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Tricking out stadiums with Wi-Fi, LED

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POSTED August 19, 2014 11:01 p.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Lining the brightly lit hallways of Populous, one of the leading architectural firms behind college sports, there are hundreds of scale models and graphic renderings of college football stadiums in various stages of renovation and construction.

There are blueprints for Kyle Field at Texas A&M, in the midst of a $420 million redevelopment. There’s a model of TFC Bank Stadium at Minnesota, the recent replacement for the Metrodome as home of the Golden Gophers. And there are pictures of McClane Stadium, the glitzy new home for Baylor.

Each project showcases ways Populous is helping schools to lure fans to their next-generation stadiums in an era where good seats are not enough: enhanced Wi-Fi, better video boards and party decks for socializing. The results are twofold: The flashy facilities offer a better game-day experience while also generating more revenue than their predecessors.

“When you do a stadium, it’s not a normal building. It’s a building, but it has to wrap this big stage where all this athletic drama takes place,” explained Jeff Spear, a senior architect at Populous who’s been responsible for many of the projects, including the Baylor stadium. “What they want is a reflection of their university and a stadium that sells their brand.”

When it comes to trends in stadium design, the folks at Populous are experts. The Kansas City-based company traces its roots back more than three decades, and has been responsible for everything from Reliant Stadium in Houston to the main Olympic stadiums in London and Sochi, Russia.

“The thing about college football is it’s this big event where you’re rooting for your alma mater,” Spear said, “and now your alumni are returning to campus and spending money.”

That’s the hope, anyway.

Flat-screen televisions have made the home viewing experience better than ever, and the rising costs of tickets and travel have sent many fans to watch games from the comfort of their couch. It’s a problem that has plagued professional sports for years but has trickled down to colleges, where the prevailing notion was that the alumni would always show.

At Tennessee, in the heart of the football-crazed SEC, attendance sagged for years before a modest bounce-back last season. Yet empty seats still abound at cavernous Neyland Stadium, even with recent improvements that reduced capacity, improved premium seating and offered other enhancements, such as LED signage, better restrooms and wider concourses.

In the Big Ten, eight schools showed a decline in average attendance last season.

“We’re grateful that we continue to sell out our stadium during some times in which it’s not as easy as it once was,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “People have chosen to allocate their resources somewhere else. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are less interested in following their favorite sports team. There are other demands on their resources.”

To counter those demands, Oklahoma recently announced a $370 million renovation to Memorial Stadium that will hardly add a seat. Instead, it will create new plazas — “fan cooling areas,” for example — improved team spaces and the kind of sizzle that appeals to recruits.

Elsewhere, stadiums are being tricked out with wifi that allows fans to not only stay better connected but also access replays, statistics and other information on mobile devices. Schools are adding bigger high-definition video boards and better sound systems. And they’re going away from traditional grandstand seating in favor of clubs, loge boxes and other priority offerings.

“It’s hard to sell a regular seat in any sport right now,” said Robert Boland, a professor of sports business at New York University and a consultant to universities and conferences. “Having premium seats is a way to manage that issue.”

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