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Plans In Place For Hipper, Cooler Days

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  May 24, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM — The term "arms race" has been a popular one in recent years, as college sports programs continue to throw more and more money at their football and basketball teams. But for Wake Forest, this is nothing new. The Deacons have spent most of their sporting life fighting an arms race just within their own league. Wake constantly has to battle schools with more fans, more alumni and more money. Those facts have contributed to the Deacons' struggles on the football field and helped hold back their basketball program and the school's facilities. Perhaps most importantly, they've also been a factor in keeping Wake from becoming a hip, cool program. Compared to nearby schools such as North Carolina and N.C. State, the Deacons haven't won as much, haven't been as cool a place to see a game, haven't had as much to spend on marketing, and haven't had hip national figures. Even Duke, which isn't even a factor in football, has managed to be so good at basketball that its image far surpasses that of Wake on the national scene. The end result is that the Deacons are the rare major college program that doesn't even dominate the fan base in its own city. The area is splintered, with fans of the state's other ACC programs, other local colleges, even other out-of-state programs. Wake's challenge always has been to try to turn the fan with no area school affiliation its way, instead of jumping on other bandwagons, like those at UNC or Duke. A number of things are underway now, though, that might help change Wake's image, both locally and nationally. First, the football and basketball teams are winning more and looking good doing it. No matter what all the elements involved are, winning trumps everything else, as mentioned with Duke basketball. Coaches Jim Grobe and Skip Prosser are personable, accessible, quote-a-minute machines who exude class and produce on the playing field. Second, the numerous changes that Prosser and his staff have made around Joel Coliseum have been well-chronicled and have gone a long way toward changing the image of the program, especially for visiting teams and recruits. But it's three new things that have the potential to really make big changes in Wake Forest's athletic future. The first is still in the planning stage, and it depends on a lot of elements outside of the school's control. The city of Winston-Salem is working with the local minor-league baseball team on a plan for a new stadium downtown. The plan has moved from pie-in-the-sky status to appearing to be on track, and it could have a new stadium in place for the 2006 season. What does this mean for Wake Forest? Well, the Deacons have been fighting local residents about lights and other improvements to their on-campus stadium. If they worked a deal to lease or purchase the current minor-league stadium, which is being discussed, it would give them access to a much nicer, lighted facility. This would play a significant role in recruiting, as the on-campus stadium pales compared to most of the rest of the league's facilities. It also would make it more likely that they could host national baseball events. Perhaps more important, though, is that control of this stadium would give Wake a real chance to create a sports atmosphere. The venue is adjacent to Wake's football stadium, which is across the street from Joel Coliseum. Although the city owns Joel, and other businesses are on Stadium Drive, the Deacons finally could try to make changes to this area off their main campus that would make it a hot destination for the average sports fan. Speaking of the football stadium, another big change is set to occur there. Wake has contracted with Ellerbe Becket — whose resume includes numerous high-profile jobs, including BankOne Ballpark in Phoenix — to make improvements and upgrades to Groves Stadium, which has been almost untouched since it was built 37 years ago. The full scope or time frame of the plan is not public yet, but likely changes include: bathroom, concession and faÁade improvements; re-doing the press box and luxury suites; and creating more home locker-room space at eight-year-old Bridger Field House. This follows the completion of major renovations to the football offices, which are on campus. Much like the changes at Joel, this entire process should serve to make the football program more attractive to recruits and a more fun place to come see a game for the fan. The changes to Groves will be interesting to watch in terms of how much is done and how quickly, because this truly is the "arms race." Wake traditionally hasn't had the resources to compete here. Even now, as these plans are put into place, N.C. State is looking at plans that would make Carter-Finley Stadium look like an NFL facility. Financial Disadvantage Staggering The numbers don't lie here, when one examines what Wake has to work with financially. Over the last three years, for example, the Deacons ranked seventh in the ACC in athletic budget profit, according to filings required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act by the U.S. Department of Education. Here's how the ACC's athletic budget profits (revenues minus expenses) look when the last three filings are combined: 1. Clemson $31,906,433; 2. UNC $20,442,164; 3. Florida State $16,601,212; 4. N.C. State $16,144,039; 5. Georgia Tech $8,182,018; 6. Virginia $2,381,091; 7. Wake $1,681,450; 8. Maryland $281,021; 9. Duke (-$476,091). The real culprit at Wake in recent years was the football program, which was the only one in the ACC to lose money ($534,681) during this period. The rest of the league's football profit for the three-year period looked like this: 1. Clemson $33,786,853; 2. FSU $26,715,176; 3. Georgia Tech $17,991,176; 4. UNC $16,205,988; 5. N.C. State $11,747,162; 6. Virginia $7,771,788; 7. Duke $3,734,319; 8. Maryland $2,506,313. Wake's disadvantage is staggering. Adding the three expansion schools to the picture is interesting. Just examining the most recent year's filing, all three made significant profits in football: Virginia Tech $9,180,799, Miami $7,840,339 and Boston College $2,338,828. But in overall athletic budget profits, only Virginia Tech impressed with $3,745,184. Miami made only $26,977, and Boston College lost $135,006. The third big change is the opening of a Deacon Shop in Hanes Mall, the largest shopping facility in the area. This concept is not new for universities, but it's a gigantic step for the Deacons. For years, it's been difficult to find much Wake Forest gear in Winston-Salem, as merchants stocked plenty of jerseys, hats and other paraphernalia of its rivals. The reason given always has been that the merchants simply are following the money. More consumers want the other stuff, comes the reply, so that's what the salespeople put on the shelves. Now Wake has its own shop in a high-traffic area of the mall off center court. Not only does it have a chance to prove the above theory wrong, but it's a massive opportunity to improve its image in the eyes of the local fans. The store itself is hip and cool in design. It includes seven TV monitors, which show various highlight packages. Future plans apparently include interactive displays, plus events outside the store, such as autograph sessions. The only thing missing is the ability to buy tickets, and that is being discussed as well. The store effort is a partnership between Wake Forest University Stores and the athletic department, and it's a great idea, but a risky one. On one hand, it finally differentiates Wake from its competition in the market, giving the local community a unique way to get attracted to what Wake has to offer compared to its rivals. On the other hand, Wake is sticking its neck pretty far out. If the store flops and disappears from the mall two years from now, it will only lend credence to local merchants, media and others who long have stated that the Deacons simply don't deserve more than a backseat, even in their own town. The changes that athletic director Ron Wellman has swept through the Wake Forest programs in the last decade have been impressive. But Wellman knows he's always trying to play catch-up to the bigger and better-funded programs in his own league. These recent events show that Wake isn't going to slow its efforts to do just that.