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Why Temple’s quest for a stadium on campus could doom its football ambition

Temple opens the 2015 football season next Saturday with a game against Penn State. It will be held at Lincoln Financial Field, Temple’s home field since 2003 but perhaps for not much longer if officials ranging from the school’s president to athletic director to football coach get their wish:

An on-campus stadium.

For two years, it has been a topic of conversation, and the official response from the University regarding the stadium decision is to keep waiting. According to a Temple spokesperson, school president Neil Theobald expects the decision to be made within this academic year. Other than that timeline and the usual script about “exploring options,” the school has been rarely specific about its plans for the stadium. 

But there’s a bigger question: Where does Temple see its football program going? Proponents of an on-campus stadium see new traditions and vindication as a serious program, but experts and evidence show new stadiums don’t easily make back their costs, and it could actually be counterproductive for the school’s ambitions. And former Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw says Lincoln Financial Field offers the trappings of a big-time program already. A boutique stadium fitting 30,000 to 40,000 people might actually constrain the football program, preventing it from the possibility of moving up into the upper echelon of Division I and ending its ability to entice marquee non-conference opponents like Penn State to play in Philadelphia. 

“It really can be the difference between mid-major and big-time football,” Bradshaw says.

What the Trustees are saying

The Board of Trustees, which would have a final vote on any stadium proposal, has given few indications of its leanings. Nelson Diaz, a trustee and former Philadelphia judge and mayoral candidate, told Billy Penn the stadium is part of “a master plan” and the decision would come down to the “financial feasibility” of the project, but that he had not been briefed on anything else.

Trustee J. William Mills III, chair of the trustees’ athletics committee, did not respond to an interview request. Trustee James S. White, a member of the athletics committee, said he had nothing to say publicly. Other members of the athletics committee could not be reached for comment or did not respond to messages from Billy Penn. The stadium was not discussed at the athletics committee’s most recent meeting in May. The committee next meets in October.

But it sure looks like Temple is preparing for a stadium on campus. Last week, the University agreed to two one-year options with the Eagles for use of the Linc through 2019, giving it the flexibility to withdraw if a new stadium is built. The last time Temple signed a contract with the Eagles it lasted for 15 seasons, from 2003 through 2017.

This offseason, Temple hired Craig Angelos as its deputy director of athletics, the No. 2 position behind athletic director Patrick Kraft. He worked as Florida Atlantic’s athletic director during its campaign to build a football stadium.  

Football has even been coming up in recent promotional tools disseminated by Temple. Its latest commercial, 30 seconds about “What Makes a Temple Owl” opens with the shot of a football field. Theobald also discussed the importance of football in a video about “exciting changes in 2015.”

“Football, the role it plays at a university is it is one of the few times that all of us get together for several hours around something the university is doing,” Theobald says in the video. “The gameday experience in college football is unlike anything else.”

Why that move could backfire

But here’s the thing: Bill Bradshaw, Temple’s athletic director from 2002 to 2013, would argue Temple’s gameday atmosphere at the Linc probably can’t be matched at any new stadium, given the Linc’s capacity, videoboard technology, luxury suites, convenience and more. How much better can it get than playing an an actual NFL stadium?

“You’re giving up that advantage that (former coach) Al Golden felt he had, that (former coach) Steve Addazio felt he had in recruiting,” he says. “It was a front and center kind of recruiting piece to be playing in the Linc. No matter what kind of financial commitment you make or where it is, it’s going to be difficult to compare with the kind of elite facility that Lincoln financial is.”

Bradshaw believes if Temple wants to be big time it should stick with the Linc. While it might be a stretch to imagine Temple in a Power Five conference (Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, ACC or SEC) given the school’s lack of football history, Temple is situated in one of the country’s largest media markets and in the always-fertile mid-Atlantic recruiting area. He says any possibility to move up would require a large stadium and not one seating 25,000 to 50,000, likely the limit for a new Temple stadium because of costs and lack of space.  

And even if Temple is never considered a candidate to move up to the Power Five, glamorous nonconference home opponents will be an unlikely option without a home stadium boasting a capacity of at least 50,000. The Owls host Penn State and Notre Dame this year.

“Those opportunities will end if they’re not playing at the Linc,” Bradshaw says. “Or any opportunity to be in a Power Five conference.”

What new stadiums have done for other programs

Recent history also suggests new stadiums do little to increase interest in football. Since 2000, 11 stadiums either on-campus or near-campus with the main purpose being to host Division I FBS college football games have been built. Attendance at these stadiums has been lower compared to college football as a whole.

The average percentage of capacity filled at the 11 newest stadiums in 2014 was about 73 percent. For all of college football it was 83 percent. Of the 11, two teams, Baylor and Stanford, had an average attendance that met 95 percent of capacity. Six teams were below 70 percent of capacity, and Akron and Florida Atlantic, with stadiums completed in 2009 and 2011, averaged about 31 percent capacity and 47 percent capacity last year, respectively.       

And stadiums that don’t sell out make it tougher to pay back the debt on a project that would likely cost anywhere from $100 million to $300 million (Temple had been paying $1.8 million a year to lease the Linc. Terms from the new lease signed last week were not given). So why do Temple officials keep saying they’d like a new stadium?   

Though stadiums are rife with risks of actual costs, Jeremy Jordan, a Temple professor and director of its Sports Industry Research Center, says he sees the soft benefits as being a plus, such as the opportunity for students and alumni to take pride in something of their own.   

“It contributes to the overall quality of student life,” he says. “It changes the dynamic of football Saturdays, I think specifically for students.”

Bradshaw would recommend Temple act soon on its stadium decision, regardless of which way it chooses. College football scheduling is done years in advance, and Temple is could miss out on chances for marquee nonconference games with its future home uncertain.

Bradshaw, along with many others, would have thought the decision would be made by now, but it continues to stretch on.   

“I can’t fathom why,” he says “other than there’s some real ambivalence about it.”

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