Publications Journals

The Evolution of Athletics Master Planning On College Campuses

  • Athletics Administration
  • April 01, 2013

In early 2010, The University of Arkansas began to readdress what the future of their athletic campus should look like. As universities across the nation developed extensive athletic master plans and began to grow their athletic campuses by building new, state-of-the-art facilities, the senior leadership at the university knew it was time for their university to plan for the future. The university in turn developed an extensive athletics master plan that takes into account the immediate and long-term goals of the university and melds them with athletics-specific opportunities for growth and development that are unique to the University of Arkansas.

“We understood that it was essential to strategically plan for the future of Razorback Athletics and developing a master plan was integral to maintaining and elevating our reputation as a leader in intercollegiate athletics,” explained Trantham. “In order to maintain our competitive success in the evolving world of Division I athletics, it’s essential that we continually think about how we can improve our facilities in a way that will positively impact student-athletes, our coaching and training staffs and the Razorback fans. Our athletic master plan is the guiding force that has resulted in renovations and the construction of new facilities that will continue to positively impact recruiting efforts, the quality of student-athletes lives and performance on the field.”

The University of Arkansas isn’t alone. Universities across the country, from NCAA Division I to NAIA schools, are creating master plans for their athletic facilities and using their plan to bolster public support of new buildings and drive development through private donations. Universities have entered new territory as key donors now expect master plans, seeing them as a critical step to consistent growth for a department and representative of a visionary approach by leadership at the university.

Master Planning Defined

A master plan, at its most basic, is a long-term vision for campus improvements that encompasses changes that vary in immediacy. A quality master plan evaluates the state of existing facilities, the needs of coaches, programs for new facilities or renovations to existing facilities, the facilities a university’s competition has and the immediate and long-term goals of the school’s athletic programs. When it’s all said and done, an athletic master plan provides an in-depth analysis of the university’s unique athletic needs and can include architectural renderings, conceptual designs, analyses of existing facilities, financial information, revenue generation models for proposed facilities, supplementary fundraising materials and phased recommendations. A strategic master plan is crafted in support of a university’s existing campus master plan and the goals, objectives and strategies of the university’s athletic department for strengthening the student-athlete and fan experience. We often talk about the recruitment of student athletes, but in reality recruiting goes well beyond the student athletes and reaches potential students, faculty, staff and fans.  It is with this in mind that the athletic facilities of a campus must add to and support the overall vision and impact of the campus rather than detract from it.

The vision set forth in a master plan is intended to serve as an integral planning tool to guide the future development of intercollegiate facilities on a campus and is tailored to fit the university’s unique goals and needs. As athletic master plans rose in popularity in the 1990s, many firms suggested creating a master plan that would last 10-15 years. While this approach was effective at the time, the rapid pace at which college athletics, technology and television needs are evolving means that schools can no longer afford to create a master plan that isn’t continually updated. A modern master plan must be a living document that is reworked constantly depending on changes in administration, staff and programmatic needs. While a typical master plan still forecasts plans for the next 10-15 years, it should be updated frequently during that time frame in order to ensure the university is staying abreast of recent trends.

The Evolution of Collegiate Athletics

In an age of seemingly constant conference realignment and a virtual arms race among athletic directors to build bigger and better facilities than their competitors, a master plan is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. A university’s needs are often defined by their conference. For example, if your university is considering realignment in the coming years, which will result in an uptick in attendance, then building a bigger stadium or expanding the seating capacity through renovation becomes a priority that should be reflected in the master plan your school develops. This evolution of collegiate athletics, driven by multi-million dollar television deals and revenue rich football and basketball programs, plays an important role in the master planning process.

A number of trends in recent years have been reflected in the athletic master plans at universities of all sizes.  One of these trends, the development of state-of-the-art practice facilities for basketball and football, has been evident at universities including the University of Connecticut, Kansas State University and the University of Arkansas, each of whom has recently built or is in the process of building new basketball training facilities. Schools that aim to recruit top talent simply must provide student-athletes with facilities that answer their academic and athletic needs with the latest technology, sports medicine spaces, unique training rooms and resources that are modeled after but can often exceed those available to professional athletes. This allows universities to enhance their current revenue-generating programs by drawing in talent that will elevate the program and the university’s larger brand. The majority of recent master plans account for this trend by recommending the addition of cutting edge training facilities and aptly prioritizing these projects in their phasing recommendations.

The Process: What to Expect When Developing a Master Plan

Once a university has decided to move forward with developing a master plan and has chosen a team (made up of architects, planners, programmers etc.) to lead the process, stakeholders should be prepared for a quick-moving process. Goals for the master plan will be determined through a combination of interviews, analysis, assessments and benchmarking activities. Coaches, staff and administrators are consulted; institutional and athletics strategic goals are interpreted; and outcomes are shaped by the application of campus planning principles, trends and programmatic needs. The steps of master planning can be broken down into five distinct phases: goal-setting and initial meetings; consensus building; research and benchmarking; analysis of existing facilities to determine viability; and final recommendations.

1. Goal setting and initial meetings: The process typically commences with interviews with key stakeholders. This includes conversations with administrators, coaches, student-athletes, athletic staff and facility planners, each of whom should have a voice.

2. Consensus building: Once individuals have been consulted, consensus building begins to ensure those involved agree to a similar vision about what the future of the university’s athletics facilities should look like. Consensus building, or the process of getting a group of diverse stakeholders (in our case, athletic directors, coaches and university leadership) to arrive at the same conclusion, is an integral tool in the master planning process. At Populous, a global sports architecture firm that has worked with more than 130 universities, our team works daily with multiple client contacts from each university, each of whom has their own desires, vision and expectations of a project or master plan. In master planning, this can often be more complex, as we involve coaches from each sport and try to consider how each of their needs and the logistical needs of the campus’ facilities can culminate in a plan that pleases everyone. Bringing each person involved into the same room to create a shared vision, one that results in everyone being proud of the end product and feeling that it is truly reflective of their vision, can have a significant impact on the university’s culture and ability to get important portions of the master plan built over the coming years.

“This collaborative approach to consensus building is crucial to the planning process,” explains Brian Nicholson, Associate Vice President for Facility, Planning and Construction at Baylor University, who is currently in the process of building an important part of their campus master plan, Baylor Stadium. “Consensus building further unified our university administration and key stakeholders, providing us with a common ground and shared vision for the future of our campus.”

3. Research and benchmarking: Once interviews, consensus building exercises and goal setting have been accomplished, we then proceed to analyze each existing athletic facility on campus, taking tours and supplementing our knowledge with university-published documents. As an architecture team, we then compare what we’ve learned with what we know is out there….or what the university’s competitors currently have and are planning to build. Depending on the size of the university, this at times includes a benchmarking process, in which we tour competitors’ campuses and evaluate what the university officials like- and don’t like- about the facilities on other campuses. We always bring the team together after this in a series of programmatic exercises that are forward-looking, discussing the needs of each program, the state of facilities at other campuses and trends that will impact what coaches, athletes and fans will need over the coming years.

4. Analysis of existing facilities to determine viability: Next, we identify capital expenditures and weigh these when evaluating the cost-effectiveness of renovations versus the cost of building a new facility. Often times this is performed by an outside firm with extensive knowledge of these complex assessments and measurement tools in place that drive their evaluations and recommendations.

5. Final recommendations: After those evaluations are complete, we take the time to develop a programmatic estimate, taking into account the university’s budgeting ability in a phased approach to create a unique, affordable blueprint for the future of the campus’ athletic facilities. At this point, we also provide clients with conceptual designs, fundraising materials and, when new stadiums or costly renovations are recommended, suggestions on revenue generation models that take into account the school’s primary fan base- both current and projected. Supplementary materials may include fundraising collateral like videos, smartphone apps, more detailed renderings or in-depth content on a proposed facility that will require significant donor support to be constructed. These deliverables are paired with detailed summaries and evaluations of existing and proposed facilities and the aforementioned materials (conceptual designs, budgets, documents outlining timing etc.), which also elaborate on how facilities can be unified architecturally and further portray the athletic departments as a cohesive brand.

Revenue Generation Models That Work for You

An important consideration for any university engaging a firm in a master plan should be exploring which revenue generation models make the most sense for proposed stadiums, arenas and ballparks. This detailed approach enables university officials to better understand the financial impact of a renovation or new build. By evaluating who will be utilizing each of the proposed performance venues and who the primary donors and fan base will be, the master planning team can recommend facilities with premium seating options and amenities tailored to fans. In-depth analysis of revenue generation models and a fan-base can also prove to be an important fundraising tool when projects from the master plan come to fruition as they communicate to donors the viability of proposed facilities and signify a well though-out approach.

For the athletic director, coaches and staff at the university, having a preliminary understanding of the revenue generation model for the proposed facility made the fundraising process smoother. In addition, conceptual designs presented in the master planning process highlighted innovative premium seating options, naming rights opportunities and design features that would further elevate the program, which ultimately helped drive support of the expenditure.

Next Steps

Once the dust has cleared and the master plan, appropriate revenue generation considerations and conceptual designs are in place, it is time to execute. This is when phasing plans become important, as they account for where teams will practice and play when their facilities are under construction. Universities often benefit and see the best results when they follow their master plans closely, as it represents the most strategic assessment and recommendation for the athletic campus and projects are phased in order of importance in the plan. As the university carries out the master plan, communication with the firm who created the plan is essential, as they can properly advise on unexpected challenges and provide guidance on any new or evolving trends that may impact the design or location of a facility on the campus.

And when you’ve built it all…
Universities like Arkansas and Baylor University are well on their way to completing the majority of renovations and new construction that their master plans have outlined. So what happens when they’ve done it all? It’ll be time to start again. Presumably, as one master plan is fulfilled it will be time to develop another that takes into account recent trends.

Compared to most Universities, the University of Arkansas had just about every facility that you could think of and many that others only ever dream about; however in 2010, they decided to solicit another master plan. The result is five facilities that are currently underway, either in the RFQ phase, design phase or under construction, including a new basketball training facility, a soccer locker room expansion, football training facility, academic and dining center, indoor baseball facility and a feasibility study for a renovated football stadium on campus.

“We understood that we couldn’t remain stagnant simply because we had a number of nice existing facilities,” explained Trantham. “Other nationally prominent programs are continually moving forward. You must constantly evaluate current trends in collegiate athletics, reflect on areas where your campus needs improvement and respond to those trends by providing top-quality facilities for student-athletes, staff and fans.”

Planning for the Future

While developing and implementing an athletic master plan is not a simple task, it is one that is necessary for an athletic department to remain viable and continue to compete for top talent in this day and age. Ambitious but attainable master plans can further shape a campus, their athletic programs and the success of their student-athletes, coaches and staff on and off the field.


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