Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Raison D'Etre

Fred Thompson probably wasn't describing his foreign policy philosophy when he said, "Russians don't take a dump without a plan". But as I've noted previously, it's a good philosophy. Spending money without a well-conceived end in mind is money, as a red-headed friend of mine would say, flushed down the loo.

With the ND Board of Trustees meeting imminent, we probably stand to see some more details revealed about the Joyce Center project. We've already had the timeline announced, which is good progress in that we finally have some dates to work with. According to the article, the final design plans are being completed, which most likely means they're getting ready for admin blessing at either this BOT get-together or the Winter meetings (probably somewhere warm, they tend to trend that way).

With luck, those plans will be pleasing. But from reading what has been released so far, it's more like disconcerting. So I'm taking one last chance to review this hypothetical plan in the hopes of firming it up. If we can find the raison d'etre behind the expenditures, we can figure out the intent.

According to the article, ND is going to spend $26.3 million on this project. That's a significant outlay of cash, and while you could easily argue it's overdue, it's being spent now and probably represents a high water mark, of sorts, of expenditure on the basketball program for the foreseeable future. Logic dictates this money be directed towards the neediest needs of the program, in order of priority in the overall plan. So let's examine what the neediest needs apparently are:

The first phase of the project, to begin next September, involves construction of a new three-story structure at the south end of the arena. That structure will include a new two-story lobby, the Notre Dame ticket operations (approximately 4,500 square feet) and a varsity shop to sell apparel and souvenirs (approximately 3,000 square feet), in addition to a new club seating and hospitality area.

According to this, ND is going to create a huge atrium to house tickets sales and a store to sell things and a club area where people will pay a premium to have dedicated concessions and a view of the game. If logic dictates the important things be done first, all three of these most important things have only one thing in common: revenue generation.

A major ND policy shift is driven by the desire to wring more dollars out of the fans. Color me shocked.

No doubt, the ticket processing areas at ND are more than outdated (just like the rest of the Joyce Center), and Josh Berlo and his outstanding crew have needed extra space and overall upgrades for a long time. But that has absolutely nothing to do with basketball, other than making it slightly easier for people to walk up and buy tickets. Their current space isn't big enough to do anything basketball-related, so vacating it will not benefit the program. In fact, due to its positioning in the JC right next to the Athletic Director's offices, it'll benefit Kevin White most of all by giving him more cubicle space to usurp.

There's already two varsity shops in the Joyce Center, one in the North Dome and one between the domes. I can understand them wanting more space for the one adjacent to the basketball area because it's a little small, and chances are the North Dome one will be affected by the hockey upgrades. But it's not like the lines during basketball events are oppressive. With the plethora of ND home basketball games, combined with the fact ND hoops fans tend to be local, I don't see a huge uptick in tchochke sales simply because the venue is more airy. Of how many of those 20 opportunities to buy a Notre Dame keychain does Kevin think the season ticket holders will avail themselves?

I've wanted to get the fat-cat no-shows out of the gold loge seats for long and long, and if the "new club seating and hospitality area" gets that done, it's probably a good thing. But should it be among the highest priorities? Not when the team practices in a cinder-block basement.

The article doesn't mention how much money is going to be spent on those three endeavors. But right out of the gate, they're going to spend money and time on things that won't benefit basketball in any way, shape, or form. Ticket Sales' physical plant is a cost center. Knick-knack hucksterism is rampant enough at football games, and the local fans are unlikely to make it a consistent stop. And the "club area" will benefit 10 percent of the attendees, most of whom don't make a lot of effort to support the team as it is.

So here we are well into 2008, according to this timeline, and we have yet to spend a dollar on something beneficial to the basketball program. Doesn't sound like a basketball project to me.

Replacement of the Joyce Center arena seating, including installation of chair-back seating throughout the arena, is expected to take place after the University's Commencement Exercises in May 2009. The project is scheduled for completion in January 2010. The arena is expected to re-open by mid-October 2009, in time for the start of the men's and women's basketball seasons and the end of the women's volleyball season.

Finally, a basketball benefit, starting 18 months from now, so Gody and his classmates might get to play a game or two there before they graduate. Certainly a key benefit, as permanent seating, while reducing overall capacity, will make the overall fan experience better. The JC doesn't have a bad seat in the house, and now those seats will look and work better. It'll also serve to keep more of the noise in the arena, since the concrete on which the seats will sit will serve as a stronger noise barrier and prevent the sound from escaping out into the concourses.

But so far, that's it. Nothing about practice facilities, floor area improvements (aka Chuck the Duck(tape)), press technology, or relocation of the student seats, all of which should jump in front of ticket offices, club seating, and another on-campus Barnes and Noble when it comes to how $26.3 million should be spent.

And the estimated timeline is squirrelly as well. I believe eight months to be an incredibly ambitious time frame for getting the project done, particularly if they plan to reopen the arena in mid-October and have basketball games there in December and January (which makes the meat of the project a five-month effort). A much better idea would be to ask the Big East to front-load the men's and women's home schedules in the 2008-09 season and start on the project the minute the whistle blows to end the last home game. I understand it would mean relocating Commencement and all its related activities out of the arena for one year, but that's what we have Notre Dame Stadium for. Besides, if they believe they can have basketball games while finishing this project up, why couldn't they suspend construction for Commencement?

I realize practice facilities can now be put on the potential donor list, particularly once they've figured out how much of the North Dome the hockey project will take. But that still means a critical need is stacked behind the alleged dollar generators, which is a bass-ackward methodology. How long is it going to take them to draw the line bisecting the dome? I'd like to think it'd be done by May of 2009.

What we've seen of the plan so far makes it abundantly clear its author is not focused on what will make Notre Dame basketball better but rather on trying to wring as much money out of the program as he can. Recruits who come on visits will not be impressed by a ticket office. Coaches who ND wants to employ really don't give a damn about T-shirt sales. They want to know they'll be spending their time, both in games and outside them, with quality places to meet, watch film, train, practice, and become top-flight participants in a top-flight program.

ND basketball's physical plant has been overdue for an upgrade for decades. They get $26 million dollars, and the results, seemingly, will be a store, a cool ticket window, and a place for rich guys to sip lattes. There's much wrong with that picture.

I read a lot of interviews of Kevin White on various topics in various media outlets. Next time one of the media creatures has a chance, perhaps at Basketball Media Day on Wednesday, I hope one of them has the chance to ask him about this basketball master plan and why he decided these revenue-centric boondoggles were more important to the program than the things players and coaches care about.

I doubt I'll like the answer, but hope springs eternal.

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