Remember priorities in stadium debate

When the Gophers abandoned Memorial Stadium for the Metrodome 20 years ago, proponents said the move would bolster recruiting, save money and, ultimately, help restore a failing program to its Bernie Bierman heyday. Despite a few bowl-game seasons and a couple of major upsets, much of these desired improvements in the football program have not occurred. The team still loses much in-state talent to other schools. The program is last in the Big Ten in football revenue. And, since 1982, the Gophers are 89-138-2. As former men’s athletics director Tom Moe said last year, moving to the dome has not improved the program at all and was “one of the most significant mistakes the University has ever made.”

Now the Gophers are considering the construction of a new campus stadium, possibly in partnership with the Vikings. The two parties must report details of any arrangement to the Legislature by December. A return to campus would certainly inject some new life into the mediocre program. However, as the University weighs any stadium construction decision, it is important to consider the potential pitfalls, especially those created by partnerships involving public institutions and private corporations. As Regent Frank Berman noted last week, “there is a chance to make a very big mistake here.”

University finances are the most pressing concern. A steadily declining portion of state funding has led to campus-wide belt-tightening. Students are acutely aware of the lean times, as evidenced in serial tuition hikes. Amid budget concerns, no stadium proposal should in any way encroach on the academic values of the University either through construction or added maintenance costs. Taxpayers provide money to the University to educate students, provide cutting-edge research and help boost the state’s economy. Football is entertaining and helps build school spirit, but it is not a central priority. Diverting resources from the classroom to the gridiron would be a breach of trust with the state’s residents.

For any joint plan to move forward, the Vikings must give assurances they will hold up their end of the deal. Regents, worried by talk of a possible Vikings move, rightly stipulated last week that any deal would require a long-term financial commitment from the Vikings and the National Football League. The University must also be assured that there are adequate revenue streams. At the dome, the Gophers get no revenue from advertising or parking and little from concessions. In a new, joint stadium, the University must be adamant that this money stays on campus. Care must also be taken that the rush of traffic and parking does not egregiously disrupt campus life.

To make it worthwhile, a new stadium must feel, look and sound like a collegiate stadium. The sterile confines of the Metrodome deny many fans an authentic college football experience. In addition to being open-air, any stadium should be distinctly Gopher. It should not feel like a form letter with interchanging names and logos. Luxury boxes and sponsorships are inevitable, but a stadium need not be excessively corporate. For example, college football stadiums are typically named in honor of a famous alumnus or athletic hero, not Internet companies. The University must insist that the name of the stadium reflect a civically-minded person or good, not a corporate motto.

While a move to campus would help the ailing athletics department, it is by no means a solution. In the foreseeable future, Minnesota will not be able to recruit and win like Michigan or Ohio State. The newly-merged departments still have staggering debt from construction projects, suffer chronic fund-raising shortfalls and have a modest Minnesota talent pool from which to draw. Given that the Gophers are already so far behind in the athletics “arms race,” some have suggested de-emphasizing sports, an argument worth considering.

Still, the University has a real opportunity to bring football back to campus responsibly. Many long for crisp autumn afternoons spent outside cheering on the Gophers, a uniquely collegiate experience denied to students for too long. Given the current situation, however, it is important that we not let nostalgia and longing displace our priorities.