time he could remember until the time his father died. He wanted his father to see him do this.


And that’s the thing about Beaver Stadium. There is tremendous history there, history that thunders and echoes from generation to generation. And much of that is history that didn’t take place on the field, but rather in the tailgating, the laughter, the tears, the victories and the setbacks recalled and shared with family and friends.


And as time’s march towards mortality calls home friends and families, for we the living, those memories are things that sustain us.


.           .           .           .           .           .           .


When people ascend to positions of prominence, they are often stricken with a self-importance that comes when those around them change. It is human nature to assume that your time will last forever.


In ancient Rome, when victorious generals returned to the city, a sage would ride along and repeat “Fame is Fleeting, Fame is Fleeting” as a reminder that this and all of life is temporary.


The idea remains important. Because our stewardship of this University is temporary, we have an obligation to understand what came before so that we can strengthen the foundations for what comes after we are gone.


Understanding the roots of what sustains a college football program is vital. And what sustains every program is the passion and loyalty of the fans to the school, but also from the school to the fans.


History teaches that.


My life’s journey includes sitting in the bleachers in the South End Zone in the early 1970s and walks through Beaver Stadium renovation construction sites in 1978, 1981, 1991 and 2001. In college as a team member and later as a coach there were walks home from the Stadium with my father, walking through tailgaters on the west side of the stadium.  


For seventeen years as a coach here on game days, I walked to the stadium through tailgaters in smaller lots scattered among campus buildings and finally along Curtin Road by tailgaters on the west side and the south side.


Those memories remain…..


The RV of The Reliable Boys from Minersville, PA still parks in the paved lots on the west side. The ghosts of Lou and Angie Gatto probably still frequent the tailgate of Billy’s big blue RV from Scranton. There is another RV at every game that looks just like the EM-50 “Urban Assault Vehicle” in the movie Stripes.


Fast forward to more recent years and there is a distinct difference between the close-in paved spaces on the west side and the east side. The east side is the side with the suites, the most premium of premium seating. On nearly every game day, a view from the stadium will show those lots are often half full.


But look across the west side and every week you will see that they are there, that lot is full. Many of those families have been in those spots for decades. Like those boys from Minersville, PA, they are reliable and loyal. We should not forget that.


We as trustees were asked to vote on a plan that will disrupt so much of that community. And leadership has wrangled up the votes to pass it. There have even been discussions among a select group to build an NFL-style entertainment complex on the site of the west paved lots.


College sports has become a big business venture, much like Major League Baseball, or the NFL. And as you start to look at stadium renovations people like to cite NFL stadiums.


And when people in authority are surrounded by an echo chamber of people who want to stay near to that power base it can create a false sense of certainty. But much of leadership in this country has come to rely on the consultant class.


Consultants can be very good at times. They are also a useful crutch when plans fail. Leadership can point to the consultant as the driver of a decision.


But consultants often lack institutional or local knowledge that is pretty important.


Years ago, a parking consultant suggested that a huge chunk of the football traffic be funneled from both directions on Atherton Street to head down College Avenue towards the stadium. They did not realize that College Avenue was a one-way street headed away from Beaver Stadium.


Current consultants believe Penn State fans will happily fork over more money for premium seating. Yet they ignore the lessons of 2011 when another group convinced Penn State to up the seat buy-in process in the STEP program. That program resulted in a massive drop in season ticket sales.


So much for the wisdom of outside consultants.


.           .           .           .           .           .           .


That brings us to today’s foregone conclusion of a vote to spend $700 million to tear down the west side and rebuild it. The foregone conclusion is a bit surprising given that unlike building approvals for academic buildings, the full board has yet to be shown actual plans and designs before authorizing the project.


But this much is clear……


This is a gentrification of the west side. Established season ticket holders will see their seats torn down and rebuilt. Then they’’ll be asked to pay more to go back to their same seating “neighborhood” or move to a lofty upper deck that is much further from the action. Or they could pay a whole lot more to sit in a possible field level club seat designed for wealthier fans.


To be clear almost NO ONE disputes that Beaver Stadium needs to undergo renovations. As far back as 2011, when the last renovation was paid off using only money that was generated by the 2001 renovation, plans were already in motion. But things happened that postponed those plans.


The question is the scale and how to pay for it. The past four renovations were all entirely paid for using new revenues generated on game days. The stadium paid for itself; no TV money and no philanthropy that could take money from other campus philanthropic needs.


Will new stadium revenues pay for this thirty-year debt service on this $700 million renovation? No. The numbers do not add up. So other sources of revenue will have to be drawn away from other things.


And the ask will fall to fans to pay more for seat access or attached fees or NFL-style premium seating. Not one, but two outside consultants have stated as much.


A renovation plan could be done for far less money. That is the central debate here. If we can afford $250 million or $300 million, what does that look like? No one knows because no plan was drawn up by consultants and architects looking for the biggest projects yielding the biggest headlines and the biggest paydays.


Everything that happens now in college football is about money. The answer to competing is always about more money. Programs panhandle for money and donations for buildings or NIL. They ask fans to pay more for tickets to pay for stadium renovations.


But money is a finite thing. Just ask the administration at Penn State.


We’re facing structural deficits in our core mission of education. As such we’re asking Commonwealth Campuses to cut budgets, we’re asking students to pay more tuition, we’re asking faculty and adjunct professors to shoulder more classes, we’re asking people to voluntarily take a separation plan. We’re asking the taxpayers of the Commonwealth to increase our funding.


Everyone, it seems is being asked to give more money and make sacrifices for the cause of this great university.


Well, almost everyone……


And that comes back to a lack of basic understanding about what is happening today.


Many will argue that athletics is a self-sustaining enterprise, but yet it has been operating on a razor’s edge between break even or losing money for the past several years. That is a matter of public record in federally mandated filings with the NCAA and the Department of Education.


And before anyone wields the “self-sustaining” argument for athletics, just remember that they are borrowing this $700 million utilizing Penn State’s entire balance sheet, not the balance sheet of athletics. There is no doubt that without the backstopping of the full University’s credit rating, athletics would be borrowing on much different terms.


And as we’ve seen at Cal-Berkeley, when athletics can’t pay the debt service, 54% of that debt was absorbed by the academic enterprise of the University (i.e. tuition and tax dollars).


.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .


So we’re back where we started. In tough budgetary times at Penn State we’re asking for more money from students. We’re asking taxpayers for more money. We’re asking faculty, alumni and fans to give us more money.


And now we embark on a $700 million spend for a football stadium.


But the cost is far more than money.


Two major league rivals, the Yankees and the Red Sox had stadium projects in the past twenty years. The Red Sox did revenue-generating renovations that kept the character and the overwhelming majority of the seats intact. The Yankees built a new stadium.


Red Sox fans can point to the seats where they witnessed Dave Roberts steal second base in the 2004 ALCS. But Yankee fans cannot point to the seats where they witnessed President George W Bush throw out the first pitch after 9/11.


Penn State’s project for most of the stadium, will keep seats intact. But for the loyal west side fans they’re getting a Yankee Stadium makeover that will wipe their seats out.


That’s an important lesson we learned at that football fantasy camp.


There was a moment after that flag fantasy football game in Beaver Stadium that will haunt us today. The game had been over for a while. The families and grown men who’d been moved to tears playing in this game had taken their post-game pictures and were headed off the field.


In the far corner of the field the man who’d talked about his father was looking up to a remote corner of the west side of the stadium. He sat silently gazing up there, deep in thought.


I knew immediately what he was doing, kept a respectful distance and waited for him to get up and head in. As he neared me we made eye contact and before anyone could even ask, he nodded and said “That’s where I sat with my Dad” as he pointed to the upper reaches.


Today is a step to erasing history. Not just for him but for thousands of others. There was a better way to do this. There was a more fiscally responsible way to do this.


Across generations so many loyal alumni, students, faculty, staff and fans have been there. They deserve better from us. They and people like The Reliable Boys from Minersville deserve better ideas and plans from people who probably can’t even find Minersville on a map.


Around the country we talk about investing in football programs, and that is important. But by ignoring those who are MOST invested in our programs, we break generational roots of fan support that allow future growth to flourish.


We graduated in 1964 and 1965. We were married in the Eisenhower Chapel. We first bought season tickets in 1978 when the stadium was actually “lifted.” We still have those seats. We are proud to say that no one else ever sat in those seats. And, yes, we sit an the west side. We are now in our early 80s, but continue. We knew we would give up out seats some time and now we know when—when they are torn down, so people can feel more comfortable. Good bye to all our wonder times where we raised our sons to be Penn State fans. This year will probably be our last.


All things must pass.


I listened to the Trustee zoom meeting and was appalled by the lack of interest and questions about the actual plan to raise the required new money to pay off the debt, actual plan to hold annual Athetics operating cost inflation to the 2.5% included in the financial model versus the 6.5% inflation actually incurred during the past 10 years , or the absence of any accounting for the payments made to athletes when NIL goes away. I heard three alumni elected trustees try to voice their real concerns and get real questions answered but they were completely ignored. I don’t understand why I did not hear anything from you Jay, especially with the lengthy argument you just wrote befor…

Replying to

Where can I watch the meeting?


Jay, I agree with you. The core mission of our institution is rooted in the academics for our students. We are told the university is today experiencing a major budgetary crisis. Faculty contracts are not being renewed and the university recently offered a voluntary employment separation plan for select administrators, faculty, and staff members at the Commonwealth Campuses in an effort to reduce the work force, which will have major impact on the delivery of courses and programs. Campuses may close, be reorganized or be reconfigured into something else. The outcome of these difficult problems remains unclear. So, perhaps it would be more prudent to first solve the dramatic and fundamental budgetary problems regarding our primary academic mission, rebuild the…


Jay, thanks for your thoughts. I hope you and the other alumni elected trustees push the power-yielding Trustees to understand that Trustees of PSU are servants to the will of PSU students and alumni, as well as to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

All I need is a bench seat and parking, but at a reasonable price.

Robert Bortner

(PSU Class of 1979)

Football Season Tickets since 1979.

Mens Basketball Season Tickets since 1995.

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