Dehner: Why renovating Nippert trumps playing at Paul Brown

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The plans laid out inside the Goin Room of the Lindner Center painted a sparkling rendering of how the future of Nippert Stadium will look.

Dazzling suites, sprawling club levels, pristine loge boxes, expanded pathways, dynamic skywalks and every amenity imaginable for a $65 million renovation.

Few doubt the University of Cincinnati would know how to pull off a facelift of their front porch with flair and unique style. Take a look around campus.

The question Tuesday ran deeper than execution, though. Most asked, should UC be doing this at all?

At such a hefty price tag the option to play downtown at Paul Brown Stadium and focus campus renovation to Fifth Third Arena would seem to be a quick fix. Schools like South Florida, Pittsburgh and Temple utilized the model, to varying levels of success. An argument could be circulated the move helped the Panthers land in the ACC.

The thought, while exciting for some, cuts too deep into the Bearcats fabric, both physical and financial.

This renovation concept does not come to life because the university wants a few more seats to fill. It is needed because the current financial model of the athletic department proves "probably unsustainable," according to AD Whit Babcock, under the current football infrastructure. In a landscape where football everywhere draws in enough money to support every other program plus accumulate profit, sapping the most out of football money represents priority No. 1. It has to.

This isn't about fixing an infrastructure of a broken stadium. This is about fixing the infrastructure of a broken balance sheet.

How do you fix the bleeding of any number of issues inside the department without starting at the root of the gusher?  All bleeding begins and ends with football revenue, especially at UC with one of the smallest athletic budgets in the country, but certainly with most every major program in America. These are the facts. For better or for worse.

UC, quite simply, doesn't draw near enough from it.  

"Primary reason we are doing this project is to change our current financial model in the athletic department," Babcock said. "That is the key reason."

Nippert Stadium boasts two suites. Two. Look around at the FCS, see if you can find a school with fewer. Go ahead, Google it, I'll wait.

Waiting ...

Waiting ...

That's what I thought. Next to nobody. Without suites and a club level, making money to sustain the department stands a near impossibility.

"The premium seating model works," Babcock said. "All the expansion that's occurring these days has a piece if not all in premium seating."

You know how much money the Bearcats would make off the Bengals suites? None. The Bengals own those suites and Bearcats draw no revenue from them.

The Bengals and the city also take a hefty portion of concessions, tickets and parking. Gone are the sponsorships, fundraising and recognition.

Two years ago with two games against Louisville and West Virginia held at Paul Brown, the Bearcats drew about 48k and 42k to those two games. They took a loss of greater than $100,000 on those two compared to what they would have drawn at a sold out Nippert Stadium.

"It does nothing to improve our financial model," Whit Babcock said.

Beyond the financials, Babcock heard his fan base loud and clear upon taking a study of fans who attended games at Paul Brown compared to those at Nippert. The fans, students, coaches and players alike all gave resounding support of playing at Nippert.

Plus, when 200k people visit Cincinnati to watch these football games, accessibility to the campus and the dynamic culture surrounding it only adds to the allure and selling future students.

Where every school needs an element to set them apart, the Bearcats own that with Nippert Stadium.

"Nippert is a part of our fabric, our brand," Babcock said. "It's what separates us."

The issues with concessions and foot traffic will be mostly alleviated with this renovation and suddenly it can turn into a money-making machine. Babcock estimates if even 70 percent of the suites were filled the revenue would pay the construction bill over a number of years.

The word from other schools like USF and Temple any time the Bearcats visit revolves around how much they'd prefer an on-campus stadium to renting the NFL facility. And what's not to like, in a year when over five-million people watched games against Louisville, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, to keep the campus as the front porch for the university.

When it comes to selling this university to be in the best conference available, whatever that may be, the desire is not for a stadium that seats 65,000 people. Conferences care about TV market and lively, sold-out atmospheres.

"A half-full stadium is never a positive," Babcock said. "Sold-out stadiums are."  

In the chance UC were to be absorbed by a bigger conference such as the ACC or Big 12, does anybody think a solid stream of teams with massive fan bases would be overrunning Nippert and make it obsolete in size so nobody could be accommodated? Sure, in a year Texas came to town, yes. In a year Florida State came to town, sure. But few others in said conferences would cause such demand considering Oklahoma and Texas are always split in what teams they travel to.

With an accordion plan available where UC can stretch out to PBS occasionally if necessary for an opponent such as Oklahoma or Ohio State, those bases are covered. For the rest, one of the great home-field advantages and unique experiences in all college football projects to the country.

Does this place Fifth Third Arena renovation further down the road? Probably, but in the end with a revenue stream executed properly and fortified financial model, that could be done sooner than most would believe. Argue all you want about the tradition of UC basketball, which is enduring and continues be a beacon driving the image of the university as much as any football win. Basketball just doesn't deliver the dollars of major college football. Anywhere. Including UC.

Parking will still be an issue, but when breaking out a list of pros and cons all the reasons prior stated surely outweigh those two concerns.

This project is about much more than those hassles.

Rarely do universities own an opportunity to be truly unique. Rarely do athletic departments own opportunities to fix the the largest hindrance in their advancement. Moving to Paul Brown Stadium would be fumbling both of those away.

I want to hear from you! Send me any questions, comments or what you think about the Nippert Stadium renovations unveiled Tuesday. Email to or hit me up on Twitter at @pauldehnerjr.

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